Coach Mike Mead

The Mental Challenge of Running - April 2004

One of the biggest misconceptions about running is the mental aspect of training and racing. My father once asked me during my early days in the sport, “How hard can running be? You don’t really need to think!” Au contraire!

Anyone who regularly runs knows just how difficult it can be some days just to get your self out the door. Running itself is not all that difficult. It’s the mental challenge of pushing your body through various levels of pain to achieve “running nirvana.”

In the past few weeks, I’ve had to talk to several of my track and field athletes at Clayton State about their mental states. Generally, all of them can physically handle the workouts, but mentally they are holding themselves back from becoming exceptional runners.

Each of these athletes has slightly different issues, but all are allowing their brains to interfere with their training and racing. That seems to be the case with most average runners who I’ve observed over the years – “mental irregularity.”

Runners spend too much time on the physical part of their training and never really train their minds to handle the increased workloads. It’s like a runner who does the distance training, but never the speed. They get blasted at the end of each race. Runners need to do mental conditioning, too.

The common mistake that runners make is filling their heads with negative ideas. It starts in their training and is carried over into their competitions. I’ve always told my runners to eliminate negative thoughts and ideas when they approach workouts, otherwise those negative forces will be with them for the races as well.

“It’s too hot! It’s too cold! It’s too windy! It’s too hard! It’s too sunny! It’s too wet! It’s too humid! It’s too dry! I don’t feel like doing it today! I can’t do that workout!”

The list of negative thoughts is endless. I try to prepare my runners for all conditions and eliminate as many negative thoughts and ideas. I’ve told them that if you wait for everything to be perfect that when the conditions are perfect, they will not be able to handle it!

Another mental challenge for some runners is the fear to fail. Heck, if I had a nickel for every crappy workout I had in my day, I’d have a small fortune by now. Don’t be afraid to fail. That is the nature of training – to experiment with different workout methods to discover what best works for you so that you will be more successful in your competitions.

You may be asking, “Coach, how do I mentally train?” Since I am not a sports psychologist, I do not have the technical answers. But basically, start by eliminating as many negative thoughts pertaining to your training and racing. For example, if you usually find yourself slowing down while running up a hill and you hear yourself say, “This hill is kicking my butt!” Turn that negative around by throwing in a surge up the hill and yell, “Charge!” To reinforce this action, do some periodic hill running to make you better on hilly race courses. Then when you actually race on a “rolling course” you have a mental edge over your competition.

Another “mental advantage” I instruct my track folks to follow is not to do track workouts in spikes. This way, they know the workouts they’ve run in their clunker training shoes will make them more confident going into the competition.

So if you find your training hitting a plateau or setback, perhaps a little mental training is in order.