Without even realising it, many of us will have set out on our running journey with rigid beliefs in the backs of our minds: beliefs such as, “I’m so slow”; “I’ll never get faster”; or “I could never run a marathon”. We believe these so completely that they become more than just thoughts – they become facts.
However, the mind is a powerful tool, so by believing these negative statements, we really are limiting ourselves. What if, instead, we believed we could run further, faster, stronger? What would we go on to achieve?
“A limiting mindset can prevent you from achieving your optimal performance,” says Dr Rhonda Cohen, a registered sports and exercise psychologist, and head of the London Sport Institute at Middlesex University. “Beliefs can be unrealistic and based on previous experiences. For example, ‘I can’t run a marathon as I was always useless at PE’, or ‘I’ll never lose weight as everyone in my family is overweight’. Distracting thoughts can then lead to emotional constraints, such as high anxiety, worry or fear. A limiting mindset can range from being uncomfortable to being a complete barrier to you ever achieving your goal.”
Bernadette Dancy PhD, a senior lecturer in health and physical activity at St Mary’s University, London, agrees that the right mindset is hugely important for running – or indeed any physical activity.
“As humans, we are predetermined to want to demonstrate our competence when performing any skill or task,” she says. “After all, who wants to look bad or incompetent? So if you think you’re not going to be able to do something, you’re less likely to a) start or b) stick to it. Why would anyone start running if they thought they were going to be bad at it, or thought it was going to injure them? I have a lot of women say to me, ‘Oh, I can’t run.’ When I ask them why, they often reply, ‘I’m too big’; ‘My boobs will hurt’; or ‘I’m not fit enough – everyone will look at me’. They have already decided the outcome before they start – that they won’t be competent and therefore won’t attempt it.”
Dancy also realises that mindset has a huge impact on more experienced runners, too.
“I have known runners who have said, ‘I can’t run a faster minute mile pace’ or ‘I need to stop’. If they listen to this inner self-talk while running, it will become their reality, negatively affecting their performance.”
So, just how do you turn that negative mindset into a positive one?
Dancy believes that one of the most effective ways to achieve a stronger mindset for running is to identify how you can demonstrate competence – and, for beginners, often the trick to this is to simply start really slowly.
“In my experience, people start running far too quickly and set themselves up for failure,” she says. “They believe they need to run fast. But after a few minutes, they have to stop and then they interpret this as not being competent – that they can’t run. But they did run, so they can run! Running is running – it doesn’t matter how long for. When working with a client, I get them to change their expectations of how fast they need to run to be a ‘runner’, and how long they need to run for. Then I encourage slow progress – so slow that they don’t even notice it’s getting harder. But then one day, they look back at what they’ve achieve and think, ‘Wow, I’m running!’”
Dancy is quick to point out that, in order to not set yourself up for a fall, your new-found positive mindset needs to be achievable – there’s no point repeating to yourself that you’re going to run at eight-minute mile pace on your next training run if this simply is not realistic.
“A positive mindset means having a gentle inner voice that’s both positive and realistic,” she says.
So, if your goal is to be able to run at eight-minute-mile pace, but you’re currently at 10-minute-mile pace, you can absolutely tell yourself you will get there – but that your achievement will come from devising (and sticking with) a comprehensive training plan, in order for your pace to increase gradually over a specified time period.
Here are Dancy’s five top tips on how to create a positive mindset…
1/ Try ‘thought stopping’
Use this technique to replace any negative thoughts that come into your head as you run. Because running won’t always go to plan or feel easy, however much we’d like it to! Most of us will experience a point in every run when we think, “This is horrible – I want to stop”. As soon as you catch yourself thinking this, try replacing the negative thought with a more positively phrased one. For example, “OK, this feels a bit hard, but hard means I’m pushing myself, which means I’m progressing, and I will feel awesome when I get home knowing I stuck it out”.
2/ Challenge your beliefs
Think you can’t run further or faster? Where’s your evidence for this? There is unlikely to be any. The body is designed to adapt to training. So, if you place it under appropriate demands and train energy systems in the right way, then you /will/ and /can/ run further or faster. Why not consult a running coach or personal trainer? If they find evidence to support your mindset that you’re already running as fast or far as you can, then you’re a rare breed! Most coaches will be able to adapt your training to allow for progression. Your body will follow your mind’s lead – you just need to allow it to be pushed.
3/ Keep a training diary
By writing down times, distance and heart rates, you will be able to look back and see progress. No matter how small this progress is, it will improve your confidence and perceived competence.
4/ Be patient and realistic
It can take at least six weeks to get the physiological adaptations needed that will allow you to run faster, and this might be translated as just a second or two off a PB or a pace. But progress is progress. Train sensibly, and set realistic yet challenging goals.
5/ Get a running buddy or coach
Running with a friend or enlisting the help of a coach means you will have someone on hand to encourage you and keep you accountable. If you run with a friend, you will be less likely to miss a training session, meaning you will start seeing positive changes, and develop a more positive, confident mindset on the back of this. And a coach will create a training plan especially for you that you can trust, helping to give you the self-belief that you can push yourself that bit harder.
So, stop that self-sabotage and banish your negative frame of mind. Instead, put this advice into practice… and who know what you might achieve with your running in 2017?
Words: Claire Chamberlain