To become your best as a runner requires incorporating hard workouts, running time trials, lifting weights, cross training, performing form drills, prioritizing sleep, eating nutritiously, running hill repeats, increasing mileage, and working on mobility.
But don’t stop there! Not everything that adds to your running bucket looks good in a training log or is easily measured. One of my favorite ways to evolve as a runner — whether I’m healthy or injured, racing or base-building — is reading psychology books that I later apply to my road and track pursuits.
Here are six staple books in my mental training arsenal, each with a key message, quote, and running-related takeaway:
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown
Message: When we stop trying to avoid failure, appear put-together and skate by without criticism or conflict, we free ourselves up to attain deeper connections and a richer existence.
Quote: “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
Running application: Does anything in that quote ring a bell? If there’s one takeaway from Des Linden’s 2018 Boston Marathon victory — the first by an American woman in 33 years—it’s the payoff of a career-long commitment to “Keep showing up” (which she tweeted about a month before the race). As Linden proved on the global stage and Brown cements in her book, extraordinary things are made possible when we put ourselves out there again and again.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Message: Many of our most satisfying experiences in life are not spontaneous; they’re triggered by a specific state of mind that emerges from complete immersion in pursuits that matter to us and align with our skills.
Quote: “The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy—or attention—is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else.”
Running application: By and large, my best races are those that I later characterize as mostly flow state. Without forcing anything, I settle into an appropriately hard pace, focus all of my energy on efficient forward motion, have a few clear goals driving my pursuit, and lose track of time, all of which culminate in a deep sense that I’m getting the most out of myself and doing exactly what I was made for. The more we can set the stage for such moments, the better (and more enjoyable) our racing experiences will be.
Mindset: The Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
Message: Mindset is a choice, and how we view the world has enormous sway over how we live and the lives we create.
Quote: “In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome.”
Running application: In running, as in life, there will always be variables we can’t control: weather conditions, genetics, competition, and such. But the most important one, we can: our mindset. Over and over and over again, champions choose a growth mindset, in which obstacles are opportunities, effort trumps talent, and the process is the crux of the journey, until it becomes second nature.
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
Message: Like a growth mindset, grit can be cultivated over time by persevering through hard times, finishing what you start, and keeping an eye on the end goal — no matter how far off it seems.
Quote: “To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.”
Running application: Every time you hit the wall and finish a training run or a marathon, you cross-train your tail off through a season of injury, or you fall short of a goal only recommit yourself to the process, you’re exemplifying grit. The more of those things you do, the grittier you become. And in a fight to the finish, the grittiest runner is the one to fear.
How Bad Do You Want It? Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle by Matt Fitzgerald
Message: Physical fitness matters, of course, but it’s mental fitness that separates the good from the great and allows us to approach our athletic potential.
Quote: “There is no experience quite like that of driving yourself to the point of wanting to give up and then not giving up… When something inside you asks, How bad do you want it?, an inner curtain is drawn open, revealing a part of you that is not seen except in moments of crisis. And when your answer is to keep pushing, you come away from the trial with the kind of self-knowledge and self-respect that can’t be bought.”
Running application: It’s easy to think of great runners as naturally tough or blessed with a high pain threshold. But through dozens of examples across a variety of endurance sports, Fitzgerald demonstrates that the mental fortitude ubiquitous among champions is deliberately and repetitively honed. And every athlete, regardless of fitness level, track record, or age, has the ability to raise his or her ceiling through mental fitness gains alone.
Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson
Message: Human performance is a web of physical and psychological factors, and we’re almost always capable of more than we think.
Quote: “When the moment of truth comes, science has confirmed what athletes have always believed: that there’s more in there — if you’re willing to believe it.”
Running application: Many of the limitations we, as runners, perceive to be physical—pain, heat, dehydration, and such — are actually products of our minds. And fortunate for us, there are ways to override the protective signals from our brains that make us want to bow out in the face of discomfort. Perhaps the most robust of them all, which Hutchinson writes is the one thing he would have done differently in his running career, is motivational self-talk, taken seriously and practiced continuously.