Coach Mike Mead

Mental Training on the Run - September 2006

Do you struggle sometimes in your runs to keep up with your running partners? Are you slowing down in the last half of your race, only to get passed by walkers? Having trouble staying focused in the race?

If you answered yes to any of these questions there are some techniques you can work on to make you a more successful runner. You might be in great shape, running-wise, but what kind of shape is your mind in when it comes to running? The great New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” Apply his ill-gotten logic with running and he’s right on!

If you’ve followed all the training tips of today’s running gurus and you’re still an Average Joe runner, maybe it’s your brain you need to train? To make some training and racing breakthroughs, try some of these over the next few weeks and months and see if it helps.

Start Positive

The first thing you need to do is eliminate negative thoughts. I’ve coached several runners who show up for a workout or competition and before they arrive to the practice or race site have filled their heads with negative ideas. “I can’t run this workout!” “It’s too hot to run!” “It’s too cold to race!” “I’m tired…. etc., etc., etc. In just a short period of time, you are not in the best frame of mind to train or race properly.

Instead of complaining about a particular workout, use it to make you a better runner knowing you may struggle but you will come out a stronger runner. If you do not like racing in the rain, remember that everyone else has to run in the conditions.

Work on Your Mental Weaknesses

So you have a tough time keeping up with your running partners. A simple method I found successful is run with someone faster than you and stay with them as long as you can. The next time you run with them, try to hang with him or her a little longer. This will take many weeks and months, but as long as they don’t slow up for you, you will see progress. You just have to mentally challenge yourself.

Another successful technique is what I call “yo-yo” running. When you go out on a run with someone, or are in a race, and find yourself falling off the pace, throw in a surge. This is going to require you to seriously shift gears – almost a sprint in some cases – to catch back up. Once you catch (don’t pass) the runner in front of you, settle back into their pace until you fall back and repeat this surging, or “yo-yo” effect, as long as you can. At some point you’ll stay with them, wear yourself out, or wear out the runner you’ve been surging on.

If you’re running by yourself, run an out-and-back course in which you run the second half faster than the first half. This will train you to focus on the last half of the run and prep you to run stronger on the last half of a race. To work on staying with other runners while training by yourself, use pre-determined landmarks on a run that forces you to focus on a certain stretch that you have to maintain a set speed for a set distance (like fartlek running). Easy landmarks could be run from one electric pole to the next, or from mailbox to mailbox.

Mind Over Matter

The toughest challenge for developing runners is getting beyond the pain and staying mentally focused on maintaining pace. Too many times when pain sets in, inexperienced runners immediately back off rather than fight through the temporary discomfort. What happens is you train yourself to back off when running becomes uncomfortable. The result is a bad running habit that will become harder to overcome the more you continue to give in to pain. A runner experiencing this condition must mentally battle to fight off the physical discomfort that will eventually subside.

Staying focused in a difficult training run or competition requires concentration and awareness. Many runners stay focused with frequent status checks of themselves -- “How’s my breathing?” “Am I running relaxed?” – or give themselves positive feedback – “Feeling great!” “The pace is smooth!” “Keep it rolling!” It will take much practice to sharpen mental running skills.

The mental side of running can be far more challenging than the physical part. When you can gain a mental advantage to your running you will experience satisfying results in future runs and competitions. Go get ‘em!