Many runners focus on the physical part of their sport. However, the mind plays a big, often-unappreciated role in running performance.
Here’s what two sports psychologists want runners to know.
RUNNING IS MENTAL AND PHYSICAL
You may assume sports psychologists are reserved for professional athletes, but that’s simply not true: “Anybody with a mind would benefit from working with a sports psychologist,” says Justin Ross, Psy.D., a sports psychologist in Denver, Colorado.
More specifically, runners with performance goals, those who aren’t seeing progress, those who struggle with disordered eating and/or those who are injured (or recovering from injury) would benefit from working with a sports psychologist.
Your mind plays a key role in running performance. In addition to training your body to run faster and farther, practicing simple mental strategies (like those below) can help you stay motivated and confident, which can keep you running at your best over the long-term.
RUNNERS NEED TO RUN THE MILE YOU’RE IN
It’s easy to let your mind wander while on a run. Unfortunately, our minds often wander toward future miles: “When we’re running, we can think about the last mile, or what it’s going to feel like in five miles, but it’s important to think about the mile you’re in,” says Cindra Kamphoff, PhD, certified mental performance consultant, owner of Mentally Strong Consulting, and author of “Beyond Grit.” However, stressing about how you’re going to feel later in the run only makes you anxious, and likely keeps you from finishing your run as planned.
The best way to keep your focus on the present moment is to check in on your thoughts while you run. First, notice where your mind is, and if it’s fixated on future miles, choose to nudge your thoughts back to the present. “Notice the trees around you or how you feel,” Kamphoff says.
The more you practice this skill, the better you’ll get at focusing on the present mile.
RUNNERS HAVE TO EMBRACE DISCOMFORT
Running doesn’t have to be uncomfortable, but if you want to become a better runner, you have to be willing to push past your comfort zone. “Shooting for your personal best is almost always going to mean being uncomfortable,” Ross says.
If you want to learn how to embrace discomfort, start by changing your perspective. That is, begin by recognizing discomfort when running is a good thing. Then, when you get tired or uncomfortable during your run, try to focus on the positive: “If you’re tired, think, ‘Good, well if I run another half-mile today, my fitness is getting better,’” Kamphoff says.
Don’t confuse discomfort with pain, however. “Pain is sharp and shooting, and it’s more in one specific area, and that’s something you shouldn’t run through,” Kamphoff says.
RUNNERS NEED TO FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE
There are many areas in your running life you can’t control: weather, racecourses, road or trail closures, etc. If you allow yourself to get distracted by these uncontrollable variables, you’ll likely waste mental energy on negativity: “We experience all these negative emotions when we focus on things we can’t control,” Kamphoff says, which makes it hard to perform at your best.
Instead, direct your mental energy toward factors you can control: your attitude, passion, efforts, emotions, etc.
IMPROVING MENTAL STRENGTH ISN’T A SIGN OF WEAKNESS
Sometimes, there’s a social stigma around psychology. However, working with a psychologist — or, in this case, a sports psychologist — doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. “Sports psychology is about getting better and stronger,” Ross says.
Don’t think you’re weak if you seek help from a sports psychologist. Sports psychologists can help you master helpful mental strategies that you can use to become a better runner. “It’s a skill-based area for you to work on in your sport,” Ross says.