Beyond the mantra

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.’ – John Milton, Paradise Lost.

At mile 19 of a marathon, exhausted, a little voice in my head whispered that it wasn’t meant to be. I was pushing for 3:30, a time I’d been chasing for years. It was a cool day and a flat course. Prime PB conditions, save for the voice in my head. ‘You’ve done your best,’ it said in a calm, caring tone. ‘It’s OK to slow down.’ I dropped to a shuffle and my 3:30 slipped away.

For years, I’d clung to the idea that better physical training would propel me through these tough moments. But after that last failure, I finally admitted that I didn’t need another 20-miler, I needed to learn to talk back. Science has confirmed that performance at the end of an endurance event has as much to do with psychology as physiology. Thinking is a behaviour, and I set out to change mine.

When I began training for my next marathon, I called Dean Hebert, a former 2:36 marathoner who specialises in working on runners’ mental performance. I told him about my habit of slowing in the final miles. ‘No one expects endurance to come naturally, but people think mental toughness does,’ he told me. ‘It’s a myth. You need to train the brain like you train the body.’ This means practising mental skills throughout training, not tossing in a mantra randomly mid-race. Mental skills, like physical strength, develop over time, with consistency.

Different sports psychologists have different processes. Hebert’s is an initial assessment, followed by a clear written action plan to use alongside a training plan, plus biweekly catch-ups. His assessment made hard reading: ‘Confidence is fragile’; ‘Fears she is not tough enough’; and ‘Doesn’t really believe she can.’

In short, I was a classic negative-thinking, results-oriented runner. Mentally tough athletes are positive thinkers and process-oriented. ‘If you focus on results, you take yourself out of the now,’ says Dr Stan Beecham, sports psychologist for elite running groups McMillanElite and Zap Fitness. ‘And it’s the now that allows for the results later.’ Focus on the process and the results will come.

Being positive is just as critical. In a recent study, pessimism ranked as runners’ top mental roadblock. Negativity leads to self-defeating behaviour, including slowing down, cutting workouts short, and dropping out of races. ‘It is a self-fulfilling prophecy,’ says Dr Cindra Kamphoff, director of Minnesota State University’s Centre for Sport and Performance Psychology. Mentally strong runners don’t go there. They use their thoughts and training to feed belief in themselves. This became my goal.

Tools of the trade

For mental training to be effective, it must be individual, so my next task was to set ‘personal process goals’ and determine a ‘focus tool’. Process goals are the specific physical and mental steps that lead to a performance goal, like setting a PB. They should address your weaknesses: practise five minutes of visualisation daily if you struggle seeing yourself succeed; do weekly fast-finish runs if you tend to slow in the final miles of a race; follow a training programme if you often skip workouts.

I sometimes cut fast-finish workouts short or let myself slow down, just as I’d done in my marathons. ‘Yes!’ Hebert exclaimed. ‘That’s it. Your physical training is your mental training.’ This is a key tenet in sports psychology. What you do in training, you will do on race day. So sticking to my mileage and paces became a process goal. Hebert added scoring my workouts out of 10. The process strips a single workout of power, showing you that you can have a bad run and still have a strong week.

Next was selecting a focus tool: a word, phrase or action that mutes destructive chatter and keeps you in the moment. ‘Some people thrive on discomfort, thinking, “I can push through this,”’ says Hebert. ‘Others benefit from competition – visualising reeling in  other runners helps them put pain aside.’

Craving silence, I opted to focus on my footfalls and elbows. The first time I used my tools – during a 10-miler when I felt tired and grumpy – the sluggishness lifted. At the track, I listened to my feet and concentrated on swinging my elbows smoothly when the burn of 800s got too much. Or I thought it was too much. Semantics are important. It’s not splitting hairs, the psychologists say; it’s changing what you believe.

Day after day, workout after workout, every time I caught myself launching into an internal conversation on why I should head home, I instead concentrated on my feet and elbows. I held pace. Even beat a split or two. It surprised me that hardwiring the mind is as formulaic as anything else. If you take action, results follow. Do speedwork; get faster. Eat less; lose weight. Stop negative thinking; punch through pain.

I came to love mental training. The positivity proved seductive. I started using form cues on every run. My motivation skyrocketed. I trained better, did drills, more recovery runs, core work. Hebert wasn’t surprised. Strong workouts breed confidence, he said, and belief in your ability can produce strong workouts.

Still, I couldn’t shake my preoccupation with time. Six weeks in, I worried that a string of 8:08 miles wouldn’t add up to my goal time. ‘You don’t control whether or not you run 3:30,’ Hebert told me on our catch-up call. ‘You only control the steps that improve your chances of hitting that time, from how well   you train to if you take in fluids on race day.’

‘In a race, what do you think when you hit 7:45?’ Hebert asked. ‘I worry that I will die.’ ‘8:15?’ ‘I doubt I’ll reach my goal.’ ‘Notice they’re both negative? Why not look at numbers as feedback?’ he said. ‘7:45 – oh, I’m on it today. I’d better pull back a bit. Or 8:15 – good, just a little more.’ Reframing is key. When you seek to find the positive, information becomes useful. What did 8:08s tell me? That marathon pace would require more effort. This was good to know.

That night, I went through my training diary using Beecham’s method, marking each session a win or loss. ‘If you think every workout has to be good or every split exact, you waste energy recovering from disappointment,’ he had told me. ‘But if you see a few poor workouts or even a bad race as part of the process, you can move on.’ When I saw the 8:08 run in my log, I thought of another sports psychology tenet, that a strong mentality requires being honest with yourself. The truth is, I could have pushed harder, I just hadn’t felt like it. I marked a ‘loss’ for lack of effort. Admitting this was liberating.

Eight weeks before race day, I was five miles into a seven-mile tempo run when a lightning rod of pain passed through my chest. I locked into feet-elbows, and in the quiet that ensued, the voice returned. But this time it said, ‘Yes, you can.’ I held on, hitting mile six a bit fast (7:26), then mile seven in a fatigue-bashing 7:12. I called Hebert and told him I’d realised that just because I felt bad didn’t mean I was going to fall apart. ‘Write that down,’ he said. ‘That’s one of the best revelations you’ll ever have.’

In sport, fatigue is highly subjective. The brain processes physical cues (chemical and electrical signals from the muscles) and environmental information (how we expect to feel). But years of research shows that the mind can override the body – that more often than not, fatigue is a product of perception rather than true physiological depletion. ‘Fatigue is simply a sign that you need to put your mind on something positive,’ says Kamphoff.