Running is a very simplistic, raw sport. It places you at the absolute extreme of your physical abilities, and it pushes your mind to places of pain, doubt, and fear that you either succumb to or choose to breakthrough. I’m far from an expert in these matters, but I’ve had a lot of practice working on my mental game the last several years, and I’ve shared some of my thoughts below.
Control the things you can, and don’t stress about the rest.
The number one thing that comes to mind that you can’t control is your competitors. I can’t control how much anyone else is training, what their race plan is, or what their abilities are. While it’s important to be aware of your competitors and their abilities, concern about them cannot consume you because it will take away focus on yourself and your strengths.
So what things can you control? You can control how hard you work in your training, how much time and effort, both mental and physical, you put into being the best possible athlete. You can eat well, get plenty of rest, focus on recovery, and give yourself a mental break from running, whether you’re a “Netflix and Chill” kind of person or a social butterfly. And even when you do all that you can to prepare and plan ahead, some things will inevitably come up and disrupt your plans, like a canceled flight, twisting your ankle on the warm-up, or 50 mph winds and rain on race day. You just have to learn to shake those things off because stress will only take away from your positive mental energy.
Focus on the task at hand.
This is one of my go-to mantras for tough workouts. The whole workout can sometimes seem overwhelming, so I break it down to small, achievable steps. Say I’m running 15 x 200 @ 31 seconds. I tell myself the task at hand is to run a single 200 m at 31 seconds. That’s all I think about, and that’s a very doable step. This works great for me in tempo workouts too, which are the most taxing mental workouts for me. A 4-mile tempo seems to drag on for ages, so I tell myself that all I have to do is focus on running a 42-second 200. (You can tell my focus is best for less than a minute). A 42-second 200 is basically a jog, so I just tell myself to run that one at a time instead of focusing on maintaining a 5:30ish pace for 4 miles.
This works for looking ahead in training too. At the start of the season, and particularly after injury, you often feel out of shape and struggle to complete runs at what was once an easy jogging pace. Your first workout is laughable, and you can’t imagine how you will ever get back to your peak. Instead, focus only on what that day’s objective is, and focus on being just the slightest bit better than the day before. Taking it one day at a time helps break down a seemingly impossible goal into manageable steps.
Self-confidence. Believe in yourself more than anyone else believes in you.
Most starting lines I step on these days I’m not the best runner. I’m not the most talented, I don’t have the best credentials or PRs, and I probably don’t run as much. But that doesn’t stop me from believing 100% that I have the ability to win the race. I definitely don’t win every race, but I put myself in a mental mindset ready to do what it takes to win. To me, self-confidence means setting high goals and having an unbreakable belief in your ability to go after those goals. You will have setbacks and injuries, and it may take much longer to reach your goals than you wanted, but you keep striving relentlessly towards them, knowing you have what it takes. You have no doubts of what you are capable of.
The best way I’ve found to prep for future races is through visualization. I begin by imagining the start line, which is the scariest part for me. I focus on how I will feel strong, confident, like a coiled spring ready to explode. I imagine several different race scenarios, from a sit-and-kick race where I close in sub-60 to front-running in a PR. I like to be ready for anything, and by imaging any possible race scenario in my head I can practice how I will respond in a real race.
I try to go further than just seeing different race scenarios in my head; I imagine how I’ll feel at different points in the race. I imagine how it may feel too fast at halfway, but I’ll be able to hold on. I think about the burning that will already be starting when I hit the bell, but how I’ll be able to sprint even faster off of that pace. I especially focus on that final move, somewhere in the last 150, where I hit my absolute top gear and how from that point I won’t let anyone past me. And of course, in my visualizations, I always win:)
Learn to cope with bad workouts.
Everyone has bad workouts. They’re a natural part of training! If you never have a bad workout, you probably aren’t trying hard enough. I’ve had my share of horrendous workouts (I once ran 4 x mile in 6:27, 6:30, 6:46, 7:06 when I was supposed to run 6:30, 6:20, 6:10, 6:00. My running log says “Worst workout time-wise in my life. Moving on, gotta have one horrible workout a season and now mine’s out of the way”).
The key to bad workouts is how you bounce back. I usually run through a brief check-list in my head (Were the weather conditions bad? How was my eating/hydration/sleep? Was this workout too ambitious or was I not mentally engaged?) Sometimes I see a pattern and have something tangible to fix, but other times there’s really no explanation, and you have to have a short-term memory about those bad days. One bad workout, or even a few in a row, does not indicate that your season is done or that you can’t continue to improve. Take bad workouts in stride, accept that no one is perfect, and move on with a fresh attitude for the next one.
Learn to be happy with your best, even if you wanted better.
So many times I’ve walked away from a race where I didn’t quite hit my goal time or just missed out on the win or my goal place. I feel frustrated and anxious for the next time out on the track to prove to myself that I’m better than that. Sometimes I even ran a PR in these races or beat people I’ve never beaten before!
The problem with this reaction is that my goal time or place is an arbitrary number. A time doesn’t determine your effort, just as a loss doesn’t mean you didn’t try. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have time or place goals; these are essential to keep focused on improving and being competitive. Instead, consider your physical effort and mental engagement during the race. Did I really do everything I could to respond to moves and tactics, get the most effort out of myself, and kick with everything I had at the end? If the answer is yes, then you have to accept that you gave everything you had and be proud of the achievement.
Never set limits on yourself.
It’s easy to watch people way faster than you and think “I’ll never be able to do that. How do people even run that fast?” I felt like this when I first went to college and my coach told me her 5k PR was 16:40. I didn’t even know women could do that! And when I learned that women in my event, the mile, were running in the 4:30’s, that blew my mind. I just wanted to break 5 minutes. But every time you take a step forward, the next step becomes a bit more realistic. Once I broke 5 in the mile, the next goal was to run a little faster to qualify for nationals. After finishing 5th as a Junior, my new goal was to win the following year. And even this year, when I ran 4:26 at Boston, a time I once thought inconceivable, I felt GOOD. So good that 4:20 no longer seems unattainable, just maybe a few years down the road.
The point is, no one knows exactly how good they’ll get one day. So don’t set boundaries on yourself before you have a chance to break them. As Albert Einstein once said, “Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them”.