Mental Strength

when-the-going-gets-toughWhen the going gets tough during a run, what is your mental coping mechanism? What tricks do you use to tell your legs to keep going? Can your mental strength win out over the pain?

Out on a particularly tough 8 mile route the other day (the day after 5 miles at a track interval session) and thoughts turned to my next blog post… It got me wondering, what do I think about when running to get me through the moments when my head starts telling my body to quit? Additionally, do other runners think of the same things I do?

I think we’d all agree, solo running is an especially good tool to help clear the mind. Most of us use this invaluable time away from family and work pressures to think things through. To make plans without the constant interruptions life presents. But it got me thinking, what range of subjects do us runners contemplate at our sweatiest and most lonesome? How important is head space and how big a part does mental strength play in performance?

Races are somewhat easier for me as I usually have people in front and behind, either to hang on to, hold off or aim to pass at some point. Solo training runs are the most difficult as it’s only me and my thoughts during the dark times.

Before I had a Garmin FR230 to work out all of my split times and pacing, I used to spend a fair amount of my runs calculating predicted finishing time if I kept up the current pace. Now it is all worked out for me, my more mundane thoughts are usually that of work and what I’m likely to be doing in the week ahead. Once the work diary is sorted, attention turns to running related ideas or new blog/twitter posts. On particularly warm days, I imagine the huge cold drink I’m going gulp down when I get home. It’s almost like creating a mirage in your head!

On particularly difficult runs, I occupy my thoughts with splitting the remaining run up into distance segments with time targets such as ‘Don’t let average pace drop under xxx” or even use visible markers on the route ahead as ‘Just get to that point!’, before instantly setting another visible marker.

I think mental preparation before a race or training run has even begun can set the tone for how it’s going to go. Nerves are normal before a race, but with correct preparation those nerves have usually turned to anticipation on the start line. If you’re still feeling apprehension at that point, chances are you’ve not prepared well. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my PB’s have come on courses I know or have run a few times before. Being able to mentally plan the race in your head beforehand can only be an advantage. During the race, knowing what to expect and when to expect it is certainly beneficial.

My best times in races have been achieved when surrounded by people I know, or at least running part of the race with a team mate of similar speed. We can push each other on when ordinarily it would be too easy to say “No, I’m spent here, I need to slow down”. It’s amazing how fast and how long you can keep running when your head and mental strength is on top of its game.

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