Put a stop to self-sabotage and revolutionise your running. Whether you’re training for a 5K or an ultra, these mental strategies will help re-wire your thinking – and improve your running as a result. Written by Katie Campbell Spyrka.
Mental strength and resilience are qualities we often associate with athletes who spend vast amounts of time in the ‘hurt locker’ – people whose unfathomable feats of endurance seem worlds away from our own running goals.
But while more and more elite athletes are sharing how mastering their mindset became a game-changer in achieving their performance goals, building a toolbox of mental strategies isn’t just for the pros – it could improve your performance and confidence too.“People often think that developing a resilient and powerful mindset is something that only applies to professional athletes and Olympians, but that’s just not true,” explains mindset coach Adelaide Goodeve, who works with athletes of all ages and abilities.
“By working on your mental resilience, you can maintain a positive mindset, stay motivated, knock minutes off your PB and achieve your running goals.”
Reassuringly, mental strategies don’t have to be intimidating, time-consuming or complicated in order to work. Ready to give them a go? Try these expert-approved techniques for size.
1. Be your own cheerleader
How does your internal run dialogue sound? Is it upbeat and positive or does it play gloomy statements such as “I’m slow” or “I can’t run hills” on repeat? If it’s the latter, you’re effectively creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in your brain. “Unfortunately, your brain can’t differentiate between what’s unhelpful and helpful to you – it can only understand which brain pathways you use the most and the least,” explains Adelaide Goodeve. “For example, if you frequently tell yourself ‘I’m a slow runner’, your brain will strengthen the neural pathways associated with being a slow runner, so they become easier to activate and the state of being a slow runner easier for you to enter.”
Frustratingly, your self-styled identity as a ‘slow runner’ is further cemented by the way your brain edits the information it receives. “When you tell yourself something repeatedly, your brain starts to highlight all the evidence around you that confi rms this, such as other, speedier runners or the sessions when you’re feeling sluggish,” says Adelaide. At the same time, your brain filters out evidence to the contrary, so you don’t notice runners who are slower than you or recall the training sessions in which you ran fast. “This reinforces your ‘I’m slow’ belief because your brain isn’t showing you anything to contradict it,” she says.
There’s good news, though: you can use your brain’s way of working to your advantage, simply by being your own cheerleader. “Saying positive things like, ‘I’m a fast runner’, ‘I’m getting faster every day’ or ‘I can run one more minute’, will trigger all the feelings, thoughts and actions associated with these words,” explains Adelaide. “And the more you replace the negatives with these powerful, productive and positive words, the more you’ll activate and strengthen these neural pathways – and the harder to activate the old ‘I’m a slow runner’ ones will become.”
2. ‘Bite-size’ your run
Segmentation – when you break down a task into smaller, manageable sized chunks – is a tactic you’ve likely used already without even realising. In relation to running, segmentation can help us avoid feeling overwhelmed when faced with a large time or distance goal by seeing it broken into achievable segments – such as approaching 10K as two 5K runs, making it to the next lamp post in a speed session, or running to the next aid station in a race. However, the real reason segmentation is so useful to runners is because of the brain’s response to it. “Your brain likes things in manageable chunks,” says Dr Simon Marshall, athlete mental skills expert, coach and co-author of The Brave Athlete. “When you complete a distance or time segment, you get a little brain neurotransmitter reward in the shape of a dopamine hit.”
As Marshall explains in The Brave Athlete, this hit of dopamine (the brain’s ‘pleasure chemical’) ‘resets the coping clock’, enabling you to continue training. But the rewards don’t end there. “The good news about dopamine is that it’s not just a reward chemical, it’s an anticipation chemical as well, so when we get some of it, it drives us to continue,” Marshall says. In other words, the more you do, the more you want to do, so it’s a win-win.
To really milk the dopamine response and create a snowball effect, Marshall suggests manufacturing your own mini reward system based on segments in time or distance during you run. “The reward can be something simple,” he explains. “For example, during a one-hour run, you could create a dopamine reward cycle by allowing yourself to walk for 20 steps every 10 minutes. This gets your brain away from being preoccupied with how much of your run you’ve got left. Instead, it recalibrates to the next 10-minute block.”
3. Find your mantra
Marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge wears the words ‘No human is limited’ on a blue bracelet around his wrist, while former American marathon record holder Deena Kastor stuck post-it notes scrawled with the statement “I AM THE NATIONAL CHAMPION” on her bathroom mirror – but can a few simple words really make a difference? Science suggests so. “Research has shown that mantras – short words or phrases you repeat to yourself to keep you focused if you start to struggle during a run – increase perseverance, so they’re especially useful in sports like running where you have a lot of time to think,” explains sports psychologist and author of Performing Under Pressure, Dr Josephine Perry.
Handily, mantras are helpful whether you’re on your way to breaking a world record or conquering your first 5K without stopping. “Anyone can use mantras. Their impact isn’t based on how fast you are, but how powerful your mantra is,” says Josephine. “The key is that it pulls at your heart strings in some way.” In other words, you need to have an emotional connection to the words – writing ‘You can do it’ on your wrist won’t help if it doesn’t resonate personally.
