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Training your mind is an often-overlooked piece of training. But in recent years, mental training has gained traction. Runners of all levels are finding a competitive edge by practicing skills to help them run their best.
The mind-body connection is backed by science. Studies have shown how effective training the brain can be. That’s because, as Kirstin Ritchie, a psychiatric nurse practitioner and running coach explains, our brain and body should be viewed as one.
“We train our legs, and we train our heart, and we train our muscles to withstand running, but our mind controls all of that,” says Ritchie. “Training the mind can help all the other parts of our body perform better.”
The 4 Main Pillars of Mental Training
When experts and coaches talk about mental training in running, it boils down to a few core principles: resilience, goal setting, self-confidence, and trust. In practicing mindfulness, reframing, and imagery, you can build yourself in to a more confident, resilient, and calm runner.
Working through miles, finishing speed sessions–this requires a certain amount of tenacity. So, what keeps you going?
Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, licensed clinical social worker, urges you to answer that question early on as part of your mental work. Roth-Goldberg knows the importance of this firsthand. She is a runner who regularly works with runners.
“We have to think of intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation,” says Roth-Goldberg. Extrinsic goals, she explains, means you are driven to run because of external factors like rewards, times, or recognition. “An extrinsic goal might be running a Boston qualifier or a personal best,” she says.
But the need to cross a finish line or get PR might not be enough to get you through your longest long run if you are internally hating every minute of every mile. To make it easier on yourself, finding what you enjoy about it–your intrinsic motivation–can help you focus on the reason you keep going.
“Intrinsic motivations for running might be that you feel free when you run, you enjoy running with friends, you enjoy the community of a race,” says Roth-Goldberg. “They are valuable no matter what happens externally. Plus, internal motivators are there when you miss extrinsic goals, which can help you bounce back despite disappointment.”
Setting and Achieving Goals
Just because intrinsic motivation is the foundation of your running life doesn’t mean extrinsic goals aren’t important. Ritchie emphasizes how even extrinsic goals should be less outcome-oriented and more process-oriented.
“If someone wants to BQ, I want them to focus on what it takes to get there” she says. “Focus on what we must do this week, this month, this training block. That means smaller goals. And so, for one person, that could look like running consistently five days a week. For another athlete, it could mean getting to the physical therapist that week. For every runner, it’s like, what’s the purpose of today’s run. How can I be my best today during this run? Focusing on the day-to-day is how we take the focus away from the ultimate goal of BQ-ing and just focus on what we can control each day.”
The first step in building confidence as a runner is to acknowledge that you are a runner.
“No matter the level you are, whether you run twice a week or every day, or whether you’re a five-hour marathoner or a sub three-hour marathoner, believe that you are runner,” says Ritchie. “That gives you permission to say that running’s important to me. And developing a strong sense of self within that athletic identity builds self-confidence.”
The enemy of confidence is self-doubt, which can ruin runs and set us up for failure at races even if you strongly identify as a runner. Self-doubt comes in many forms–anxiety about race day, stress about your performance, or fear of failure to meet extrinsic goals.
Roth-Goldberg says many runners don’t even realize that their everyday thought patterns are contributing to self-doubt.
“The very first step in building confidence is being aware of your internal thoughts,” says Roth-Goldberg. “So, before you can change them, we have to know what they are. The prescription for this is to capture your thoughts immediately after a run. Spend two minutes journaling or put it in a voice memo on your phone. Answer: How do I feel and what am I thinking? This is where [you] can identify the negative thoughts and really target, changing them around.”
Changing them doesn’t mean replacing them with something untrue or unrealistic. Talking back to the doubt with believable affirmations can put your mind at ease.
“When a negative thought pops up, ask yourself, ‘What can I tell myself that I also believe?’” says Roth-Goldberg. “That might be, ‘I ran faster this week than last week’ or ‘I am making progress.’”
Roth-Goldberg says to also pay attention to the good things you are thinking. When you notice them, jot them down. They are weapons of truth that you can use to talk back to anxiety. Quick phrases like “This feels good” or “I feel strong today” or “I’m running free” can be repeated as a mantra when you need a quick pick-me-up.
The best part about working on this part of your running is the ripple effect it can have on the other areas of your life.
“Confidence in running will translate to other parts of your life,” says Ritchie. “And sometimes the confidence in other parts of your life can help you build confidence in running. That increased confidence in all areas can contribute to improving performance.”
