Think Tough (Preview)

A strong mind makes an even stronger runner, so it's time to break the mental barrier that's holding you back (non-subscriber preview)


Posted: 25 September 2008
by Matt Barbour

It's an all too common story: runner sets achievable goals; runner puts in the necessary physical training to meet goals; runner falls short on race day. So, what's the problem? Could it be that you're spending too much time becoming a stronger runner on the road, and precious little on becoming a stronger runner in your mind? Big mistake. To achieve your true potential, it's essential to train mentally as well as physically.

"The athlete who ignores the mental element of training quite simply won't enjoy their running or achieve as much, and might even give up altogether," explains Jamie Edwards, sports psychologist (trained-brain.com). "As a runner you really get to know yourself and what kind of mental toughness you have inside – once you've realised what you're capable of, and can block out the negative voices, you become not just a stronger runner, but a stronger person." With the help of the UK's premier sports psychologists, we've come up with solutions for the most common mental hurdles standing between you and the happier, stronger runner fighting to get out.

I can't handle the pain barrier

What's happening The brain always gives up before the body, says Simone Lewis, sports psychologist at Bath University. "Unless you're used to pushing yourself to the limit, the only credible option to improve the situation you're in appears to be stopping."

Your strategy "There are two essential strategies for handling the pain – dissociating to externalise it and distract yourself away from it, and associating to actually focus on the feeling," says Lewis. To associate, start from the head and work down, assessing each area or group of muscles. "Keep your pace in line with the information you gain from your body monitoring, from heart rate to basic breathing, not being afraid to increase the pace if you feel particularly positive." To dissociate, focus more on your surroundings – the sounds, sights and smells – and let them distract you temporarily. "The most successful runners switch between the two," says Lewis, "using association during the more crucial sections of a race and dissociation at times where you can give yourself a break from the tough mental demands – associating for long periods simply isn't possible, as the mind wanders."

Pre-race nerves ruin my performances

What's happening You've got textbook 'what if' syndrome. "The reason you're so nervous – burning huge amounts of precious glycogen, as well as being away from the calm zone from where athletes are able to perform at their best – is that you're panicking about what might happen in the future, rather than dealing with the present," says sports psychologist Jamie Edwards.

Your strategy Try Edwards' principle technique: structured belly breathing. Inhale through your nose to a count of three, pause, then slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of four. How does this help? "Short, staccato breathing floods your respiratory system with carbon dioxide, which means your brain and muscles aren't getting the oxygen they need to function properly," says Edwards. "Deep, long breaths activate the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing down your heart rate and reducing anxiety."

My last race was a shocker – and now I've lost my motivation

What's happening That brick wall standing between you and the starting line is your pride. "Not long after you started running, being a runner probably became a part of your self-identity – and pivotal to your identity in your peers' eyes," says Dr Dan Bishop, a sports psychologist at Brunel University, and sub-three-hour marathon runner. "You're 'The Runner' that your friends know, which is a very brittle concept – and one that is easily shattered in your own mind through one bad performance."

Your strategy Without the disappointments, the successes simply wouldn't be as sweet," says Bishop, who advises first getting to the root cause of your poor performance – the weather, a poorly executed race plan – and venting your frustration about it. "Moan to as many people as will listen to get it right out of your system." Now congratulate yourself for having the courage to take risks. "Accept and savour your mistakes as learning experiences. "If you still can't shake off your funk, take an extended break from running competitively and only lace-up for pure pleasure, says Bishop. "You'll know when you're ready to come back."

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endurance, fatigue, motivation, raceday psychology, progress
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