Like many people, when I first started running I didn’t realize that the sport is mental as well as physical.
When I first started running regularly back in 2012, I followed a basic training plan to prepare for my first half marathon but I had no idea how hard it would be. I soon realized that while running is physically demanding it also requires so much mental strength.
Since then I’ve worked to develop my mental toughness and learned how to flex my mind so that I can have stronger runs and better races. I’m not an expert, but can speak from experience. Once you learn to reign in your mind you will be so much more successful.
Run Alone. It may seem counterproductive, but it really works. When you run alone you are forced to rely on yourself without the crutch of another person’s encouragement or motivation. I’ve heard horror stories of women crying because they were separated from their friends during a big race and struggled to deal with the ramifications of running by themselves. Running with someone or with a group is great, but it’s easy to click the miles off when you have someone to talk to or someone to push you through that last mile. If you practice running alone even when you don’t want to you won’t run into problems on race day and will have stronger training runs.
Mantras. A mantra is simply one word or a string of words to help you push through in the eleventh hour when you feel like giving up or your mind tells you that you can’t run another mile. Some people choose a mantra for a training cycle or a particular race. I write my race mantra on my hand during a big race so every time I look down at my watch I am reminded of it. There are so many to choose from. Some of my favorites are, “Let It Go”, “Finish Strong” and “Run the Mile You’re In”. No matter what you choose write it down or say it to yourself when you start feeling low.
Practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. Long runs and speedwork are great times to focus on flexing your mental toughness. Long runs require patience while speedwork requires so much effort. When your mind starts telling you to stop, tell your mind to get out of your body’s way and keep going. By practicing pushing through on these types of training runs you’ll be in better shape for your race. Think of what you are going to do post run, think about your long term goal, think about why you started running, think about your mantra. Think about whatever it takes to push past whatever obstacle your mind tries to tell you to overcome.
Take Your Time. Most of us want to be better the instant we try something new, but nothing about running works this way. Be patient when working through everything and don’t give up. The body is designed to endure pain and sustain all sorts of things for long periods of time, but the mind is so lazy. You aren’t going to be able to overcome all the mental voices of doubt overnight. You will need to train your mind the way you are training your body so be patient.
Do Your Legs Hurt? Are You Really in Pain? These are the questions you need to ask yourself when your mind starts playing tricks on you. Honestly answer these questions then keep running. Chances are your mind is ready to give up well before your body. I find that when I really ask these questions to myself during a hard run I am fine. My legs don’t hurt that bad and the rest of my body can continue. These questions are especially helpful for folks training for a marathon. Your mind doesn’t want to run for that long, but chances are you’ve put in the work and your legs are ready to continue.
No More Music. I love a good playlist and still enjoy running to music, but have learned to not rely on it. I first weaned myself off of running with music when I was training for the Chicago Marathon. I wanted to take in the whole experience and knew that music would be distracting and take away from the experience. I was right. Running without music has made everything better, but it has also helped my mental toughness. I now use music as a mental boost and escape when I’m struggling or things get rough on the course. I ran the entire Walt Disney World Marathon without music because my phone died and didn’t turn my tunes on until mile 19 of the Chicago Marathon. It’s great to have it as a boost instead of relying on it to carry me the entire run/race.
Bonk. Since working on my mental state, I haven’t bonked during a race, well not since the Colfax Marathon. It has helped me better identify if I am physically in pain, physically tired, need additional calories or fuel, am dehydrated or just mentally giving up. It may seem crazy to try and evaluate all those things, but if you want to meet your goal it’s important to differentiate one thing from another.
During the Colfax Marathon my mental toughness was at an all time low. I struggled, I cried and I wanted to give up. You can read the full story of that race here. It was a rough one, I learned so much from that race. The Chicago Marathon was the exact opposite of that race because I trained my mental toughness while I was doing my weekly runs. My mantra helped get me through and I crossed the finish line the happiest I have ever been.
When I ran the Walt Disney World Marathon last month I had to fight off those negative thoughts before the race even began. I soon learned to shut those voices up and move past them. I outran the tricks my mind was trying to play on me and it worked. That marathon wasn’t pretty and it was painful, but without the mental focus I would not have made it to the finish.
If you are struggling in your training runs, but are putting in the miles then you probably need to reevaluate your mental approach. Kick those negative thoughts to the curb and tell your mind to get out of your body’s way!
Are you working to improve your mental toughness?
Do you have a mantra when times get really dark?
Are you running alone even when it’s hard?
Do you run with music?