Running is almost as mental as it is physical. No matter how innately gifted you are or how hard you train, it’s rarely your legs, lungs, or heart that holds you back in this sport; rather it’s your mind, hardwired as it is to shield you from pain, injury, and overexertion.
Elite runners are not only blazing fast, but also experts at managing pain, pushing limits, and synching their physical and mental efforts. Here are key strategies gleaned from six professionals — whose specialties range from 1,500 meters to ultramarathons — on using our minds to get the most from our bodies.
Strategy 1) Turn Off Your Running Mind
Marty Hehir is the father of two little girls, a soon-to-be anesthesiologist resident, and a 2:08:57 marathoner (the 7th fastest American of all time). Hehir says that one of his secrets to success is to compartmentalizing his running — or, as he puts it, shut off his “running brain” when he’s away from the roads. Rather than overanalyzing his last workout, stressing about the next one, or obsessing over the many variables that go into the sport, Hehir is in full runner mode while he trains, and quickly transitions to dad or doctor when he’s finished. “Our sport is so simple and that’s why I love it so much,” he says. “The last thing I want to do is make it not fun by micromanaging it during my family or work time.”
Rosie Edwards — who recently clocked 2:31:56 to finish 3rd in the Great British Olympic Marathon Trials — has learned to take a similar approach going into a big race. Whereas she used to overthink races for weeks beforehand, Edwards says that before her recent breakthrough, “I managed to switch my mind off.” She filled her time and stayed relaxed by hanging out with loved ones on the family farm, taking walks, discovering new music, binge-watching light shows (like James Cordon’s Carpool Karaoke), and reading engaging books (like crime and murder mysteries). Only once she was within a couple days of the race did Edwards allow herself to start thinking about it in detail. And when the big morning rolled around, her mind was as fresh as her body, and her 9-minute PR showed it.
Strategy 2) Center Yourself
Olympic steeplechaser Colleen Quigley calls meditation her “secret weapon.” As she explains it, the idea is to recognize thoughts and feelings are they arise, name them, and let them go. “This is a continual process to try to let go of the past and future, and stay in the present,” she says.
It didn’t take long for Quigley to realize that ten meditative minutes every morning, as was her routine, wouldn’t go very far unless she actively translated those principles to other parts of her life — like running. Now, when she’s in the middle of a workout and starts worrying about future reps, she returns to that meditative state of mind. “I try to just recognize that thought or feeling as it pops up,” Quigley says, whether it’s related to tired legs, labored breathing, or doubts about maintaining her pace. Then she lets it go and roots herself in the present — and continues that process until the workout is complete.
While beneficial for all disciplines, Quigley thinks that meditation — as well as her more recent breathing practice, for which she hired a coach — adds even more value to her specialty, the steeplechase. With immovable wooden barriers and water pits, there’s little wiggle room for doubt or lapses in concentration during the 7.5-lap race. To get started yourself, check out the Headspace app and the book Breathe by James Nestor, both of which have been integral to Quigley’s running mindset.
Strategy 3) Set the Stage for Flow
The importance of mental training has not been lost on Calum Neff, a 3-time Guinness World Record holder (for fastest 10K, half marathon, and marathon run with a stroller) and the Canadian record holder in the 50K. “When you boil down all the mental tips and tricks, it really comes down to finding the flow state, where the magic truly happens,” Neff says. A concept identified by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Neff describes flow as an “almost out-of-body experience” in which things come easily and vivid memories are formed, but the event seems to pass in an instant. The tricky part of the equation is that flow state can’t be forced.
Flow can, however, be encouraged by setting up favorable conditions. Neff believes two mentalities help him set the stage for it: positivity and presence (or mindfulness). To stay positive, he likes self-talk and mantras — which should be personally meaningful, and which can be even more powerful when linked to an emotional attachment (“the why”). Staying in the present moment requires an immersion in the process. In the context of running, Neff says can be boiled down to “left foot, right foot.” That’s exactly what looped through his head in the final miles of his record-setting 50K. “Nothing mattered except making every step the best step I could,” he says — not future projections, not thoughts of “what if,” and not undue focus on his suffering. Neff’s 2:51:27 record is the product of over 30 years of running, much of it spent tinkering with his mindset
Strategy 4) Visualize Success
Put simply, visualization is the practice of imagining a future event unfolding with as much detail as possible. When done regularly, it can be a powerful performance enhancer that helps set the stage for those mental images to eventually materialize. Kelsey Bruce, a college coach and marathoner who represented Team USA in the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, is just one of countless pros who visualize as part of their race preparation. As a competition approaches, Bruce says, “I visualize myself running strong and practice responding to my emotions and thoughts that I know I will run into in a race.”
A marathoner like Bruce, I also spend a good amount of time visualizing races to come. But rather than sitting quietly and watching possible outcomes play through my mind as if it were a movie — the traditional way to do it — I prefer to take my practice on the run. I imagine myself on the course I’ll soon race on (having either run it before or studied it from afar), I practice running relaxed and smooth when I start to suffer, and I pretend like I’m running down competitors in the final stretch — exactly as I’d like to do in the actual race. That type of visualization not only feels relevant to the event I’m preparing for, but it also doesn’t ramp up my nerves or keep me up at night, as more passive visualizing tends to do.
Strategy 5) Take Small Bites
Another one of Hehir’s tactics entails breaking down an intimidating task — say, running 4:55 pace for 26.2 miles — into more digestible bites. In the case of the marathon, Hehir breaks it into 3 parts:
Part 1 is the first half (13.1 miles), which should be relatively stress-free. As Hehir puts it, “I trained to go twice the distance at the same pace, so I usually just focus on relaxing and enjoying the mile splits fly on by.” When he feels more tired or flat early on than he’d like, he remembers how hard he trained and trusts that he’ll feel better as he goes.
Part 2 doesn’t have a predetermined length, but rather lasts from halfway to the point that it gets harder for Hehir to maintain his smooth stride and pace. “I know at some point it’s going to hurt way worse,” he says, “but instead of expecting it at a certain point, I prefer to just focus on getting as far as I can before it does.” His approach differs from the common expectation to hit the wall around mile 20 — which can easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Part 3 of Hehir’s marathon begins as he describes it, “When the wheels are starting to come off and the previous 20-plus miles are taking their toll.” Because it always happens at some point, he’s neither surprised nor deflated when things start to get tough. He knows he’s prepared to handle those tough final miles, does his best to embrace the pain, and focuses on maintaining his form and pace all the way through the line.