5 Mental Running Tips to Help You Through a Tough Run

Whether you're struggling in a race, or on your long run, these 5 mental running tips might be just what you need to push yourself through.

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!

Using mantras 

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)’. 

Looking forward 

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.

Going fishing

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?


  1. I’m so excited to walk my full marathon – – but I also know the long long training Waks will be a beating πŸ™‚
    So much so this non-runner has already started wondering if maybe she should run.
    Here it is all about the chant. The mantra. The mental ruminating on: I’ve got this I’ve got this I’ve got this.
    Carla recently posted…The Power of a Personal Catchphrase.My Profile

  2. I ‘m doing most of those but the fishing concept is new to me πŸ™‚ Sounds like something that would defiantly make me laugh during my run…. and then people would be like “stay away from the running crazy woman”…. LOL
    but I’ll def try it on my next long run! I do the “one more” very often and the visualizations too. Hope you are doing great Carly and that training is going well!
    Ellen @ Tale of Two Runs recently posted…Having a running COACH and marathon training.My Profile

  3. Looking forward to something after a run , whether it is food or a massage makes me runs go so much better.
    lacey@fairytalesandfitness.com recently posted…The Day I’ve Been Waiting ForMy Profile

  4. I do many things, including the above mentioned. One thing that really keeps me going is my faith. Also not being to attached to my thoughts because they love drama. It’s best to acknowledge discomfort, but not identify with it.

  5. I do the fishing thing a lot. I use it in races too. Little races within races.
    Char recently posted…Racing With FriendsMy Profile

  6. These are all excellent tips! The mantra one is a biggie! I also love fishing during a race! It really does motivate! I hope you are enjoying your training and runs in Vermont! <3
    Crystal Renaud recently posted…Springtime, Boston And Fit Mama ApparelMy Profile

  7. My favourites are
    1. lamp-posting (alternating walking the distance of one lamp-post and running two or more).
    2. running away from zombies. Pretend the people behind you are zombies and keep ahead of them. (Based on the app but just done in my head).
    3. On a recent half marathon I had my wife and kids write motivating messages on my arm so I could look at them if I tired. It didn’t work but only because the permanent markers couldn’t resist the sweat of a fat chap running. At least I had the smudge to spur me on πŸ™‚


  1. […] of “Fishing,” Carly from A Fine Fit Day talks about this technique in her post, “5 Mental Running Tips to Help You Through a Tough Run.” Fishing is Β when you focus on a runner ahead of you and you imagine reeling them in! This […]