How to create your mantra
The first step in creating an effective mantra is to decide its purpose, says Perry. “You can use a mantra to either focus on your motivation for running or remind yourself of your goal.”
For example, if your goal is focussed around your technique or the feeling of running with ease, you might choose something like ‘Light and smooth’. Or, if your end goal is to get stronger and fitter, using a mantra that reminds you of this when you’re struggling, such as ‘Stronger with every step’, could be useful. However, it’s important to remember that your mantra is personal to you – what works for your running buddy won’t necessarily work for you.
Josephine suggests coming up a variety of different mantra options to try out one at a time over a few weeks during training, writing it on your wrist or water bottle as well as saying it out loud, until you find the one which feels right for you. “If it makes you feel a little bit emotional, you’re probably in the right territory,” she says.
4. Create a winning showreel
Athletes have long used imagery to mentally rehearse aspects of their performance (using all of their senses to visualise a scenario in their mind), but you don’t have to be a budding Olympian to benefit. “Every athlete can benefi t from imagery – it’s something I teach a lot,” says Dr Josephine Perry, who works with everyone from amateur runners to elite athletes.
Because the brain can’t distinguish between real or imagined events, visually rehearsing a part of your training or racing in your mind while involving all of your senses can actually help you improve it in real life. “If we do our imagery well enough, our neurons structurally modify themselves, making them more effective. This can supplement our physical practice without the additional risk of injury or fatigue. It can also reduce anxiety as you feel more familiar with the task or environment you’ll be in, and it gives us additional experience so we feel more confident.”
In running, she says, imagery can be used to increase overall confi dence about sessions we worry about or for improving our technique – for example, running down hills fast, pushing yourself hard in intervals or running up big hills.
How to use imagery
“First decide on the purpose of your imagery – is it to feel more motivated or it is to improve your technique?” says Josephine. “Once you know, write out a script describing yourself doing that element of your running in your ideal way, incorporating what you can see, hear, smell, taste and feel while running too.” For example, you might imagine the sweet taste of your sports drink during this process, or perhaps hear the squelch of mud on your real-life runs. “Incorporating all your senses is vital so they bring the script to life,” says Josephine who recommends keeping your script to around two minutes long.
Next, record yourself reading your script aloud on your phone and then listen to it once a day. “To make it work really well you need to practise until you get to a point where you can do your imagery and bring the story fully to life without having to listen to your recording,” says Josephine.
5. Recognise and change unhelpful thoughts
Ironman athlete Chrissie Wellington famously revealed that in every one of her winning races, a little voice in her head would nag her to quit. Proof that even the most successful athletes aren’t immune to self-sabotaging thoughts. The difference, however, is that they know how to nix them before they derail their performance.
So, what’s the secret? “The first step is simply to become conscious of the unhelpful words and phrases you say to yourself around running,” explains Adelaide Goodeve. This isn’t just the obvious mid-run mental chatter such as ‘I can’t do this’, but every insidious unhelpful or negative thought that surfaces, even in the lead up to your run. “For example, you might start to notice that, as you tie your shoes, you think, ‘I hope my knee won’t cause me pain today’, which isn’t a helpful thought going into your run,” she says.
Once you recognise unhelpful thoughts, change them. “Ask yourself how you would love to feel on your run today, using only positive, powerful and productive language to answer. Following the knee analogy, you might answer, ‘I am confi dent that my knee will be comfortable.’ Or, ‘I’m feeling strong, powerful and fast.’ The more you spot unhelpful words and phrases and replace them with positive, powerful and productive ones, the more you’ll develop and maintain a resilient and positive mindset, whether you’re training for a 5K or an ultra,” Adelaide explains.
Why ‘don’t’ doesn’t work
You might think that switching negative thoughts like ‘I want to stop’ for the more encouraging ‘Don’t stop!’ would be helpful, but both statements activate the same neural pathways. “Using ‘don’t’ in a phrase isn’t helpful because your brain doesn’t hear it,” says Adelaide. The key to self-talk is to use positive language that focuses on what you want to achieve, not what you want to avoid.
The Black Box method
Need to remove negative thoughts or feelings, fast? Adelaide suggests using the Black Box method, a technique that she’s used successfully with hundreds of her clients. This method sees you visualise placing negative thoughts and feelings into a box where they disappear permanently into a black hole. Here’s Adelaide’s step-by-step:
Step 1: Create your box. Decide what it looks like in your mind’s eye – consider its shape, colour, size and the noise it makes when the lid closes.
Step 2: Briefly identify an unhelpful thought or feeling and the image it brings to mind.
Step 3: Change the qualities of the image. First make it black and white, next blur the image, and finally shrink it to the size of a pinhead. This changes how you experience the thought or feeling.
Step 4: Remove the thought/feeling. Visualise moving the image into your box. Close the box and hear the sound of the lid shutting. It has now gone forever.
Step 5: Replace the negative thought with a powerful, positive one.
