Think Tough

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."

I always choke when I seem to be performing well

What's happening While many people leap ceiling-high at the sight of a spider, yours is a different kind of fear: success. "Many of us find something frightening about surpassing our own or others' expectations – and that can be enough to keep us from doing so," says Bishop. "For some it's lacking the confidence to challenge the status quo, while others fear that if they're successful they'll have to take the sport too seriously; that too much will be expected of them; or even that they'll be resented."

Your strategy Acknowledge that your fear exists – then pump yourself up with positive affirmation. "See yourself accepting success," says Bishop. "While nobody likes a big-head, modesty in runners all too often leads to self-deprecation."Take your lead from athletes in post-race TV interviews, he suggests. "When someone says 'Nice race', reply with 'Thanks, I worked hard for it' – rather than 'I was lucky' or 'I should've done better'. "Building your self-belief without over-selling (and alienating) yourself will pay dividends, says Bishop. "You'll encourage others to do the same, developing a positive, constructive communication between runners in your circle – which will build your self-esteem, empowering you to take the lead in the next race."

I feel completely burnt out

What's happening Quite simply, you're expecting too much of yourself physically, which means that mentally your main sail drops. "Too often runners get to this point and become dispirited," says Lewis. "The mind and body work as one, so your brain helps you overcome hurdles when your running is on the up, but can turn on you if you continually push yourself to chase new PBs without success."

Your strategy Know your limits. "Accept that consistent improvement simply isn't sustainable and that you'll have set-backs," explains Lewis. "Plan several scheduled time-outs a year – at least a week at a time – to rest, regenerate and develop that hunger for running again. "Forget your times, unstrap your stopwatch and rekindle your running desire by throwing some variety into your training, advises Lewis. "Try shorter distances, take different routes, enter a race somewhere you've never been to before or just do your usual run back to front."

Worrying about an old injury is holding me back

What's happening Your brain is behaving like an over-protective mum. "People develop a defensive memory function to help prevent them from re-injuring themselves," says Paul Russell, sports and exercise psychologist at the University of Bolton and private consultant (thefifthspace.com). "Until those negative memories are replaced with the confidence that your injury is fully healed, you'll always be holding back."You'll also potentially be risking fresh damage. "Anxiety leads to muscle tension, which can result in new injuries," says Russell.

Your strategy You must take your know-how of the injury up a gear to gain mental control. "Develop specific visualisation of the problem area(s) by becoming familiar with anatomical drawings of the muscles of the body," says Russell. "Being able to 'see' those muscles widening and lengthening as you run will encourage them to relax, which in turn will ward off the tension that causes them to shorten, tighten and fatigue."

I lose all focus in races

What's happening En route to the finish line, the racing environment bombards us with information, and we have the necessary tools (ears, eyes etc) to pick up the lot. "Being stressed can cause our focus to narrow inappropriately, cutting out important information, such as the position of a competitor," says sports psychologist Ian Maynard from Sheffield Hallam University. "Or we can be so relaxed (or determined to shut out the stressor) that we begin to focus too much on things that are superfluous to our performance."

Your strategy Take your cue. Maynard recommends this tried-and-tested re-focusing technique: "I like the simple routine of 'breathe', 'talk' and 'race',"he explains. "'Breathe' is your cue to focus on the movement of your chest, which should instantly take you away from the distraction; the 'talk' element introduces an instructional cue word, such as 'relax', 'rhythm' or '100 per cent'. Lastly, focus on your 'race' – your splits, breathing, strategy. This process brings you back into the here and now, where good concentration always needs to be."