Between Your Ears – Running’s Mental Health Act

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Running and racing long distances can be as much a mental challenge as a physical one. At critical junctures of a tough workout or race, many runners experience negative self-defeating thoughts. They begin to doubt themselves, telling themselves that the endeavour is too difficult. They compare themselves to other runners who look fitter or are running faster. They begin to question if they will achieve their goal.

Effectively managing these counterproductive thoughts is as critical to your success in running as is proper physical preparation.

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While Resting

Practice visualizing completing your goal. Involve as many senses as possible: see and hear the cheering crowd at the finish line, see the time on the overhead clock, see and feel the finish line volunteer putting the medal around your neck and feel the exhilaration of achieving your objective.

Rehearse your visualization several times each week, so that you’ll be able to recall it easily during your race.

During Difficult Workouts

Many runners become anxious or flustered during a demanding run when they begin to fatigue and experience discomfort. This is fertile ground for the weeds of self-doubt to grow.

If you usually train in a group, you may not be used to running long stretches solo as often happens in longer races. With no training partners for company and conversation, you will be left with only your own thoughts during the race. Recently a runner who is training for her first marathon as part of a group told me that she was caught off guard by the negative self-talk that she experienced during a solo 30K run.

Doing at least solo one long run will simulate race day, giving you the opportunity to practice handling these mental potholes.

Practicing the following strategies during long runs or difficult workouts will help you control your mental outlook:

  1. Focus on breathing for several minutes, progressively relaxing your muscles from head to toe. You’ll feel better if you relax and give yourself positive messages, rather than thinking of defeatist outcomes.
  2. Listen to your inner voice. It is connected to your core energy. It wants what is best for you. While recognizing negative thoughts, your commanding inner voice does not let them monopolize your inner conversation. Your inner voice runs the meeting. It says to negative thoughts: "Thank you. Would anyone else like to talk?" Once given controlled expression, your doubts are banished to the sidelines. Let positive images and messages rule your inner air waves.
  3. Maintain perspective. Remember that there will be rough stretches in any challenging run or race, where you don’t know if you will be able to continue or keep running at your desired pace. After all, if it was easy, everyone would do it, right?
  4. Form a mental picture of yourself as a graceful athlete or animal, envisioning your running form as smooth and relaxed. Towards the end of your run, recall your visual image of completing your goal, involving as many senses as possible (see above).

A surprisingly effective physical strategy is instead of slowing down, try shortening your stride and running a bit faster. This recruits muscle fibres and motor nerves that aren’t as fatigued as the ones you have been using and will allow you to run easier.

Days Leading Up to the Race

If you find yourself becoming overly apprehensive, take time out. Focus on deep breathing and relaxing your muscles. Meditation and yoga are both effective in reducing anxiety and promoting relaxation.

During the Race

Implement the same mental strategies that you’ve rehearsed during difficult workouts.

It’s not possible to discuss every aspect of mental preparation in a brief article. But I guarantee you that by practicing at least a few of these tactics, you won’t let mental speed bumps ruin your race. It’s your day to shine!


Bennett Cohen "The Savvy Runner" is a veteran runner and women’s running coach, specializing in the non-elite athlete. Bennett is the publisher of the innovative Women’s Running Update, a FREE weekly online newsletter for smart women runners who want to maximize the benefits they derive from running. To learn how to achieve your objectives for your running, training and healthy lifestyle, visit http://www.womensrunningupdate.com


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