Ever heard the phrase running is 90% mental and 10% physical? We spend lots of time working on fine tuning the physical, but how often do we work on strengthening the mental. For me, the mental aspect is key, especially when the race or workout gets difficult. And let’s face it, as much as we all love running, running is hard sometimes. That is part of what makes it so rewarding. Nevertheless, there are times during workouts and races when inevitably those negative thoughts creep into our heads. This should not be surprising, as we often push our body to its limits, especially when racing. I have told Coach G on more than one occasion that the mental aspects of training can at times feel just as tough for me as the physical aspects. I feel too slow, too injured, too old, too tired, too something. I am not alone in my negative thinking. A recent study showed that pessimism is the number one mental roadblock among runners. Negative thinking patterns can have a detrimental impact on our training. From staying in bed to cutting working shorts to considering dropping out of a race, if we are not thinking positive thoughts we are not getting the most out of our hard work.
Overcoming negativity is a personal and ongoing process for me, as it is for most runners, but one that can be largely assisted by my coach and teammates. Before joining the Betties I had Coach G confirm on more than one occasion that she would actually coach me. Having read and heard all about her impressive running resume I was not sure I was qualified. “Are you sure you’ll coach me?” I asked. “But you know what pace I run!” To which she always laughed and responded with a kind, “Yes, of course.” and “I’m looking to coach the most committed runners.” Committed I can do!
So I showed up, practice after practice, often affectionately and sometimes not so affectionately referring to myself in my head as “The Caboose” because I was always last. But you know what? This was me telling me these things, not my teammates and not my coach. Day after day and week after week my coach and teammates were there to encourage and support me and others no matter what pace we were running. And they’ve been the ones helping me silence the negative thoughts that try to sabotage my workouts and racing. Here are some specific strategies that have helped me keep the negative thoughts at bay and fuel my runs with more positivity. Try a few and maybe you will find one or two that will work for you.
Show Up. It takes courage to show up to practices consistently so don’t discount that. Do not worry about your pace, worry about running effort based workouts that are right for your body on any given day. Somebody has to run in the back and if it is you, congratulations, you are well ahead of all of the people that didn’t show up!
Find a Mantra. When negative thoughts creep in, it is often helpful to find a positive mantra to repeat in your head. Practice during training runs and find something that works for you to have in your pocket for race day. I personally have repeated the phrases “Tight makes light” and “Strong, powerful, beautiful” in my head during races and tough workouts to distract myself from other thoughts. I am not sure where they came from, but I have found the rhythmic nature of those phrases helpful for some reason. Other examples could be: fast, tall, go, swift, this mile, or breathe. And while you are at it, remember to practice some positive self talk. Congratulate yourself for making it to practice and remind yourself that you are doing something positive for your body. When you are climbing that hill, tell yourself, “I am great at climbing hills” or “I know how to do this,” and remember to smile!
Visualize. Sometimes when I start to think negatively during a run I will visualize a stop sign in front of me. As in “Stop the negative thinking! It’s not helpful!” Often just that is enough to help redirect my thoughts. Focusing on breathing and footfalls can also help as well as visualizing yourself running in perfect form. And remember that fatigue can be highly subjective. A 2012 study tested cyclists against a computerized competitor in two trials. In one test, the cyclists were told that the computerized opponent was riding at the cyclists’ personal best, when in reality, the opponent was riding faster. In the second test, they were told the competitor was speedier. When the cyclists knew their opponent was faster, they could not keep up, but when they thought they were evenly matched (even though the opponent was in reality riding faster) they rode faster. Our minds are very powerful!
Break the race or run up into smaller pieces. The last mile of the last 5k I ran was difficult. I started to berate myself with thoughts like “I’m not fast enough” and “I should just jog it in.” When I looked up at the street sign and saw I was at 17th Street and knew I had to make it all the way back to 8th, I felt particularly deflated. I pictured the red Stop sign and tried to focus on making it one block at a time. Breaking the race into smaller chunks helped make the remainder of the race more manageable, and I was at the finish line before I knew it.
Reframe your Thoughts. Instead of thinking “What could go wrong?”, think “What could go right?” Instead of thinking, “What if I fail?”, try thinking, “What if I exceed my expectations today?” Take your negative thought and try to rephrase it to something positive. Think of the obstacles you might face, how you would approach them, and what you might learn from them even if things do not work out the way you want them to. I trained for a half marathon all summer and found out just a few days before the race that they changed the course due to construction, thereby making it 13.4 miles instead of 13.1 miles. My initial reaction was negative. “Why wouldn’t they cut the course somewhere else? How would I possibly get a PR on a long course?” Then I realized I would not have a good run or good race if I went into it with that much negativity. So I revised my goal time accordingly and arrived at the start line ready to have fun and enjoy a nice fall run through the heart of my beautiful city.
Run with Awesome People. I knew I had found something special in The Betties when mere weeks after I had joined the team I ran The Race to Robie Creek and my teammates postponed their post-race trip to the beer table in order to wait at the finish line and cheer me on. Although we all come from different walks of life and many of us are in different stages of life, our love of running brings us together. Some of us run fast and some of us run slow, but we are all committed to running, to the team and to supporting each other, which makes it a wonderful and encouraging environment.
Hire a Fantastic Coach. A great running coach is like a therapist and personal trainer combined. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings Coach G pushes us physically while shouting encouraging words into our ears and the results are phenomenal. I’ve told Coach G before that she is like the little angel on my shoulder with the positive thoughts to combat the devilish thoughts that my brain so readily provides. And I can tell you from experience that on race day even when Coach G is not there running alongside you, you’ll still hear her shouting in your ear, “You are strong! You trained hard to race easy!” And the best part is that you will know in your heart it is true.