While every runner is different, some aspects of mental conditioning are the same regardless of the individual. At SportStrata, we call these fundamental ideas and attitudes our performance pillars: Enjoyment, Objective Optimism, Present and Future Orientation, and Process Focus. We teach specific mental skills like self-talk and visualization with the understanding that they are in the service of strengthening these performance pillars. The particular way a specific mental skill is used is unique to each individual and each performance setting, but the goal of strengthening the mental performance pillars remains the primary goal.
For runners of all levels, there are many challenges to maintaining strong mental performance pillars. Long and exhausting training regiments, extended periods of painful physical sensations, and an overwhelming focus on outcome results are all a big part of the sport. Learning how to use mental skills can be very useful in effectively coping with these difficult challenges.
Here are five examples of ways that mental skills can be used to help improve your running experience and result:
1. Love “The Wall”
The way you think about difficult moments has a significant impact on the way your body reacts at the time. Create a self-talk cue that can remind you to think of these difficult moments as challenges you are prepared for, instead of miserable obstacles threatening to take you down. If running a marathon was easy, everybody could do it, and it wouldn’t come with that overwhelming sense of accomplishment crossing the finish line brings. You know you will “hit a wall” at some point, so prepare for it, embrace it, and have a different reaction to those thoughts telling you to quit. Use self-talk cues that you believe because they are based in fact. Statements like “I trained for this”, “I’ve been here before”, or even a simple “Gotta love it” can remind you that you are ready to overcome the challenge.
2. Allow the Outcome to Take Care of Itself
Marathon culture is very focused on finishing times, and that makes sense! However, focusing on your time while you are running will not help you run any faster, and realistically, it is not totally in your control. Factors like weather, course difficulty, and stress can have a major impact on your time. Take some time to think about why you are really running a marathon or other race. What is your true motivation? Once you realize that you are not only in it to best your time, you can begin to focus on devoting all your energy to what you control – your mindset and performance routine! By freeing up your attention, you can then experiment focusing on different things to see what is most helpful. Your breathing? The surroundings? Try using your imagination to come up with a fun story line. You will find that by taking your mind off the final time, you will experience more enjoyment and your time may improve more than ever!
3. Make Gratitude Part of Your Routine
Create a routine of reminding yourself of the things you feel most grateful for and take the time to really feel that sensation of gratitude. Wear a bracelet or put a sticker on your phone to remind you of this gratitude practice. Intentionally cultivating gratitude is a great way to enhance your motivation and enjoyment, and it also leads to better performance!
4. Learn to “Watch” Your Difficult Sensations and Feelings Instead of Trying to Change Them
Inevitably, you will be dealing with pain and discomfort at some point during your race. Acknowledging and labeling those unpleasant sensations and feelings instead of trying to fight or ignore them is a very effective approach to maintaining a consistent level of performance. Fighting against feelings is exhausting and unproductive. This does not mean you should not make practical adjustments like getting a blister pad if you need one. An experienced marathon runner described his personal style of using this method as imagining his body as a factory with himself as the supervisor. He imagined that this factory had many different systems that could send him, the supervisor, messages in the form of different sensations. When his legs started to cramp he imagined that the “legs system” had just sent him a message saying that they were being overworked in that department and had filed a complaint requesting to stop immediately. As the supervisor, he would imagine sending a message back that he had heard their complaint and he would compromise by allowing them to slow down to a walking pace for a minute at the next water station. He went on to describe that his thirst system could message him requesting water, and so on. This is an incredibly helpful example of someone who has figured out how to “watch” his sensations and feelings without trying to suppress or fight against them.
5. Appreciate the Experience
It is easy to get so caught up in trying to run your best time that you miss out on the moment-to-moment experience the day of the race. Remember that having a body that can run at all, let alone 26.2 miles is an amazing blessing! There are many things to feel grateful for during training and on marathon day: the people around you, your health, your community, the volunteers that make the race possible.
Sport and performance psychology shows us that achieving your marathon goal is a result of effective practice and physical and mental preparation. Develop a customized mental performance routine that will maximize the strength of your performance pillars. Practice it, tweak it, and most importantly, use it when it’s time to race. If you practice enough, you won’t have to think about executing your performance plan because you will do it automatically, and that is the key to peak performance.