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Staying Mentally Sharp In All Seasons Of Running

Being mentally tough as competitive runners is an ongoing challenge. Learn how to stay focused after a string of bad races, injuries or negative feedback.

Training your mind is just as important as training your body when it comes to anything, but especially with running. All the miles in the world won’t matter if you haven’t learned how to manage your pain threshold and conquer race anxiety. In the distance running community, we tend to pride ourselves on a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude and our ability to push through fatigue.

But even for the most experienced runners, being mentally tough is an ongoing challenge. How do we stay excited after a string of bad performances? How do we stay engaged in our sport when we’ve been injured for months? And how do we deal with the negative feedback we might receive, both externally and internally?

To answer these questions, many elite athletes turn to sports psychologists to help them understand the chaos of their wins, losses, and all the in between. “Just like the body, by stressing and allowing the mind to recover it also becomes stronger,” says performance coach and mental toughness expert Steve Magness. “We cannot continuously use our mind (at least not effectively) without at some point experiencing fatigue. And we cannot take on more sizable psychological challenges without first building strength through smaller ones.”

Runners know that if you want to perform better, you have to think better, though it’s much easier said than done. We reinforce what we can and cannot do through our own fears and doubts, and consequently, these fears and doubts show up in our performances. Making a habit of thinking positively, in and out of training, is a key focus for Sports Psychologist Kim Dawson, who works with elite distance runners from the U.S. and Canada on improving their mental game.

“We have many discussions about restructuring original thoughts and emotions into more productive responses. At the beginning [of their professional career], I keep them mentally consistent and as they mature within running, see successful results, and invest in their careers they develop this skill set on their own,” says Dawson. “My goal is for the runners that I work with to be able to get themselves out of any potentially unproductive situation either mentally, emotionally or behaviorally. It’s a skill developed through running that transfers over into a very productive daily skill.”

Elite runners have a way of putting a positive spin on everything, even after a bad race or a string of injuries. Poise and maintaining a level head, both play a large role in the attitude of professional runners, which isn’t always the case in athletics. They also know that positivity encourages productivity and eventually becomes a habit. After Northern Arizona Elite’s Stephanie Bruce admitted that she was heartbroken after taking 11th place at the New York City Marathon, she took to Instagram to say, “Some days just getting to the damn finish line is a huge win, that was today for me.”

Bruce, along with most professionals, knows that it doesn’t pay to dwell on a poor performance. Doing so can start a trend of doubts and interfere with preparation for the next one. When it comes to a bad race, Dawson says, “I validate their first reaction which is the emotions of disappointment, frustration, anger, sadness, etc. I give them a time period. For example, I’ll say go for it tonight. Have a great old pity party. Let it out. I want them to dive into the emotion with full commitment.”

“Second, I let them know that we will talk the next day and by then they need to be in place to be able to discuss the race. At this point they will be on their way back up mentally and physically,” says Dawson. “I’m glad that an athlete feels these things. It means that they believe that can do better. That’s a good thing. However, they can’t stay in their first emotions. They will destroy them. So they have to move through them and we do that together. We develop a productive response based on their reactions. We identify what worked in the race and what we will keep for next time and where our opportunities for growth are.”

Most professional runners let us in on their everyday lives through social media. Their posts of training, traveling and racing all over the world allow us to live vicariously through them and idolize their lifestyles. Because of their ability to broadcast their experiences this way, much of the elite running community garners support from their fans via social media (e.g. Shalane Flanagan before the New York Marathon).

However, this isn’t always the case. Naturally, the career of a professional athlete comes with many highs and lows. Take a look at Jordan Hasay, a highly successful distance runner with the Nike Oregon Project. How does she manage to remain optimistic after withdrawing from the Boston and Chicago Marathons this year? Comments such as, “Hasay can’t hang with the big dogs,” and, “Well, she had a nice career. Looks like Salazar has ruined another young female talent. Hope she saved her pennies,” flooded just minutes after news broke that she wouldn’t be racing Chicago. When an elite runner is experiencing success, they receive support, consequently when they are struggling, they receive criticism.

Although it’s hard to believe Hasay is dwelling on the comments of her critics, or even bothering to read them in the first place. Based on her attitude in recent interviews and on Instagram, she’s mastered the ability to rise above, which is inevitable in her profession. Dawson says that if her athletes feel pressure rather than support through social media, they’re encouraged to remove themselves from it, especially if they’re headed into major races such as the Olympics. Even if you’re not a professional, this advice is one that transfers no matter how often you toe the start line.

Unlike other sports that involve multiple games a week, runners know they have to take advantage of the little time they spend competing. One of the major components to staying mentally engaged during those short seasons of racing actually involves mentally disengaging yourself from it. Dawson’s philosophy towards professional distance running is like a pyramid.

“The first layer of the base is less about running and investing in life by reacquainting with friends and family, nurturing their soul through hobbies, perhaps working part time or going to school,” says Dawson. “From there, they slowly add more running and less other activities until they peak for a significant event such as the Olympics. I don’t want athletes to focus on running exclusively all the time. It’s about building a holistic identity that incorporates running. I always say to the runners that running should be something that contributes to a well-orchestrated life, not something that detracts from it. Everyone needs time to mentally and physically check out.”