Building a trusting relationship between your mind and body will help performance in races and training. Essentially you want to get to a point where your brain is quiet and allows your body to function without hesitation, judgement, or anxiety.
At the most basic level, your body needs to trust that your brain won’t put it in harm’s way. Roth-Goldberg says she sees way too many runners neglecting their own basic needs. If, for example, a runner is thirsty but does not take in water, your body will feel betrayed. One easy way to start establishing trust is to check in with yourself while you are on a run.
“Go through a body scan and see if there is anything bothering you,” says Roth-Goldberg. “If you are recovering from an injury, start there and ask yourself how it is feeling. Is there pain? From there, check your breath. Ask if you are hungry. The more you pay attention, the more you will start to naturally do body scans. You will notice patterns and adjust.”
One surefire way to create a trusting relationship, Roth-Goldberg says, is to give yourself a choice. If you are struggling through a run, ask if you really want to be out there. Most often, you can think about your intrinsic motivation and feel good about finishing. But if you are experiencing pain or insurmountable fatigue and you call it quits, that will signal to your body that your brain is taking good care of it.
Once your body’s basic needs are met, the level of trust can evolve. The brain might not understand the body’s potential. One effective way to remedy that disconnect is to use imagery. “Imagery is your brain recreating a scenario,” says Roth-Goldberg. “To do this for running, you would recall a very detailed scene of a time you felt confident and strong in training or at a race.”
To achieve the best results, close your eyes and sit in a comfortable position. Visualize yourself on the run and then add in other senses. Smell coffee shops you pass on your route, listen to your footsteps, or feel a cold breeze coming from a nearby river.
“No matter what setting you are in, make sure you are reminding yourself that you are enjoying the run,” says Roth-Goldberg. “Say in your mind ‘I’m enjoying this. This feels good. I feel energized. I feel fast,’ or ‘I feel smooth.’ By recalling this positive experience and saying affirmations and mantras related to it, your mind will build new neuropathways. This will link your physical and mental experience.”
Creating an imagery practice probably sounds more intimidating than it is. Roth-Goldberg says to start with just three minutes. “It’s like meditation,” she says. “Start small and build up to five minutes. You can do it three times a week with great results.”
Using imagery regularly can also increase the likelihood of experiencing flow state, which is when your mind becomes completely immersed in the activity at hand. Even if you do not reach flow state on race day, creating a solid brain-body relationship can help you get into the groove enough to feel fresh and run a solid race. That means a decreased heartrate, looser muscles, and overall, less nervous bodily sensations–all factors that can literally shave minutes or seconds from your time.
If you are a runner who experiences pre-race jitters or even pre-workout worries, first, know that you are not alone. Also know that there are ways to combat these issues. Ritchie helps her athletes by identifying how they experience the anxiety.
“I ask, ‘are you experiencing it with sweaty palms?’” she says. “Are you experiencing it with increased heart rate? Are you experiencing it with difficulty breathing or are you experiencing a lot of negative thoughts and emotions?”
Remedying the feelings will vary on the individual. For the physiological symptoms, Ritchie says to start simple and focus on your breathing. “Before a race or run, take some time to take a few deep breaths. You could inhale for a count of three and exhale for a count of three. It doesn’t even need to be that specific. But breathe, then try to relax your shoulders. Go through a body scan as well, and just kind of relax your muscles and relax your body.”
If it’s less physical and more that your negative thoughts are bothering you and causing stress, you do not have to push them away or ignore them.
“Accept the thoughts,” says Ritchie. “You can say, ‘OK, I’m scared right now. I’m anxious and it’s OK to be scared. It’s okay to be fearful because that means that I care about this.’ Then reframe the anxious thought to a more neutral thought. So, we’re not trying to say, ‘Oh, anxiety’s great!’ But we are trying to say, ‘OK, I accept that I have the anxiety because I care about this, and it can actually help me. The adrenaline I’m getting from this can help me run faster.’”
Ritchie also encourages anxious athletes to remind themselves that the result of a run or race does not define them. “It comes down to detaching self-worth from outcomes,” she says. “Instead of putting so much judgment and self-worth into a performance, try to view it in a non-judgmental way. If a run or race goes bad, you say, ‘OK, this is what went wrong.’ Not ‘I did not do well and so I am a bad person.’ It’s really easy to not even recognize you’re doing that. But the more you work on viewing it from a neutral place, the more pre-race anxiety also decreases because so much isn’t tied up into the outcome.”