Mental Running: How to Train Your Mind

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Well yes, the day after a race or a tough workout it’s primarily the legs that hurt. But I would strongly argue that you not only run with your legs. You run with your entire body. The core muscles keep you upright, your arms help you to keep balance and propel you forward. And your neck keeps your head in position.

But the longer the distance you travel running, the more another thing plays a major role: Your mind!

Runners obviously focus more on the body side of things when it comes to training for a race. However if you aim for the marathon distance and beyond, training your mind becomes a crucial part in your preparation as well.

But also for shorter distances what’s going on in your head shouldn’t be underestimated. So in this post I want to dig into the mental side of running and how to train your mind for the running challenges you want to encounter.

Staying Motivated

Of course motivation is the first and probably the biggest thing that comes to mind. Your legs don’t lose motivation to go and work out, your mind is.

For some it’s easy to find motivation to go running, for others that’s a tough mental task.

In moments you lack motivation it’s a good thing to think back about why you started running in the first place. For most it’s about health. Just remember that the health benefits only last if you keep at it. Ideally for a lifetime.

Also for me motivation comes with action. I’m normally more motivated for running right after a run. And for many training runs I’m not that motivated to do them beforehand, this completely changes a few minutes into the run.

It’s important to internalize these things so you can jump over the hurdle of not wanting to go running.

Run a Race In Advance

To be mentally prepared for what can (and often will) happen during a race, I try to think things through in advance.

This technique is called visualization and can be done to any extend. At a minimum you should think about the different outcomes of a race. Finish with a smile, finish suffering or dropping.

You can upscale this up unto going through the entire race multiple times imagine every possibility. For a 5k race this might seem easy, but for a trail marathon things get a bit more complicated. Dehydration, energy depletion, a fall, sunburn, exhaustion, twisted ankle, insect bites and much more can happen during these events.

You increase the chance of success if you have a plan ready for all things that could happen. Otherwise these things can easily break you. So go through them in front of your inner eye multiple times.

Mental Preparation In Your Training

Long distance running comes with challenges that other activities don’t know. Boredom or solitude can easily happen when you run alone for hours.

That’s what your long run, apart from gaining endurance, is here for. In these long hours outside you can also develop the mental skill needed to face the challenges mentioned above.

For me running alone for hours is easy. I love to think about many different things, answer some burning question I have or just philosophize about something. Or listen to podcasts or your favorite music. In these training long runs you can determine what your mind needs when in a race it’s getting tough.

But there are other challenges a race course might give you. A steep uphill towards the end. Or you want to speed up in the last couple of miles. That’s a tough job to do if you’re already exhausted. But all these things can be tested in training. And by doing it over and over again, you build the mental toughness that is needed.

Know Your Minds Tricks

If you have ever run a marathon you know the feeling: around the 20 mile mark suddenly quitting seems like a reasonable option. You start thinking about where to stop and all the excuses you can imagine come to mind.

Of course you can still go on with running for hours. Your body doesn’t need to stop. If fueled right, you can run for hundreds of kilometers. But it’s getting tougher, your metabolism changes due to the depletion of carbs and your mind is starting to play nasty tricks on you.

If you are into long distance running it’s important to know these tricks and recognize them early on. If you don’t, chances are that you drop out of a race indeed or start getting very slow.

When your will power is stronger than these mind tricks, then you’ll succeed at the longest ultra distances with decent times.

Also the long run comes in handy to learn how your mind functions in these kind of situations. Choose a route for your long run on which you can easily quit and go home at any point.

For example just run around your block for a couple of hours until you met the distance planned. Like this you’ll face solitude, boredom and the urge to quite once it’s getting tougher. Maybe not the most beautiful workout but it comes in handy on race day!

Dealing With Setbacks

Another mental challenge that many don’t think of in advance is to deal with setbacks.

It’s very likely that in your training not everything works out exactly as you planned it. You might get injured or overtrained. Or you need a break because the workload is too much. Or you don’t progress as fast as you wish.

As a pro athlete it’s important to always work on your limit, because these setbacks divide winners from athletes who don’t play a role in their sport.

But as amateur athletes we should by any means avoid that these (minor) setbacks bum us out.

The best thing is of course realistic goal setting, so you don’t aim for too much at a time. However this is not so easy for beginners who don’t know their abilities very well.

I recommend to have a mindset that allows you to alter your goals and be flexible about the results of your training. If you tackle a new distance, don’t set a time goal. And if you set a time goal, make it a time range not a specific time.

After all this running thing should improve your health and be fun and not something that gives you bad feelings about yourself.

Gain From Success

Success obviously feels great. So why mentally prepare for a situation of great feelings?

Well these feelings can quickly turn into a kind of emptiness and post-race blues. Now what? The race is done and the goals are achieved. Is this it now? Where should I go from here?

So also try to think a bit in advance. What does long-term success mean to you? What goals would you like to achieve in the future if you can stick to running for years or decades?

I personally have not only a goal I’m currently training for but also a long-term running dream. That keeps me motivated and avoids bad feelings or a void after finishing a race I focused on for months.

What are your major mental challenges when it comes to running? And how do you deal with them? Let us know in the comments section!

Happy running,

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