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Running Rituals

Can Rituals, Superstitions, and Strange Habits Actually Improve Your Running Performance?

By: James Williams

Have you got a pair of lucky pants that you always wear to races?


Do you always kiss the ground before a race?


Or have you used the same safety pins to attach your race number for years? (Like Paula Radcliffe).


If the answer to these is yes, you probably do them even though there’s no evidence that they actually improve your performance. You continue to practice them because they help you psychologically prepare for training and for races. I’ve got my own set of weird and wonderful things that I do, which helps me believe that I’m going to have a great running performance. Most of them have no solid evidence to prove that they help, and I can’t even remember where I first heard about these techniques, but I still do them! My rituals might inspire you to laugh at me, or they might inspire you to adopt some of your own weird habits.

Rituals and superstitions can be helpful in a number of ways. With all of the uncontrollable parts of a race, you know you have control over this one part. They can boost your confidence. They have been linked to improved performance. There’s no cost to doing them (providing your ritual isn’t harmful). So it’s basically a win-win. The only danger that I see is becoming over-reliant on them. For example, if you don’t do it in a race and it completely messes up your game plan. One study showed that rituals have an even greater impact for especially important moments, like a final. And there are lots of examples of elite athletes who have strange rituals that they believe help them improve their performance. Paula Radcliffe, the women’s world record holder for the marathon, had a number of superstitions.

Rituals and superstitions might improve your running performance by making you feel more in control. And there’s evidence that they are even more effective for bigger events. Many elite athletes use strange rituals  to help them improve their sporting performance. I use some of these rituals and superstitions to improve my own performance - including counting runners as I overtake them, having an alter ego, and "touching wood".

Count Runners When I Overtake Them (and When They Overtake Me)

Maybe it’s my competitive nature… Or maybe I liked math too much when I was younger, but whenever I’m running, I need to count runners when I pass them. I give myself one point for every runner I overtake. I lose 10 points for every runner that passes me and I get 10 points if I pass a bike, but I don’t lose points if they pass me. So, by the end of a run, and after a lot of challenging arithmetic, you have a score. There are various other silly rules to this game. For example, if I’m just about to overtake someone and they start walking, I can’t count them as a point. You also can’t ‘uncount’ someone. So if someone passes me and I lose 10 points, and later I overtake them, I don’t gain 10 points. Fairly crazy! It gets difficult to keep count in big races, but it keeps my mind entertained! I think my best score was +237.

I Have An Alter Ego -  The GameChanger!

There is power in having an alter ego. Todd Herman is a high-performance coach, who has a theory that one secret to success could be to adopt a secret identity! Sounds cool, right? Even Tiger Woods and Dwayne Johnson have alter egos to help them perform. I was so interested in this theory that I started practicing it when I was training for my world-record attempt to run more than 800 miles in 9 days. Much to my friends’ and family's amusement, I adopted an alter ego called "The GameChanger." I used this technique in times of pain and suffering. "Switching" to my alter ego allowed me to think that I was no longer in pain. How did I switch into "GameChanger" mode? It was all about the sunglasses! When I put them on, I was The GameChanger. It was fairly embarrassing to admit to people, but it’s definitely a technique I’ll use again. So, look out for The GameChanger near you!

I Need To Touch Wood

Many people have probably heard of the phrase and action "knock on wood." This is typically used to keep bad luck away, particularly when you are having a run of good luck. A lot of people tap on their own head, rather than tapping on an actual piece of wood. I use it a lot in training and races when a thought comes into my mind that things are going well…“Wow, things are going really well in this race so far”...."Wow, I’ve not been stopped by any red lights on my run so far”...."Wow, I’ve not yet been hit by a truck, even though I’m running down this main road.” After each of these sayings, I would then "knock on wood" by tapping my own head. So if you see me madly tapping my own head, you’ll know why!

I Sit On a Tennis Ball In the Office

I tend to keep my ultra-running activities quiet in the office. Many of my colleagues don’t even know that I’ve sometimes run more than 30 miles before starting work. So it probably makes me seem even stranger when they see me sitting on a tennis ball while working.The hypothesis is that a tennis ball helps with self-massage, but it raises a few eyebrows when I stand up from a chair and people see that I’ve been sitting on one.

I Have a Cold Shower In the Morning

A few months ago I came across the Wim Hof Method, which includes taking ice cold showers. There are lots of studies which show the supposed benefits of cold showers - they reduce stress, make you more alert, improve your immune system, help with weight loss, increase circulation, and reduce muscle soreness. But as far as I know, there is no strong evidence to support the theory that cold showers benefit running performance. I like a cold shower in the morning because it wakes me up and gets me ready for the day. I treat myself to a warm shower in the evening to relax, wind down, and get ready for bed.

About the Author

James Williams is a father of two, husband, and runner with race victories at 100 miles, 100km, marathons, half-marathons, 10k's and 5k's. Most recently, he attempted to break a world-record by running more than 800 miles in 9 days from the bottom of the UK to the top. He writes informative articles to help other runners improve their own performance and achieve their dreams on

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