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Sarah Bowen Shea: Mind Games for Your Long Run

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My best running friend, Molly, crushed her first marathon, literally cracking jokes at mile 20 and smiling much of the route. But the prior year, before she had to drop out of marathon training due to a knee injury, she admitted the mere thought of long runs almost paralyzed her with fear. Molly would wake up with dread in the pit of her stomach, leaving her feel nauseated and barely able to climb out of bed.

It takes a leap of faith it takes to set off on a long run. I can’t count how many times I’ve run 20 miles in training for my dozen marathons, yet even I feel a few butterflies banging around in my gut as I strap on my GPS watch and take a final swig of nuun. As I covered 20 miles, I conjured up these mind games to share with all of you who are running long this season:

Chunk it Up

This is the key to any run or race (or child’s birthday party, home renovation project, or PowerPoint presentation). When you try to contemplate it all at once, it’s overwhelming. You can slice-and-dice a run in countless ways, e.g. instead of thinking of it as 13 miles, tell yourself it’s 5 miles + 5 miles + 5K. Sure, you have to complete the entire distance (13 miles), but only focus on the segment you’re in. (Trust me, it eases the mental load.) Or break it up by roads: first, head along the waterfront, then get to the St. John’s Bridge, followed by covering a stretch of Willamette Boulevard. My sister from Another Mother Runner, Dimity, sometimes needs to parse things even smaller, counting out 100 steps or making it to the next street sign. Whatever works for you.

Switch Up Entertainment

If you listen to your podcasts or playlists on a run, “channel surf” your way through the miles. I usually start with the previous week’s episode of, “Wait, Wait…. Don’t Tell Me,” then shift to “This American Life.” Mock me, but I often then tune into our own podcast to have Dimity along for the ride for three or so miles. Finally, I switch to music. Sometimes a RockMyRun mix, sometimes a random shuffle from Spotify. Anything to keep things fresh.

Have Company

This is an obvious one: recruit a running buddy (or two or…) to join you. And don’t skip this suggestion just because no one you know is running long. I’ve had friends join me for the final half of a 20-miler, the first five of 15, the last three of 18—you name it. And I’ve also had friends ride their bike alongside of me. Get creative in who you ask, and where you go. No law against doing multiple mini-loops to ensure your pals can join you. (Oh, and if you can’t recruit any foot soldiers, follow my lead and stop at a friend’s house for a cold bottle of water–plus a few cubes in your sports bra. Salvation!)

Enjoy Bright Moments

Let’s just admit: No matter how lovely the scenery, a long run can be a grind. Well, call me a Pollyanna, but I look for little pick-me-ups wherever I can find them. The scent of pink roses climbing up a trellis. A friendly interchange with a cheerful mail carrier. The view from a bridge. A tasty GU.

Don’t Reflect Back

While it’s tempting to think back on the ground you’ve covered, it often makes me feel like a car running out of gas. Instead of feeling inspired, I find it daunting. But, let me tell you, sisters: the second my feet hit our driveway, I let out a whoop and let all the images of the miles come rushing into my mind, filling me with pride.

Don’t Confuse Boredom With Exhaustion

This mantra-like phrase came to me around mile 16 during a long effort. Late enough in the run to know I had the distance well in hand…but well past the point where I was b-o-r-e-d with running solo. When you’re “hurting,” ask yourself if your body feels extreme discomfort, or if you’re just wishing your run was over. I suspect it’s usually the latter. (In which case, suck it up—and remind yourself it’s better than playing Sorry! for the fifth straight time that morning.)

Do Mental Scans of Your Body

Not only is this a way to keep track of tension and potential trouble spots in your body and running form, but it also helps pass the time (and remind you that you’re really not as hurtin’ as you think you are). I do a scan, starting at my feet and working up. Along the way, I shake out my fist-like hands, drop my hunched shoulders, loosen my clenched jaw, and try to get the corners of my mouth to turn up.

Because, when all is said and done, there is joy in running long.