Running is sometimes referred to as 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. Which makes sense: Just think about how much energy you spend battling that voice in your head that’s telling you to stop.
And yet nearly all training plans, whether they are couch-to-5K or advanced marathon prep, focus entirely on getting your body physically prepared and rarely mention mental fitness. So we asked performance psychologist Stuart Holliday, who has worked with Olympic and Paralympic athletes, about mindset tools you can use to train your brain and become a stronger runner.
1. Ride the emotional waves
The phrase “mental toughness” gets bandied about in running, particularly in longer distance training. But Holliday believes the key to handling hard training sessions and the pressure of race day is to be more emotionally flexible.
Adapting to difficult experiences is more effective than catastrophizing. Rather than thinking about how awful you feel, try to adapt to the situation: That could mean adjusting your pace, drinking some water, or asking a running partner to tell you a distracting story.
“Try to think, ‘If I just get through this sticky patch, I can see where I am at.’ It takes the pressure off, and makes it less likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Holliday. “And we know that runners at all levels go through waves of difficulty in their events. So try and ride the waves rather than bulldoze through the wall.”
2. Learn when to mute that voice in your head
Our inner voice is there for a reason: To protect us from harm. And when we’re pushing ourselves, it’s constantly telling us to stop. This voice is completely normal for athletes of all levels. But know that it’s overly-protective—your body can actually push considerably beyond this instinct without causing any damage.
“If you get that urge to stop running, it is perfectly natural, but see if you can go another 100 or 200 meters,” says Holliday. “See what it’s like if you get through it, and whether the desire slows down.”
With experience, you’ll recognize when a feeling of sickness or discomfort is happening simply because you are doing something difficult, not because it is damaging. “The skill is to learn what’s normal discomfort and what’s pain that could lead to an injury,” says Holliday.
3. Become a reflective runner
Keeping a running diary or having an extra column on your training plan to log how you felt during each run can help you track your progress. “If you can go back and look at all you’ve done and achieved, it’s a great way of building more confidence and also saying to yourself, ‘Look how far I’ve come—that run used to feel really hard and now I can do it without stopping,’ ” says Holliday.
A record of your runs can help you to recognize your strengths, and where you might need to take action. For example, if you find you are consistently struggling with running uphill then you can add some hill rep sessions to your plan and build in some glute strength work.
4. Try chunking
Whether it’s a 5K on a wet, windy day or a 24-hour ultramarathon, any distance can at times feel unmanageable. Instead of worrying about the finish line, just motivate yourself to run to the next lamppost, then the next and the next. Or just focus on getting to the end of the next minute, or next mile. By breaking the run into more manageable chunks, the distance will feel less overwhelming, and you can be flexible to changing circumstances.
5. Start counting
One way to block out negative thoughts and get into more of a flow state is by counting. This could be counting to 100 forwards or backwards, or simply counting to 10 over and over again as you reach the final phase of a run. Synchronize the counts with your footsteps or arm swings to find a propulsive rhythm.
6. Use visualization techniques
If you have a race or training run coming up that you are anxious about, it can help to visualize the route. This helps to prime the mind so the real experience feels less difficult. That’s because, as Eric Bean, PhD, CMPC, and executive board member of Association for Applied Sports Psychology previously told Well+Good, “When imagining an experience, a person stimulates the same neural patterns of the actual experience.”
You’ll get the greatest effect by engaging as many sense as possible. Holliday explains: “Close your eyes and use all of your senses. What’s that start line like? Can you feel a bit of cold or rain? Can you hear your heart beat? Can you smell runners packed next to you? Replay the sections you think will be mentally tough and how you will get through it.”
7. Talk to yourself
Scientific research suggests that talking to yourself in of your head can help with motivation, emotional regulation, and self control. And by going one step further and referring to yourself by name or using the word “you” instead of “I,” you can create an inner coach to push yourself further.
“The best time to be using this is when it’s getting really tough and you want to quit in the later stages of a race,” says Holliday.
But watch how you talk to yourself: Supporting your efforts and recognizing your achievements will be a better motivator than giving yourself a hard time. “Think about the conversations your are having with yourself. What is the tone like? Make them have as positive an angle as possible,” says Holliday.
To learn more about building good mental habits, Holliday recommends reading Atomic Habits by James Clear, The Chimp Paradox by professor Steve Peters and Run Like A Pro by Ben Rosario and Matt Fitzgerald.