Long runs and races challenge both your physical and mental strength. These strategies can help your brain stay in the game.
By Jenny Hadfield
I’m training for my first half marathon. I’m doing well with the physical training, but I’m really struggling with the mental side of things, from handling the distance of the long runs to finishing without whining about pretty much everything. Do you have any mental tricks to get me through? I feel like a wimp. —Kelli
First off, you’re not a wimp. Anyone who is actively preparing for a half marathon—putting in the miles to build the courage to toe the start line—can’t possibly be a wimp.
Second, the mental part of running is half the battle. During both training runs and races, having a few mind games in your pocket can help you finish strong and squash the gremlin that sits on your shoulder, doubting your every stride.
“Eat the elephant one bite at a time.”
My teammate said this to me as we waited to start the Eco-Challenge in Borneo, Malaysia, a 10-day adventure race through jungles that house snakes the size of my car. I was paralyzed with fear of what was ahead, and that simple mantra pulled me out of it.
When you find yourself overwhelmed by the magnitude of a challenge, break it down into smaller, more digestible pieces and focus on only the next step. This is effective for interval workouts, long runs, and pretty much anything in life that scares the poop out of you.
If you’ve got an eight-miler for example, you can break it into four two-mile runs in your mind or run a four-mile loop twice. For your longest runs, break the distance into threes and focus on one at a time. Your mind knows how to run three to four miles—just keep thinking of that distance, and it will come to you with less mental stress along the way.
“It could always be worse.”
This is a fun game I played with my adventure racing team as we sat covered in red, biting ants in the middle of the jungle. I had a moment of panic, and then my teammate yelled out, “Hey, it could always be worse—we could be being bitten by cobras!”
For the rest of the race, when one of us began to suffer mentally, we would start up a game of “it could always be worse.” Playing this game brings perspective to your struggles. If you’re on a long run and it’s feeling tough, think about all the ways it could be harder, like if you were running it through sand, or running it up a mountain. It can always be worse, and when you think about the worst things, it makes everything seem a little easier.
This is a game of reflection that’s good for after tough runs. When you get down on yourself and start thinking, “I’m never going to get there,” take a look back at your training log to see just how far you’ve come.
You could look at your very first run or the five-miler you ran last month. Every run is progress. Pretty soon you’ll be saying things like, “I only have a six-miler to run this weekend,” and your nonrunning family and friends will look at you like you’re nuts. Remember when I couldn’t run down my block? Remember when I thought running three miles was far? Remember when I ran at that pace? Remember when I didn’t think I could run a race?
Keep an eye on your rearview mirror and reflect back every once in a while. You’ll be amazed at how far you’ve come and inspired by your efforts. If you let it, your running history will propel you towards your running destiny.