Recently, Runner’s World sent me a copy of a book called, “The Runner’s Brain” to review. It was written by sports psychologist Dr. Jeff Brown, Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who also happens to be the psychologist for the Boston Marathon. He’s been in that role with Boston for fifteen years now, stationed at the finish line medical tent and assisting runners suffering from psychological symptoms brought on by issues like hyponatremia and hypothermia, among others.
The Runner’s Brain is FASCINATING.
If you run (and if you’re reading this blog, chances are you do!) you will love this book. This is not just a book on why mental training and visualization is important for runners – it is your very own training manual for the brain.
The book is broken into five sections. Part One explains why brain training and mental strategies are so important for runners to develop and how these strategies can affect your performance. In Part Two you’re introduced to techniques runners seem to naturally use for performance benefit (like the magical thinking of having a lucky shirt, or a must-have pre-race meal; or by wearing running gear that automatically makes you feel like a “real” runner) and how to achieve the elusive Runner’s High. Part Three takes you through ways of using mental training like breathing techniques and visualization for racing and competing. The challenges of running are dealt with in Part Four – whether your nemesis is hitting the wall, freezing conditions, or being stuck with the treadmill, Dr. Brown outlines techniques that are effective for working your way through each challenging situation and making you better at dealing with adversity.
Finally, Part Five gives you worksheets and an actual brain training program for you to test out on yourself. You’re presented with a seven-day program, which Dr. Brown suggests you follow for three weeks to ensure the brain training becomes a habit.
After reading the book, I was so excited to try out the techniques, the next morning I informed Fran he was taking the boys to a playground by Lake Champlain so I could run along the lake edge and do some hardcore visualization. It’s definitely something I will be incorporating into my training leading up the the marathon in May.
Of course I wanted to hear more, so Dr. Brown graciously made time to speak with me so I could pick his (incredibly intelligent) brain even further. He had so many great stories from the medical tent and from his years of working with the special crazy that we runners are – I wish I could include everything we spoke about, but then you’d still be reading this next week! Enjoy.
You’re a sports psychologist and you’ve written this amazing book on running and how to use your brain to improve your running – I have to ask, are you a runner?
I do run. I played baseball in college and as a pitcher, if I wasn’t throwing, I was running, so I probably ran many marathons in college, just in the afternoons. Physical fitness in general is important to me. I try to practice what I preach, to take good care of my brain and stay in really good shape because it’s so important.
How did you become so interested in the psychology of running? Was it because of your appointment as the psychologist for the Boston Marathon?
I think it was. I was involved in sports psychology prior to that and consulted with some professional teams and individuals and then a colleague of mine, Art Siegel, said, ‘Why don’t you work with us to try to identify hyponatremia?’ So I did and after a day of just watching for hyponatremic symptoms, I thought, wow, there is so much that can be done here with runners, not just looking for hyponatremia. It was a big deal back when I started to have a psychologist come on the medical team – I really respect that and I really respect the people I work with.
I know when I’ve been training for a big goal, blogging about my training and sharing with my readers what my specific goal was actually helped push me through tough training runs and then in the races themselves. It was like I didn’t want to let anyone down. Does sharing your goal make it more achievable?
Just like in the activating system, where you can talk to people about your running, which helps you shape your identity as a runner, by sharing your goals people can rally around you and encourage you. You may find some people do like to keep it quiet and they don’t want to share. The more important thing with goal setting is that the goals have to be very personal and meaningful to you. It has to be something that you really connect with to make it work.
Visualization is a major component of the book and your suggested techniques for runners to try while running are very in-depth. What is it about visualization that makes it so effective for runners?
Part of why I wanted to write The Runner’s Brain was to give some depth to some suggestions that people give a nod to in books on running. Running books usually will be like, “Chapter 15: Mental Strategies.” And it’s about six pages long and then that’s it.
The beauty of visualization is that you can put yourself in so many situations and practice that and your brain benefits from that practice. Ideally you want to visualize in real-time, use all the senses, because that’s what your brain responds to. Your brain is actually learning multiple ways of navigating a difficult situation. You’ve heard, “You need to practice like you’re going to play,” but I don’t know of anyone who plays or has an athletic performance where it is absolutely perfect. Maybe in gymnastics an athlete can get a 10.0, but most likely from just one judge. There are always errors in our performance, so we have to also practice the difficult things and visualize ourselves successfully navigating those errors and our brain appreciates it when we do. It gives the brain new information, which it stores and can use later when a tough moment comes up, like hitting the wall, pre-race jitters, or any other thing that comes up.
