Every run has its own set of challenges. Whether it’s the first mile, the final mile or somewhere in between, every runner has that moment where you have to decide to just keep going. And by every runner, we mean even the pros come up against mental hurdles they have to push through.
We talked to three professional runners to find out which part of a run is hardest for them — and what they do to keep running.
PRO RUNNERS ON THEIR MID-RUN STRUGGLES
Rachel Schneider, a professional middle-distance runner sponsored by Under Armour, may have recently won the USATF Distance Classic 5,000 meters, but even champions have to mentally regroup mid-run. We say mid-run because Schneider reveals the middle of a run or race is most often the most mentally challenging for her.
“The beginning is typically fresh and exciting and goes by fast, while the end is the last push; but for me, the middle is where the real grind and biggest mental concentration and expenditure seems to be. The middle is where you have to stay engaged and really commit.”
So how does she prepare for this expected hurdle? Schneider acknowledges what she is feeling and replaces it with a positive thought or mantra. For example, ‘Just this lap’ and ‘Be brave’ are two she likes to use. Whether or not you use a mantra, she suggests trying a few different strategies to find what works best for you.
If you’re looking for inspiration, she suggests reading a book on mental training, including “You Are a Badass” by Jen Sincero and “Finding Your Zone” by Michael Lardon.
Alison Désir, founder of Harlem Run and a runner and activist sponsored by Under Armour, is currently in the last trimester of her pregnancy, so her mental hurdles vary during a training run and race. For a training run she finds those first three miles dreadful, however, when racing, she has to push through and overcome voices telling her to quit or slow down.
“I call this process ‘the negotiation,’ where I have to remind myself why I enjoy pushing myself and promising myself whatever post-race rewards will help me get it done.”
“I call this process ‘the negotiation,’ where I have to remind myself why I enjoy pushing myself and promising myself whatever post-race rewards will help me get it done,” she shares. Those rewards could be anything including ice cream, burgers, massages or even sleeping for 12+ hours!
To prepare her mind, Désir finds speed workouts, in particular, are helpful to push herself to the breaking point. “Both body and mind have a memory of past difficulties leading to triumphs and those are the memories I recall when things get really difficult,” she adds. “‘You’ve done hard things before and you can do them again,’ is a regular mantra of mine.”
Like Schneider, professional miler Frezer Legesse relies on his mental training mid-run. He finds this is the same whether it is a training run or race, because during training he is preparing his mind for the mental barrier he will face during a race.
“That’s where the classic question of how far do I have left comes in,” Legesse shares. “The answer is another half, which is longer than almost there.”
When those mid-run demons arise, Legesse focuses on keeping his heart-rate steady and staying relaxed. He finds panicking makes it worse. If you’re faced with the same situation, he recommends thinking about what is ahead step-by-step; breaking down the rest of your run (for a miler that involves thinking one lap at a time) can help you gear up for what is to come and staying calm knowing you have a plan.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR BRAIN FOR SUCCESS
When it comes to training your brain for a run or race, Howard Falco of Total Mind Sports, a peak performance author and expert, shares there are different mental strategies for the beginning, middle and end of your run.
In the beginning, you want to get into a good mental rhythm and cadence. In the middle, you want to be aware of any thoughts that will test your willpower, so you can quickly counter them with positive thoughts. Toward the end, you should break down your run into strides — mini-segments — you can focus on and get through.
“Breaking your thoughts down to achievable and believable mini-goals near the end of a run when it’s pushing you the brink mentally and physically can really help you strive for something achievable and believable,” he explains. “It will eventually get you through it and prove to yourself that you can achieve the mini-goals and much more.”
If all else fails at the end of the run, turn on your go-to power song, crank up the volume and push through it. “This has to be an extremely energetic powerful song that lights up every cell in your body,” Falco adds.
You should be working on mental training during every run; Falco says this is where the habit of running comes in. Just getting out there and sticking to your routine is a form of mental training. Also, how you approach training your brain should vary based on how long you’ve been running.
“Seasoned runners should be working on efficient stride, arm movement, breathing, mental states of thought and foot movement,” he explains. “New runners should be more focused on sticking with the routine, building endurance and finishing runs as they increase the ‘can do’ mental muscle.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Even if you feel like you’ve been running long enough to finally get past those mental hurdles, others will present themselves. No runner is immune. A lot of running is getting comfortable with being uncomfortable — believing you have the strength to get through any run or race is key when coming up against something new or unknown.
“See the vision, believe you can and work on building a will so strong that you won’t stop until you achieve all you desire,” urges Falco. “Self-reflection and self-awareness is a powerful way to solidify the whys of your passion, and is highly recommended to remove doubt, negative thoughts and increase the personal belief, will and attitude that fuel you past all the mental roadblocks to everything you truly want to achieve during any run you go on!”