To many runners, hills are the enemy. They are an obstacle standing in the way of fast times; a burden to be endured; a soul-sapping exercise in pain. I’m the psychologist for the Boston Marathon, home to Heartbreak Hill, one of the most feared stretches of incline in the world. Over the years, I’ve watched people of all abilities face Heartbreak with all sorts of emotions and outcomes. I have seen fear, anguish, pain and rage.
What’s going on?
So many times a runner will come to a hill with a preconception of how horrible it will feel to run up it. Those negative feelings form a feedback loop in the brain, stoking your hatred of hills. When you come to the base of a hill with thoughts like that in your head, you set yourself up for a terrible experience.
How to cope
Love them: Instead of cursing a hill before you even climb it, try convincing yourself how much you love it. Really. Tell yourself that hills are the greatest thing ever. They make you stronger. They make you tougher. They give you amazing glutes. Tell yourself you’re the little engine that could, that slow and steady wins the race, that what goes up must come down – whatever cliché helps you embrace the climb. After a while, this new thought pattern – even if it seems far-fetched – will evolve into an actual belief.
Use your imagination: Mental imagery can help you conquer climbs. One runner told me she sights something along the edge of the road, such as a tree, a lamppost or a car, then throws a mental rope around it that she imagines she can use to pull herself up. As you approach a hill, picture yourself cresting it and gliding down. Staying calm and positive in the face of a monster incline will help you conserve energy, energy that will help make the actual physical climb easier.
Tune in – or out: Some runners disassociate by going to their happy place, trying to forget how hard they are working. Others do the opposite, embracing and ‘owning’ their pain. Muscle aches and fatigue only make them push harder. Or they think about their bodies and coach themselves with mental comments such as, ‘Relax your shoulders’ or ‘Stay tall’. Most runners don’t stick exclusively to one mental strategy. Without realising it, you may switch between several approaches in different situations.
Excerpted from The Runner’s Brain: How to Think Smarter to Run Better by Dr Jeff Brown, with Liz Neporent (Rodale)