One thing about visualization is that there are not only different forms of doing it, like associative, or dissociative, first-person or third-person, but there’s also a lot of variability within people as well. Like what they associate with speed or power might be a charging bull, or a locomotive, or something else entirely. So the effects of the practice will vary wildly. I have a quick story about how visualization can work differently with various people… I was doing a visualization activity at the Boston expo and I had people practice the control of their visualization. I had them picture clouds and the sky and a bi-plane in the sky…they can hear the engine puttering in the distance and then they can see it. Then I had them picture it carrying a banner, like an advertising banner, behind it and told them, “You can’t quite read it and then it comes into focus and it’s something encouraging.” Then I asked the audience, “So, what does the banner on your plane say?” And this one guy said, “I was waiting for you to tell me what my banner said!” It was what we call ‘stimulus bound’, where he hadn’t even thought about coming up with something that would meet his encouragement need. So, everyone thought that was hilarious and he laughed while wondering why everyone else was laughing.
Is the stigma of psychology for athletes changing? Have you seen that change in the 15 years you’ve been involved with the Boston Marathon?
My position is unique, because I’m in the medical tent, so if I’m working with a runner there’s usually a very specific reason I’m doing that – they’re exhibiting some sort of symptoms we need to get figured out so they can be treated and move on. Now, when I speak at an expo, it’s a different conversation I’m having with runners there, it’s more of pre-race jitters and that sort of thing.
But what I emphasize in the book is that this kind of brain training I’ve written about is not something you just try on race day. It’s like if you go to the gym, you’re not going to try to lift your one rep max every day. That’s not how your body is made and guess what? That’s not how your brain is made, either. I’ve worked hard to emphasize that using and training your brain should be normal and expected.
You mention throughout the book that there is a concrete difference between elites and regular runners in how they use associative or dissociative techniques while they run – that the elites stay in tune with what is going on with their body throughout a race, while other runners disassociate and try to almost distract themselves from the experience. What’s going on there, that one group can use associative thinking with great result, but it doesn’t work so well for the non-professional?
I think it’s experience. The research also tells us that more seasoned, experienced athletes are much less likely to be injured. A few years back, one of my favorite runners, Robert Cheruiyot, who has won Boston four times, was running Boston again and at some point during the race, he just stopped. He knew it wasn’t happening today. And Meb did that, too, in New York. But in the medical tent we see regular people at the finish line who don’t know their own names, or they pushed so hard that they don’t know they’ve finished and they have to ask you. They’re so disoriented because they’ve just pushed too hard. We’ve worked with people who have clearly pushed it to even lethal levels of hyponatremia, hypothermia, those sorts of things where they can be in rough shape.
But one good thing about runners – and we say this in the medical tent every year – because they are so healthy and for the most part intelligent, they do what we ask them to do and they get better really quickly.
At the end of the book, you interviewed some amazing professional runners who gave their advice and insight into the mental side of running. The quote from Michael Johnson above really resonated with me – I like it because it’s recognizing that it’s a good thing to keep learning, keep pushing, stay curious, regardless of how many goals you meet or how adept you become.
And again, that’s what I have worked on for so long, trying to destigmatize mental training for athletes. We’ve known for years in sports psychology that athletes don’t easily seek out psychological support. It runs counter to the whole image of an athlete. But, if you look at athletes who are exceptional, they usually have tapped into psychology, or have read up on it, or have tried to be more mindful of their brain. So what I’m writing about is not pathology, it’s about how to use your brain the way it was made, and if you’re going to do it, do it the right way.
Thanks so much to Dr. Brown for his time and to Runner’s World for the copy of “The Runner’s Brain.” If you’re looking for a technique to take your next training cycle to a new level, I highly recommend trying out the techniques outlined in this book. You can get the book here.
Do you use mental techniques in your training already? Mantras, visualization?
What’s your favorite running book?