Many of my friends are surprised to hear that mental strength, particularly when I am physically tested, is not my forte. It is certainly not something that comes naturally to me. I know runners that swear that they love pain. They tell me that they seek out and relish opportunities to have their thresholds tested, to hurt, to strain, to conquer. I am not one of these people. I believe in planning, in commitment, in training. I believe in these things, because somewhere in the back of my mind I hope that my consistency here will make the pain or the exertion more bearable. I know that in truth however, this training and planning will merely assist the physical adaptions necessary for my event. They will help me to run faster for longer before I hit the nagging voice of the central governor, but they will not allow me to avoid it altogether. So what to do? The only way to ultimately conquer the mental is to train it too. Only then, can I rise to the challenge, account to myself, and determine that I had pressed, giving my best in the circumstances.
The Mental Side of Running.
You are in the middle of a race. The adrenaline and energy of the first kilometre has passed and your body starts to register that this effort, this discomfort, needs to continue for a little while yet. Your body feels heavy, your lungs are rasping for air, and your mind is screaming, STOP! When it happens, what do you do? Do you give up, or fight to overcome it? If you ease up or stop, do you: beat yourself up about it later; reminisce about what could have been; downplay what you were able to achieve because of what you were not able to overcome in those moments? I know I have. So how can we change this response?
The mental is just as important as the physical in achieving your running goals. While training, nutrition, rest and recovery are necessary, a crucial part of the equation (particularly when the going gets tough) is mental fortitude and resilience. Put in another way, the ability to silence or ignore the central governor of your body to push the bounds of your capabilities and extend the exertion to a henceforth, unexplored realm of possibility.
The inner beast, as I refer to it, can be a difficult thing to harness. It is also a hard thing to measure and quantify. As such, mental strength is often seen as something that you either have or you don’t. I am not convinced that this is so. Indeed, I believe mental resilience and belief, like many things, is something you can train. You may be the only one that knows whether you could have delved into that area just beyond the line of your own perceived possibilities but you are also the only one that knows what the voice is screaming at you, what motivates you, and why you run. This insight is a powerful tool in helping you to rewire, reinforce, train and sometimes trick your mind and body to say ‘go’ when all you want to do is stop. Here are some strategies I have discovered work for me in taming the central governor. The key is to experiment, find what works for you and then practice it every opportunity you have.
Pre-program belief and success
I am a cynic at my core. I see all the challenges and my shortcomings before I see my strengths and my opportunities. I am conscious of this predisposition so I try to make adjustments to my thinking all the time.
In the middle of a race, I counteract the voice in my head by reciting mantras that fly in the face of this inner criticism. My mantras are:
• You are fast; you are strong; you are powerful
• Finish on strong
• Focus and strength; don’t worry about the length
• You are calm
• This is the reward-claim it!
These mantras work for me because I know that I need my hard efforts to be positive. I know that I need to focus on what I do well. I also know that I cannot focus on the result. That is it is more important for me to keep my attention on the immediate effort rather than the result of the effort.
Look at your motivators, the things that resonate with you, and the things that contradict your inner cynicism or self-chastisement in the middle of a hard effort. So for example if you are saying to yourself “I am slow, useless, and tired’ a mantra might be “Enjoy the rhythm, enjoy the ride, success is on the other side”. Once you determine what resonates with you, practice it every opportunity you have. This means each time you have a hard effort in training and each time the nagging voice starts to flood your ears with negativity. You can also put these mantras in as daily reminders on your phone or stick them up on walls, mirrors, in the toilet or wherever you will see them over and over again. You’d be surprised how effective this can be.
Aside from these mantras, I have a number of key words that I use. Essentially, I practice and pre-program a physical response to each word through visualization. For example for the word ‘relax’- I visualise myself dropping my shoulders, taking the tension out of my body and clearing the mind’ getting into a rhythm. Other key words I use are:
• ‘Push’- I see and feel my legs pushing into the ground and rebounding up. This is particularly good on hills.
• ‘Turnover’- I see my legs turning over very quickly. My cadence and speed increase significantly. I feel light and springy and tall.
• ‘Rhythm’- I relax my body, and get into a rhythmical motion, my eyes fixed on the shoulders of another runner or some arbitrary point in the distance. I feel the tension leave my body.
• ‘Breathe’- I calm my breathing, taking deeper, slower breaths and I hear my heart rate ease. My chest opens and I feel the oxygen hit.
I realise much of what I say seems a bit of overkill but it really does work. These are awesome when you are really struggling to take the focus off the effort and will help bring your awareness back to you and what your body is doing.
We all do it. Compare and judge ourselves against others and their capabilities. When we are logical, most of us realise that there is always someone faster, younger, slimmer, etc. but when we are in a spot of bother during a hard effort, our minds like to remind us of all the reasons we are not as fast, young, or capable. Comparisons are lost energy. If you find yourself making them in the middle of a race- shut it down immediately by bringing the focus back to you. It matters not how anyone else runs. What matters is your best, your effort, your capability. Believe that you can and that nothing is beyond you but respect your competitors. Remember, no one is unbeatable, everyone is capable, and everyone can have his or her day. Believe in yourself and your actions. They are ultimately, all you can control. When you can’t believe, revert to your mantras.
Distract and shift your focus
Aside from the mantras and key words there are a number of other effective distractions that can help you through a hard effort. These include:
• Counting down the kilometres, laps or otherwise breaking the effort into sections. This makes the task seem more manageable and achievable, it’s not as overwhelming for the mind, and you can validate the smaller milestones each time you pass them.
• Focusing on your body and form. I use my key words for this. It can be a very effective distraction tool to bring your attention to your body and focus on how you are running rather than how you are feeling.
• Focusing on the support around you. Acknowledging the cheers of the crowd, smiling at friends or other participants in the race or thinking about the support around you, can elevate your spirits and distract the mind.
• Focusing on the result. For many, thinking about the end-goal, the sacrifice, the reward (whether a time, conquering a distance, a medal, the smiles and hugs of our children and family etc.) can be a powerful motivator and take the mind off the discomfort.
Find the opportunity
Respond to mishaps or things that stray from the plan positively. I once had a dog cross my path in the middle of a surge I had initiated against a competitor. I came to a complete stop. My competitor saw an opportunity and she seized the moment, surging and ultimately dropping me in the race. The defeat was not because the dog had crossed my path or that my competitor was faster, it was because mentally, I had not responded positively to the mishap. Her positive response to an opportunity was met with my negative one. I had a further 3kms to make ground but I was focused on the couple of metres that I had lost thereby essentially throwing my hands up in the air and declaring defeat. There are opportunities in every effort, in every event. If the first half was miserable, there is an opportunity to make the second half count. Find the opportunities, look for them, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem. This helps shift your thinking to what you can do rather than the things you can’t and flips the negatives into positives.
I cannot overstate the value of visualisation. Seeing and believing something is half-way to achieving it. I don’t think it’s necessary to put yourself into some meditative state to visualise. Often casting your mind to your event and seeing yourself succeed for a moment each day, is enough to do the trick. Similarly, keeping the messages positive around an event or an effort will have an effect on your mood and how you perceive it. Other strategies help with the subconscious too -for example, having visualisation boards, post it notes, pictures, mantras, bibs, times, medals hanging where you are likely to see them often. Find what it is that motivates you to run and set the goal you have set, then tap into that motivation through these visual strategies. When setting out your goals, write them down and place them somewhere prominent. More importantly, when you achieve them, tick them off, display your medals, pictures, times etc and celebrate!
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