Think about all the times you’ve been suffering during a hard run, or ready to give up in a race. What got you through? How did you go from contemplating stopping to walk home, to continuing to push through and complete what you started?
I guarantee whatever it was that shifted for you, it began with a mental boost. It’s not like you’re feeling terrible on a run and then out of nowhere your legs feel light as feathers and your lungs feel like they’ve expanded tenfold. It’s your mental state that changes. Your body pushes through the wall as a result of that shift in perspective. This aspect of running fascinates me – it’s why I was so excited to interview Dr. Jeff Brown, author of The Runner’s Brain – and it’s something that both elite runners and the everyday runner and racer use regularly.
Here are some of the mental running tips I use regularly – sometimes all of them within the same run!
I’ve written before about why it’s important to use mantras to push yourself through hard workouts. Having a short, positive phrase to repeat to yourself when you’re suffering helps because you’re focusing on something other than how you’re feeling, as well as repeating something meant to make you feel strong and able. It’s a double whammy. I particularly like ‘dig deep’ and have it on a footnote on my sneakers to remind me. I also use ‘just one more (minute, mile, loop, whatever the one more I need to get through may be)’.
Some runners swear by looking forward to a reward after a run – whether it’s a post-run meal, or a long hot shower, or a cup of coffee for the morning runners. For me, when I’m on a long run, I like to think about a point close to the end of my run and think about how I’m going to feel when I get there. It’s usually a place within a half mile or so from home and I say to myself, ‘When I get there, I will have run x number of miles. I’ll be tired, but I’ll know that I’m so close to home.’ And when I do get there, I’m so happy and grateful to be nearly home, grateful that I’ve run well and long, that it adds to this mental technique the next time I go out, because then I can draw upon that feeling.
Visualizing the end goal
This is a very common visualization technique for runners, because it works so well. If you’re starting to suffer during your run, start thinking about what you’re training toward. If you have a goal race in mind, imagine yourself running the last half mile of the race. Get as specific as you can – imagine how you’ll be feeling, what and who you’ll be seeing, how the crowd will sound, what the finish line looks like in the distance. Let that adrenaline you’ll be feeling on race day carry you through a hard patch of your workout.
I’ve been using this one on a stretch of the bike path along Lake Champlain that is going to be mile 24 to the finish of the marathon. It’s also usually around 12 – 15 miles into my long run, when I’m feeling fatigued and wishing it was over. So not only does it help me in the moment of my long run when I’m struggling, I will also be able to use this technique for real on the day of the marathon, knowing every inch of that last stretch. If you can try this on part of the course you’re going to run, it is so worth it – having that familiarity and memory on race day is invaluable.
Picking up your feet (or arms, or shoulders…)
I started doing this a while ago – I noticed in races, or if I was doing a tempo run, that if my mind wandered a little then my pace would slow. Rather than panic and try to surge forward (which tends to lead to a crash and burn), I focus instead on increasing the speed at which my feet move. This is cadence, by the way, and you should check out this Runner’s Connect article about why it’s important here. Even though picking up my cadence obviously helps me with my speed, it’s also a technique to just refocus your mind on the physical. You’re reining in your wandering mind and bringing it back to what you need to be hone in on. You could instead focus on how your arms are pumping, or pay attention to bringing your shoulders down and back rather than scrunching up. It’s just a way of recommitting to your form and checking in on your body.
It’s an oldie but a goodie, because it works! Pick a person in the distance, imagine hooking them on a fishing line, then reel them in. Your pace picks up automatically, because in your mind it’s the fishing line pulling you closer to the runner, rather than you having to really push yourself to get closer. (You actually are pushing yourself to get closer and overtake that runner, but sshhh! Don’t tell your brain.)
What works for you? What do you fall back on mentally when your physical body starts to feel like it’s not going to take you through your workout?