Competitive runners focus heavily on the physical aspects of the sport: long runs, speed work, nutrition, cross-training, stretching and more. But often times leave out a key aspect of it: mental training. “A thinking athlete is going to be a bad athlete,” said Dean Hebert, a certified mental-game coach based in Scottsdale, Arizona who works with athletes across the globe. “It has to be on auto-pilot through all the training you’ve done that you can now act and react in your given sport. If you’re thinking about it, it’s already too late.”
That’s where a mental game coach comes in. This type of training expert provides techniques and strategies specific to a runner’s personality, goals and ability to use during training and on race day, said Dr. Patrick Cohn, president and founder of Florida-based Peak Performance Sports. “They will learn some things that help improve their confidence, trust their skills, focus on the process and more,” he said.
If that doesn’t sound hard, think again. “As hard as you work on your physical training you will have to work on your mental training, said Hebert. “And if you do not work that hard, you will not get the results.”A typical mental training program includes one 45-minute to hour-long session each week for two to three months, and comes with a price tag of $1,000 to $5,000.
Hebert typically asks athletes to focus on one specific area each week, then put that into practice and report back on what did or didn’t work. For example, if a runner is working on their focus, Hebert will say, “I want you to catch yourself every time you think about something you shouldn’t and refocus on the things you should.”
Which means, you may have to put it into practice over 5,000 times on longer distance run. Mental training is just as important as physical training because the mind is often at a disconnect from the true limits of the body.
“The reason running and racing can be painful is because parts of your body and brain are screaming that you need to stop so you don’t hurt yourself,” said Shannon Thompson, a mental performance consultant based out of Hypo2 Sport High Performance Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. “However, research shows that runners almost never actually completely, truly exhaust themselves.”
Thompson said she finds runners will often have a particular challenge they want to address, such as nerves, self-doubt, mental fatigue, blowing up and more. She will focus on those problem areas and help runners identify patterns in thinking and behavior that help them run their best. Thompson said focusing techniques, such as mindfulness meditation, can strengthen a runner’s ability to not become distracted by thoughts that hamper performance.
“Most strategies are best discussed and implemented regularly in training long before an important race,” she said. “Just like physical skills, mental skills take time to learn and strengthen.”
Hebert said being diligent about mental training over the long haul is important. He typically builds off each topic every week, adding more areas to work on. “It’s the overlap with everything from self-talk to doubts to poor goal setting and numerous things,” he said. “If I don’t cover all the links, that one weak link is what’s going to let you down and then I’ve failed you.”
Anna Weber, a 2:38:39 marathoner, hired Hebert in 2015, when she made the decision to go all in for her final attempt to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Trials. Working with Hebert extensively for five weeks leading up to the Twin Cities Marathon helped her score a near-10 minute PR in the marathon, securing her place in the Trials.
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“We focused on confidence, treating training and races objectively, developing mantras, controlling the controllables, overcoming perfectionism, and not allowing results to define me,” said Weber, an Oiselle-sponsored athlete who trains full-time in Indianapolis. Now, Weber is training to run her second Olympics Trial qualifying time in the fall, and she’s sticking with Hebert to help her prepare mentally, chatting with him monthly leading up to big races and talking through specific problems such as negative thoughts or mental hang-ups.
“A mental game coach is one of the best investments you can make because your physical training will only take you so far before your mind becomes the limiting factor,” said Weber. And there’s no such thing as graduating from mental training, Hebert points out. “One of the things people have to realize is this is lifelong. There is no such thing as perfection and there is no endpoint,” he said. “We’re always going to want to learn to be more mentally strong.”