How to Build Your Emotional Intelligence to Boost Athletic Performance

Male runners sprinting on track
Male runners sprinting on track  Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

You’re toeing the line at a 10K. You’ve trained diligently. The conditions are ideal. Your running flats are barely out of the box. You are ready. But there’s one area of race prep you may have overlooked: your emotional intelligence.

 

 

Consider it the X factor, a hidden key to peak performance. Sports psychologists consider EI—a concept roughly translating to an awareness of your own mental state—to be game-changing. It’s the special sauce that has compelled professional athletes to take up meditation, which is a key component in honing your emotional wherewithal. Now weekend warriors are realizing that EI can be the different between a plateau and a PR.

To prove it, researchers at the University of Padova in Italy recently asked 237 half-marathoners to complete a questionnaire that, unbeknownst to the runners, revealed their EI scores. A postrace comparison revealed EI was a key factor determining finish times, after controlling for running experience and training load. The higher the EI, the faster they ran.

It’s not about being more positive; rather, it’s acknowledging emotions and using them to gain an edge, says study author Enrico Rubaltelli.

“Someone with high EI can control their nerves at race start, then tap into excitement near the end,” Rubaltelli says.

It helps especially at that inevitable point during a race when things get ugly.

“People with high EI anticipate the level of pain and think through how they will respond before it comes, which helps them regulate pace and ultimately go faster,” Rubaltelli says.

EI also teaches you to lean into discomfort. In fact, happiness is considered a “low arousal” emotion, lulling you into complacency.

“Unpleasant emotions like anxiety and uncertainty can help motivate someone to achieve better performance,” says Andy Lane, a professor of sports psychology at the University of Wolverhampton in the U.K.

As for team sports, EI allows you to intuit the emotional state of your teammates and opponents. Who’s fading? Who’s raring to go? Sensing when your rivals are strong or unraveling can give you a strategic edge.

You’re not trying to control emotions—confidence, worry, etc.—instead, you learn how to stop them from getting in the way. Make this how-to a normal part of your training, as valuable as leg day and long runs. You may just find it helps you in life, too.

Building That X Factor Muscle

These exercises may not torch calories, but they can help carry you through the hardest part of a race.

Meditate

This teaches the brain to stay focused. In a competition setting, a practiced meditator can usher out feelings of fear or self-doubt when they arise. It’s a challenge to access this level of focus when the going gets tough, so familiarize yourself now. Sit in a quiet room, eyes closed, emptying out thoughts (a work deadline, what’s for dinner) when they enter your mind. One method is to envision circling each and pushing them away, like balloons. It’s not easy, but a mere 5 to 8 minutes per day can have lasting effects on performance, Rubaltelli says.

Relax

The next step is being able to release tension in the body. Tightness is often a physical embodiment of mental stress, and staying loose in a race setting helps ensure you’re moving efficiently. Sit quietly and take inventory of areas in your body you store anxiety, like your jaw, shoulders, lower back, and pelvis. The goal is to get to a place when you can tell your body relax, and it responds.

Repeat

One of the most successful ways to handle tough emotions during a grueling race is to remind yourself why you’re there. Start by writing down your goal, and the motivation behind it. Repeat it, often. “During a race, it helps you overcome the ‘why am I willing to suffer?’ moment,” Rubaltelli says. Remembering the larger purpose can override a chorus of “stop the madness” when it inevitably arises.