6. Commit to doing a quarter of your run
For many of us, one of the biggest hurdles around running is the mental tug-of-war in the lead-up to leaving the house in the first place. If this sounds familiar, borrow a strategy that Dr Simon Marshall uses to help his athletes get out of the door and make a start on a session they’re considering avoiding – what he calls the ‘quarter quit’ rule. “We say, ‘Listen, whenever you feel like you’re not sure you’re going to be able to do a session, commit to doing a quarter of it and give yourself permission to turn around after that quarter is over if you need to’.” So, if you were planning an hour’s run, do 15 minutes. “If, after that, you want to end it, that’s fine, but typically what happens is that your dopamine is more elevated and you’ve got endorphins and a whole bunch of other analgesics in the brain that are helping you manage pain and discomfort, so you continue to halfway, and so on,” he says. “Once you’ve started, you’re more likely to want to continue by virtue of having started. You just have to try and get over the initial hump.”
7. Flex your (resilience) muscle
As humans, we naturally tend to avoid experiences we know will be difficult or uncomfortable (hello, intervals). But what if you could re-frame your discomfort as an opportunity to build resilience? Ultra-cyclist and motivational speaker Monika Sattler believes resilience is a muscle that can be built, developed and strengthened via the tough days. When she became the first woman in history to ride the notoriously hard 3,058K Vuelta a España grand cycling tour one day ahead of the male pro cyclists in 2018, she was physically exhausted going into day nine, having had just four hours’ sleep. Instead of dreading the day, she put a spin on it, knowing that banking the experience would make her tougher, both mentally and physically. “If you make yourself aware of the times when it is all about resilience then you can get a more objective view on how important this moment is for making you stronger,” she explains. In other words, re-framing tough sessions as an opportunity to improve your resilience can make you see them in a more positive light.
8. Use distraction techniques
Ever found yourself lost in the moment while running to a beat in your head or notice that listening to music helps you get through particularly tough sessions? If so, you can thank your ‘computer’ brain – the parts of your brain that govern automatic responses and behaviours. “In general, these parts of our brain are really helpful in getting us through difficult stuff and they almost put a dimmer switch on the ‘This is hard, I don’t want to do this anymore’ chimp brain interference,” explains Dr Simon Marshall. “And one of the things that triggers us to get into this computer brain is doing something repetitively or rhythmically.”
Enter counting, thumb tapping and even singing the chorus of your favourite song on repeat. “These are rhythmical, repetitive things that say, ‘Automatic brain, kick-in, start work to help me get through this’,” Marshall explains. “Any rhythmical, repetitive thing you can do is going to help – there’s nothing special about counting or singing; some people hum, others people chant. It’s the rhythm and repetition that are important.”
To give counting a go, count up to four or six on repeat in time with your stride, and if that’s not enough distraction, count in twos or threes.
For short, difficult efforts, thumb tapping (not to be confused with EFT finger tapping) is king and should be your go-to when counting no longer cuts the mustard. “Thumb tapping is slightly more sophisticated in that it’s a tactile sensory input – you’re feeling the tap of your thumb on your index finger as a tactile, repetitive cue to focus attention away from discomfort,” says Marshall. “It’s not a scientifically proven method but it comes from what we know about attention (distraction) and pain, and our athletes who have tried it, love it. Midwives used to use it as mind attentional management strategy to help women with the pain and discomfort of childbirth.”
Dig thumb tapping out of your mental toolbox when it gets tough in training or racing (see steps below). “Think of it as a little emergency strategy for when things get hard,” says Simon. “You can’t do it for long – it would get really annoying – but if there’s a hill that takes you a minute to get up and it’s brutal, thumb tap your way up.”
Thumb tapping how-to
Simon explains how to use the thumb-tapping technique.
Step 1: Make two relaxed clenched fists, as if holding a pen in each hand.
Step 2: With your thumb, gently tap the side of your index finger as though you are pressing the clicker on a pen.
Step 3: As you run, tap both thumbs in time with your leg turnover.
Step 4: Use during short moments when you’re really hurting in training or a race.
9. Give yourself a get-out-of-jail-free pass
So you’re out the door but you’re dreading that interval session. Instead of quitting in anticipation of what’s ahead, cut a deal with your brain and give it an ‘exit’ option. “One of the things your ‘chimp brain’ is worried about is: ‘I’m now in it (the training) and there’s no way out’,” explains Dr Simon Marshall. “The ‘free pass’ strategy lets it know there’s an ‘out’ if you need it. What you’re saying is, ‘It’s okay if you struggle, you get a little opportunity to cheat’ which acts like a mental comfort blanket.”
To use this in your own training, Marshall suggests allowing yourself three passes to stop, slow down, walk or do whatever you wish to do mid-run, using markers like marbles or paperclips to represent each ‘free pass’ so you can visibly see your choices in action. “Say you’re trying to get through 10K without walking at all. You might take three paper clips in your pocket and give yourself permission to walk for 20 paces a total of three times, but no more. Every time you use up a pass, you switch a paperclip to your other pocket. You can burn all your passes in the first kilometre or save them until the last kilometre – whatever you want.” No pockets? Don’t sweat it. You can mentally tick off each ‘pass’ that you use.”
Bulletproof mindset ready? Here’s your marathon training plan.