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If you’re planning to run a race, chances are you’re probably planning to train for it too. You’ll do long runs and speed work. Maybe you’ll hit the gym. You might hire a coach, who will give you workouts to get you physically ready for the big day. But what will you do to prepare mentally?
“It’s amazing how much time and money and energy goes into performance, and they just leave the mental stuff to chance,” says Dr. Jim Afremow, a sports psychologist and author of The Champion’s Mind.
While runners typically train their bodies, they often don’t train their minds as thoroughly. Sometimes it’s because they simply don’t know how or have a misunderstanding about what mental training consists of. But, that leaves them open to all kinds of problems when the going gets tough.
“Often it’s not the physical that actually holds them back,” says Kara Zakrzewski, a former elite beach volleyball player and founder of Mental Toughness Inc.
Performance in the Present
The most common problem Zakrzewski says she sees in endurance athletes is a tendency for them to let their minds wander and not focus on the present moment. But that’s a mistake.
“Performance only happens in the present,” says Zakrzewski, meaning that, during a race, you can’t perform well in the past or in the future. You can only run well at this exact moment. “Right now and then right now and right now and now.”
Since running doesn’t require the technical focus of gymnastics, for example, it can be easy to get distracted as you’re going along. “Focus tends to be divided between past and future,” says Zakrzewski, which turns into a conversation in your head about what you should have done and what you should do in the future. “It decreases the opportunity for performance.”
“You start thinking about the finish well before you’re even close to getting to the finish,” says Ryan Ghelfi, an elite ultrarunner with Hoka One One.
In order to come back into the present, Zakrewski says that runners can focus on a specific physical aspect of running—their breath or their footfall—or they can use some kind of a phrase or mantra to bring their attention back to what they’re doing: running as fast as they can. To figure out what mantra might work for you, says Afremow, you should develop a few and try them in practice. Not every general “just do it” mantra will work for everyone.
Ultrarunner Ras Vaughan likes to ask himself if his daughter’s life were in danger and he had to get to her, could he do it? “And the answer is always, undoubtedly, yes,” he says. “I can run. I can power hike. I can walk. I can crawl. Whatever it takes. At that point, I have to admit that I am physically capable of doing it, so it’s just a matter of motivating myself to do so.”
Find whatever it is that works for you. Once you figure out what will help you be in the moment in a race, you can then train yourself to think in that moment.
Training Through Mental Fatigue
Another field of study has focused on training athletes to cope with mental fatigue. Maybe you’ve noticed that when you’re stressed at work or mentally worn out, your workouts and races can seem so much harder than usual. Well, it’s not just in your head. Or, it is, but it’s not just you.
Samuele Marcora, a professor of sports and exercise science at the University of Kent, has developed a brain endurance training protocol that improves performance by changing the participants’ perception of how hard that performance is. By doing cognitive mental tasks on a computer screen while training on a stationary bike, one group of soldiers in the U.K. increased their time to exhaustion in a test by 126 percent after 12 weeks. (The control group, which only trained on the stationary bike but didn’t do the mental training tasks, increased their performance on the test by 42 percent.)
“First and foremost, the increased training load on the brain leads, over time, to brain adaptations that make producing the same speed and power feels easier,” he says. “The second benefit is that athletes using brain endurance training get used to running/cycling/swimming in conditions of mental fatigue similar to those experienced during long races.”
While the mental training tasks he gave the study participants are designed to specifically trigger overload in the anterior cingulate cortex, any kind of mental task that requires focus can also help condition your brain to deal with mental fatigue.
Marcora found in a review of the literature on psychological training for endurance sports that mental fatigue is one of the most common things that undermines performance, because of the altered perception of how hard the effort is. Visualization, self-talk, and appropriate goal setting were all also found to help improve performance.
Practice Makes Perfect
When you visualize what will happen in a race, Zakrewski says, the same muscles fire as when you’re actually running. That can be a good chance to play through, in your head, what you want to do, especially what you want to do when things get tough.
Ghelfi said he likes to visualize the actual race course, break it into sections, and picture the hard parts. “It’s good to not expect it to be easy,” he says.
You can also practice what you say in your head. The problem that a lot of people have with positive self-talk, in the traditional sense, is that we know when we don’t really believe what we’re telling ourselves. “We can tell when other people are BSing, so when we’re doing it to ourselves we know all the time,” says Zakrewski. Instead, she suggests stepping back and re-framing the issue. Instead of thinking about how far behind you are of your goal pace, you could think about what the opportunity is: a chance to see how much faster you can go in the second half, or maybe you’re dealing with adverse conditions well, or you’re behind your A goal but you’re well ahead of your B goal.
The most important thing is to work on these things in practice, or they won’t work in a race. Afremow actually believes that how we view practice and races is entirely upside-down. Instead of stressing out about races, we should focus on improving in workouts and try our hardest to get better on training days. Then, the race is just “a fancy practice,” he says.
Athletes typically get to a race, Afremow says, and lose confidence or tense up. Instead of thinking about all the ways they’re prepared and staying loose, they think about how they’re not as good as this other person, or about how they feel awful. That’s why one of Afremow’s favorite quotes, from Olympic gold medalist Maurice Greene is: “Train like you’re number two, race like you’re number one.”
But whether you’re training your brain to withstand mental fatigue or reminding yourself in the middle of the marathon that rough patches pass, remember one thing: you like running and this is what you do for fun.
“No one ever calls me and says they’re keeping things too simple or they’re having too much fun,” says Afremow.
Originally published on March 24, 2015. Updated on August 16, 2018.