Brain Training

Discover how to get yourself out of training trouble using your mind with these mental strategies from accredited sport psychologist Keith Power


Posted: 30 March 2009
by Alice Palmer

Keith Power is a BASES (British Association of Sport and Exercises Sciences) accredited sport psychologist and managing director of sports psychology consultants A Different Mindset (www.adifferentmindset.com).

A former international athlete and Great Britain bobsleigher, Keith is also an adviser to the Lucozade Sport Performance League and has been imparting his wisdom to our Flora London Marathon contenders - the Lucozade Sport Super Six.

We caught up with Keith to find out how to dodge common psychological pitfalls.


Problem: You find it hard to stay motivated
Keith's solution: Awareness training

It's very difficult to keep motivated to continue running if you aren't aware of how your running is going, your progress to date and what factors might be affecting your training.

Many runners keep a training diary – noting the number of miles they've run, their splits, or their nutrition; you can benefit hugely from doing the same thing with the psychological side of your running.

Start writing down what you've done, how you feel your running's going and what you were thinking and feeling before and during your run. With time, you'll soon become aware of how your thoughts and feelings affect your performance.

Problem: You're plagued by negative thinking
Keith's solution: Self-talk

Runners need to learn to manage their internal dialogue. The average person has 10-15,000 thoughts every day, and you need to get as many of these thoughts working for you as you can.

There a couple of techniques you can try if you're out on a run and negative thoughts start popping into your mind. The first is called ‘thought stopping'. As soon as you start hearing negative thoughts, replace them with a word or phrase like ‘stop', ‘move on' or ‘switch' – a little phrase that'll trigger a change in your thought process.

Another technique is ‘reframing'. Here, you rationalise your negative thoughts to turn them into positive ideas instead. For example, if you find yourself tiring and thinking you can't carry on, focus on all the times you've run that far before, as well as all the other training you've done in preparation. You'll soon re-find the confidence you need to keep going.

Problem: You get flustered when things go wrong
Keith's solution: The Doomsday Scenario
When you have a particular goal – like a successful race performance – consider all the things that you need to do, mentally and otherwise, to achieve that result.

A lot of runners make the mistake of always expecting the best-case scenario, but by focusing on a "Doomsday Scenario" instead, you can effectively teach yourself to expect the unexpected.

Before race day, make a mental list of all the things that could possibly go wrong, and rehearse in your mind how you would deal with these problems if they did crop up on the day.

The brain finds it difficult to distinguish between real and imagined memories, so if you haven't experienced something before, simulate it in your mind instead. This way, if it happens on the day, it won't feel new.

For example, if your goal is your first Flora London Marathon, although you haven't experienced the race before, it's likely you'll have seen TV footage. By running through all the sights and sounds you've seen on the screen, your actual experience on the day won't be as intimidating.

Problem: You find pacing difficult
Keith's solution: Association

One skill that's essential to distance running – and maintaining your target pace – is the ability to listen to your body. You need to be able to tell if you're running too fast or not fast enough.

Tuning into how your body is feeling is known as association. Really focus on your breathing, how your legs feel and your running posture. Once you've done this, you can start exploring how different paces feel – by slowing down and seeing how your breathing responds, for example.

Problem: You find long runs tough
Keith's solution: Disassociation

The trick of distracting yourself ­– and taking your mind away from what's going on in your body – is known as disassociation, ideal if you find yourself getting bored during a session.

Lots of runners swear by their mp3 players, and take their favourite music, audiobooks or podcasts with them for on-the-run entertainment.

If you'd rather not use an mp3 player, you could try some simple mind games instead. Try counting red cars or have a go at this easy alphabet game – pick a category (for example, men's names) then run through the alphabet from A to Z, coming up with an answer for each letter (Alan, Bob, Carl, and so on).

Take a moment to talk yourself back into the run too. Think about target races, a particular weight-loss goal or where this session fits into your training schedule. Focus on all the ways the session will benefit you rather than the excuses making you want to stop running or skip a session altogether.

Problem: You fear certain sessions
Keith's solution: Confidence tricks

It can be really tough to dive straight into a session you find scary. If you've got a very hilly race or route planned, build up to it by running some shorter hill sessions first. That way, when it comes to the session you've been fearing, you'll feel much more confident knowing that you successfully tackled those other hill sessions.

The other thing you can do – without even pulling on your trainers – is to mentally rehearse the route. Picture yourself running strongly and confidently up that hill, finishing happily, and it's much more likely to happen that way on the day.

Problem: You find tapering tough
Keith's solution: Taper talking-to

After weeks of building up your mileage, it can be difficult to wind down, so it's worth remind yourself of how overtraining can damage both your body and your racing prospects.

Your body keeps working even when you're resting, building muscle and recovering so that you're ready to race. In fact, rest should be as high a priority as training if you want to get the best out of your schedule. Spend some of your taper looking at the theory behind the process so you fully understand the benefits of reducing your training load.

The prospect of an upcoming race can be stressful, so it's important to make sure you relax properly on your rest days. An exercise called ‘the Quiet Place' is perfect for this. Sit or lie down, and squeeze your thumb and forefinger together. While you do this, conjure up a relaxing environment in your mind. It might be a place that you associate with special memories, or it might be an archetypal tropical beach. Focus on all five of your senses: imagine the bright sun and clear blue sky, the feel of the warm sand underneath you, the sound of the sea lapping on the shore…

Taking all your senses away to a beautiful relaxing environment is a fantastic distraction from any training worries – studies have shown that this exercise can bring athletes' heart rates down in as little as 30 seconds.

Problem: You get bad pre-race nerves
Keith's solution: Race-day run-through

Before you leave home for the race, or even the night before, run through a 10-1 Blast Off sequence – a countdown of all the things you need to do before getting to the start line. Think of Blast Off as the starter's gun going off, and work back from there. When do you need to wake up? What should you eat for breakfast? How will you travel to the race?

If you have all of this sorted in your mind, you won't have to think about them on the day and it'll be much easier to just relax and enjoy the race.

If you still find yourself getting stressed out – and a lot of people get scared by the idea of competing – there are lots of really effective relaxation exercises you can try. For example, take a minute to focus on your breathing and your muscles. Tense your arms, hold it for 10 seconds then relax for another 10 seconds. Move onto your torso, each of your legs, your neck, and so on. By the time you've relaxed your whole body you'll have forgotten what was stressing you out in the first place!


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