In running, training your mind is just as important as training your body. That might seem odd considering it's your lungs, legs and heart doing all the work.
But research, including this April 2016 study in Cognition and Emotion, have shown the incredible influence of mindset and mental endurance on performance. Your thoughts, internal dialogue and emotional state all contribute to the outcome of your running on any given day.
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Whether you are looking to make it through 30 minutes without stopping or setting your sights on a personal best in your next marathon, you can use mental techniques to improve many aspects of your running.
Here, a running coach and psychologist offer some strategies. Practicing these mental exercises can help you achieve your running goals and, at the very least, make your miles more fun.
1. Give Yourself Options
Some runs are a slog, and sometimes the more you try to run through it, the worse you feel. Social worker and eating disorder specialist Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, LCSW, CEDS, urges you to give yourself options.
"Always start with giving yourself the option to not finish," Roth-Goldberg tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Then you are doing something you're choosing to do. Automatically, you're saying, 'I want to do this,' which hopefully relaxes your body and maybe helps you continue."
While you will most often keep going in a better headspace, you don't always have to finish. Roth-Goldberg says giving yourself that space allows you to try again and feel better the next day.
"The brain-body connection is important in any sport," she says. "In running, when you give your brain the option to stop, it sets your body up to feel safe. The brain says, 'I can listen to my body, and I can take care of my body.' Having that trust will help both your brain and body relax and have more enjoyable runs."
2. Try Mindfulness
Mindfulness in everyday life is a way to ease anxieties and be more present. In running, it is an incredible way to do the same.
"One of the best things about running is that it's really easy to be mindful in the way of grounding yourself to where you are in space," Roth-Goldberg says. "To be mindful on a run, try looking at the environment and then noting things like: That's a nice tree, that's a nice house. This road is flat, this road is long. That is a mindfulness technique that grounds you. By grounding, you are calming your whole system, which then relieves some stress from your body where you might have been holding tension."
Roth-Goldberg says another great mindfulness practice is tuning into your body sensations. Think about how each of your muscles is feeling. Make note if something feels strong, tight, tired or painful. If there is discomfort, you can pay attention to your gait or arm swing and make adjustments. Even more importantly, if you tune into your body and find any new soreness, you might be able to stop a potential injury in its tracks.
3. Distract Yourself
If tuning in to your body isn't going your way, there is a benefit to tuning out. Erica Coviello, CPT, RRCA-certified running coach, finds that many of her athletes benefit from taking their minds away from the run. "You can make to-do lists," she tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Daily, weekly, personal, work, goals — anything goes."
There are many options for distraction. "Get creative," Coviello says. "Go through things you have memorized, like dialogue from your favorite Friends episode, song lyrics, the periodic table in numerical order, state names alphabetically, muscles and bones in the human body, the [New York] Yankees batting lineup from 1996!"
4. Solve Problems
Seasoned runners know a few miles can help with mental clarity. The effects of running on your brain are remarkable — about 30 minutes of aerobic work results in increased blood flow to your hippocampus, which controls emotions, concentration and planning,
Coviello often uses all that extra blood flow to think through life's problems. "Pick a problem you need to solve, and while running, go through all kinds of scenarios in your head. Ask yourself, 'what if?' and finish the sentence."
5. Practice Positive Self-Talk
In a November 2017 study in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, researchers set out to find out if positive self-talk improved performance in endurance athletes (in this case cycling in hot conditions) and found that it did indeed contribute to better results. A larger July 2011 meta-analysis in Perspectives on Psychological Science concluded that "interventions including self-talk training were more effective than those not including self-talk training." All this to say, there is science that backs up the use of positive, powerful words.
Roth-Golberg says that when runs get tough and negativity enters our brains, it can spiral. She explains that the presence of positive thoughts and mantras automatically redirects your mind from discomfort, tiredness or any thought that might get in your way.
"For example, let's say your mantra is 'I can do this' — you are actively not thinking or engaging in negative thoughts. It shuts them off by choosing to focus on something else, and it quiets any anxieties."
She advises choosing a mantra before a hard training session or race. "When I think of a mantra, I think of something that is one sentence that can be repeated. For athletes just starting out, I like 'forward is a pace.' It is calming and reminds you that you are moving forward. Other simple phrases like 'I've got this' are confidence-boosting," she says. "But it has to be something you believe. When you develop your mantra, think about what you want it to make you feel and what you know you are capable of."
6. Play a Game
Running is not supposed to be a chore, but everyone knows it can sometimes feel that way. If you need to make a run more enjoyable, challenge yourself to a game.
"Scavenger hunts are awesome — bonus points for taking pictures," Coviello says. She also recommends fartleks, which translates from Swedish to English as "speed play."
When doing fartleks, you run a certain distance or time slow, medium or fast. For example, run slow for 30 seconds, then medium for 10 seconds, then fast for 20 seconds. You can also use objects as markers. Try running slowly to one tree, then going at a moderate pace to a mailbox.
It is incredible how much distance you will cover by adjusting your speeds or by focusing on objects to run to in the distance. Just be sure not to go too fast if the run you are completing is supposed to be an easy run.
7. Think About Your 'Why'
When you're out on the road and things get tough, tapping into your why can instantly turn a run from feeling meh to amazing.
"Ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Is it for mental health? Heart health? General fitness? Competition — with yourself or others? Whatever it is, focus on that," Coviello says.
Next, list the smaller reasons for your why: Do you have a goal race, do you want to have more energy or do you just want to feel better? Then come up with other ways — outside of running — that will help you accomplish these goals."
8. Perform a Mental Recap
When you train your mind, you can make runs that feel great happen more often. When a client of Roth-Goldberg's feels strong on a run, she asks them to analyze why.
"When you get home from a successful run, make a note — literally pen to paper or on your phone — of the reasons why it felt good," Roth-Goldberg says.
For new runners who will go through peaks and valleys in training, this note will be a reminder of why you started running in the first place. All runners can retrieve the memory of a good run for later use.
"Ask yourself, 'when I was feeling strong on that hill, what was I thinking?' Or 'what was I looking at or what helped me mentally push?'" Roth-Goldberg says. "You can recall that information and feeling and utilize it at your next race."
Level Up Your Running!
- Cognition and Emotion: "Acute aerobic exercise helps overcome emotion regulation deficits"
- Journal of Applied Sport Psychology: "Beat the Heat: Effects of a Motivational Self-Talk Intervention on Endurance Performance"
- Perspectives on Psychological Science: "Self-Talk and Sports Performance: A Meta-Analysis"