3 ways to keep running in the toughest moments

Women running

If you want to run your best, there’s no way around it: it’s going to get tough. Whether you’re racing a mile or a marathon, the ability to push through pain is what lets you translate training into a brag-worthy finish. Even if you’re running for fitness, you’ll need to keep pushing your limits to see progress as your body becomes more efficient.

Studies at the University of Cape Town show that the brain may ‘shut down’ your body when you still have more to give. Participants performed high-intensity exercise for as long as possible. When they tapped out, researchers stimulated their muscles, which contracted with great force.

Samuele Marcora, director of research at the University of Kent’s School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, explains that while we run, our brain weighs up ‘perception of effort with our motivation to succeed’. When the former outweighs the latter, we slow or stop. So changing how we perceive effort and/or boost motivation could help us get more from our bodies.

1/ Recall sacrifices

When the mid-race pain really sets in for ultra runner Dylan Bowman, he shifts his focus to, in his words, ‘matching the suck with motivation’. He does this by thinking about the sacrifices he’s made to get there: passing on extra pizza and beer; missing out on time with his fiancée in order to train; travelling to get to the race. ‘I’ve ended up winning races I didn’t believe I was going to win by thinking about all the things I’ve given up,’ says Bowman. ‘It’s crazy how much more I can endure when I do this.’

It helps to be prepared, so revisit your training diary before a race to pinpoint the occasions on which you dragged yourself out of your warm bed or skipped post-work drinks to squeeze in a run. One of the world’s greatest athletes, Emil Zatopek, who won gold in the 5000m, 10,000m and marathon in the 1952 Olympics, developed this mindset into something approaching an art form. ‘There is great advantage in training under unfavourable conditions,’ he said. ‘For the difference is then a tremendous relief in a race. Is it raining? That doesn’t matter. Am I tired? That doesn’t matter either. Willpower becomes no longer a problem.’

When the moment of truth comes in your next half marathon, recalling those moments when you’re starting to suffer might take your mind off the discomfort and boost your drive to make sure you get the most out of your hard work. A similar strategy could help you endure tough workouts, too.

2/ Give thanks

Karl Meltzer, who last year set the speed record for through-hiking the Appalachian Trail (averaging about 47 hilly miles a day over 45 days), copes with the pain by, ‘thinking about how fortunate I am to be doing this’. Throughout his hike, Meltzer made a point of thanking his support crew. ‘Showing gratitude,’ he says, ‘almost always makes things better.’

Meltzer is on to something: expressing gratitude is effective because it, ‘helps people transition from a self-focused and perhaps anxious mindset to a more optimistic and content one’. So says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. And optimism, she adds, ‘opens the possibility of a positive outcome, which in and of itself is very beneficial’. In fact, two recently published studies found that performing acts of gratitude and reflecting on all you have to be grateful for positively affected how subjects experienced pain and effort.

Related: 4 ways to stop negative thinking on runs

When the going gets tough, reflect on the circumstances or people that have contributed to your being out running right now. Some examples: your spouse, because they watch the kids while you log miles; your body, because it’s healthy; your employer, because your salary pays for running gear and race registration. Even better, when you run through aid stations mid-race, smile and thank the volunteers; Simon-Thomas says gratitude is most powerful when you share it verbally with others.

3/ Meditate

A growing body of evidence suggests meditating for just eight weeks can ‘rewire’ the part of the brain related to self-regulation. This helps manage our response to highly emotional stimuli, such as pain. According to Brandon Rennels, a mindfulness meditation teacher at the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute in San Francisco, meditation helps you distinguish between physical discomfort and your emotional response to it. ‘Pain is bad enough, but the anxiety attached to pain can sometimes be even worse,’ he says.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin scanned the brains of novice and expert meditators while applying a pain sensation to their legs. For both groups there was an initial spike in activity in the anterior insula, a part of the brain linked to pain perception. But whereas this remained heightened in the novice meditators, it quickly subsided for the experts. It was as if the expert meditators chose not to engage in the patterns of anxiety that often make pain feel worse.

Rennels recommends meditation beginners start with one minute per day and gradually increase duration, working up to 15 to 20 minutes per day or more. Timing is less important than consistency, so do this whenever you can fit it in. To meditate, sit comfortably in a quiet place, set a timer for your desired duration, and focus on the sensation of breathing. If thoughts arise, notice them, then direct your focus back to your breath.

Related: I meditated every day for a month and this is what happened to my running