A good runner is not made of strong legs alone. The best of the best in this sport also have strong minds—and that’s because running is as much a mental challenge as it is physical. “Running is constant negotiation with yourself,” Amanda Shannon Verrengia, a certified run coach, says.
Whether it’s a motivational “Push a little harder for the next mile!” or a defeatist “I’m so tired, I should probably slow down,” the loop that plays between our ears while we run can make or break us, encouraging us to push ourselves just a little bit more—or telling ourselves to throw in the towel when the going gets tough.
The catch: using said mental techniques to improve your performance is more nuanced than simply telling yourself to “go faster.” Here, two experts break it down.
1. Visualize Your Success
Taking the time to mentally walk through a tough workout before you actually tackle it can help you handle the real deal with more confidence and ease, Dr. Ariane Machín, a sports psychologist and former competitive runner, says. Before lacing up, close your eyes and use all five of your senses to understand what those especially hard moments will be like and then envision yourself pushing through them, she says. Imagine your muscles burning, the sound of your breath, the road or track stretching on in front of you, the air against your skin, the smell of sweat, and so on.
Just by visualizing an experience like this, you can activate the same motor neurons that fire in the real-life moment, explains Machín. And because of this, when you do experience said real-life moment, it doesn’t feel as foreign, she says.
“Visualizing is about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable,” adds Verrengia. “People get nervous about the uncomfortableness of an anticipated situation.” But if you intentionally visualize yourself being uncomfortable, you’ll be better prepared to calmly and confidently handle that discomfort when it does arise, she explains.
The one caveat with visualization: it should be limited to things that you can control, says Verrengia. You can’t control the weather, for example, so don’t spend your time visualizing yourself running on a sunny, cloudless day. But you can control how you react to the most challenge portion of a workout, like the beastly hill at mile 12 of your long run, or the last 10 minutes of your tempo run—and that’s exactly what you should concentrate on.
2. Check Your Progress
Getting live feedback on your progress—whether it’s in the form of mile splits, distance, elevation, or minutes—can be an incredible motivation tool, Machín says. For instance, you may feel like utter garbage, but looking at your watch and seeing that you only have 0.7 miles to go? Instant energy boost. Or, you may realize that even though you feel like utter garbage and your pace is way off, you’ve still managed to run three miles.
The most valuable and motivating data will come from a GPS watch like the Garmin Forerunner 645 Music. It gives you accurate pace, distance, and heartbeat metrics to gauge and adjust your effort. As an added mental boost, this model allows you sync bluetooth headphones to the watch so you can listen to music, which research shows can increase your pain tolerance during a workout.
The right watch can be like “a little coach on your wrist,” adds Verrengia. “It can help you stay motivated and on track.” What’s more, having the data later on can provide an extra sense of satisfaction when you realize exactly how much you actually achieved. “It can provide a confidence boost,” says Verrengia that can spillover into your next run.
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3. Reframe Your Pain
Running hard isn’t exactly an enjoyable experience. When your lungs are burning, your quads are on fire, and your body is screaming at you to stop, it’s only natural to connect these unpleasant sensations with equally unpleasant thoughts, like “I’m out of shape” or “this hurts too much,” Machín says.
But this type of negative self-talk isn’t productive, and focusing on the pain in this way will likely just make it seem that much worse. Instead, attribute the pain to positive gains—like my quads are burning because my legs are getting stronger; or I’m breathing heavy because I’m building my cardio. This simple mental shift provides much-needed purpose to your pain. “It’s the difference between saying to yourself, 'This is me working so hard,' versus 'This is me so fatigued,'” Machín says.
4. Break it Down
Divide your workout into smaller chunks. Instead of stressing over the fact that you still have eight miles left in your long run and your quads are already shaking, think of it as four two-mile runs, or even eight one-mile runs, Verrengia says. “Just run the mile that you’re in,” she says. This means focusing on holding your pace and form together for one micro-chunk at a time. “These mini goals make it easier,” she explains, and they transform an overwhelming workout into an I-totally-got-this experience.
You can also do this with visual landmarks. If you feel like calling it quits early, pick a not-so-distant landmark, like a lamppost or a mailbox, and tell yourself that you just need to run to that point. If you’re still feeling really crappy once you get there, you can stop. “But more often than not, you will be able to just keep going,” says Verrengia, and landmark by landmark, “you’ll get out of your funk.”
5. Repeat a Mantra
Have an inspirational cue word or phrase on hand to repeat yourself during the especially brutal moments, says Machín. Something as simple as “push” or “I am strong” or “I can do hard things” can provide potent motivation when you need to dig deep. The point of these cues is to “induce a certain state and cue you into action,” explains Machín. Repeating the mantra over and over in your head can also drown out the doubts that tend to creep in during times of trial, adds Verrengia.
6. Recall Prior Wins
Looking back at your past triumphs can give you the mid-run confidence boost you need to keep going, says Verrengia. Whether it was an especially grueling hill set that you tackled with ease or that time you powered through a tempo run despite serious stomach cramps, “look at the things you have already hit and remind yourself that you can probably overcome this too,” she says.