Twice last week I had runners comment to me about the mental aspect of long training runs and endurance races. This is something that many struggle with. It is true there are many factors that play into both the mental and physical “wall,” such as training status, hydration, nutritional practices, and pacing strategies. Regardless of the struggle and failure to meet time goals in a negative mental state, I often hear “but I didn’t give up, I kept going”. There is no doubt that endurance athletes are a special breed of humans. Research using validated psychological instruments has determined that marathon runners have innate, desirable personality profiles of less depression and anxiety and greater emotional stability and psychic vigor compared to non-runners (Raglin, 2001).
None the less, some still have mental demons that try to take them down. As runners, we just want to run, run, and run. However, for those of you that struggle with the demons or those that are ready to find out where there maximal potential as a distance runner is, you should incorporate mental training into your preparation. Mental training can help you prepare to combat the stinking thinking that comes with fatigue, boredom, pain, performance anxiety, and that little devil that takes a spot on your shoulder, negative self-talk.
Thanks to some cognitive-behavioral strategies from the sports psychology world, we will be taking a glimpse at some psychological skills training techniques that you can incorporate into training to make you more mentally resilient.
Imagery: Imagery is the most researched psychological skill for athletic performance enhancement. Vealy and Greenleaf (2010) discuss the power of imagery in performance enhancement with the simple definition of creating or re-creating a situation or experience in the mind. The most powerful aspect of said practice is how the brain processes virtual images as true stimulus. One way to practice imagery during mental training is to recall positive and negative times in a previous race situation. With the negative image, one practices visualizing overcoming fatigue at that point in the race, turning it into a positive experience for better race outcomes. We all have heard the saying, “seeing is believing”. If you see it in your head, you can help it come to fruition. Play out in your head how you want the race to go and how you want to feel in the moment. With positive images, recall the happiness, strength, and pride you felt and recreate it over and over in your head.
Positive self-talk: Self-talk is deployed to reconstruct negative words into positive phrases. Turing self-talk such as “my legs are heavy and hurt” into phrases like “this is a challenge, but I am in it to win it in my head and I have prepared for this day” is an example of positive reconstruction. Positive reconstruction aids in refocusing on the task at hand, therefore augmenting control over running and being able to focus on performance cues, such as reminding yourself, “head up, shoulders relaxed, drive the knees forward, and push off the ground” (Barwood et al., 2008).
Goal-setting: Goal-setting is so incredibly vital to marathon running performance and is worthy of its very own future blog post, so I will only give a brief description. Outcome goals are end goals, such as finishing time goals or age group placement goals. These goals, when matched with your level of ability, can help drive training so that you end up at the starting line feeling like a well-oiled machine, thus increasing confidence. Process goals are goals that you turn to throughout the race to help you get through it. An example would be planning when you will take in hydration and nutrition during the race to make sure that your engine remains optimally fueled. Another example is setting goals like “if I feel the need to walk, I will only walk the hydration stations”. A process goal can also be “my only goal is to not walk, because this could take several minutes off my previous marathon effort when I did walk”. Process goals are focusing on finishing the race by breaking it into phases. Some people can handle it my counting miles, whereas others cannot. You can also just count the “kills”, the number of people you pass on the race route that you had been hunting down as your process goal to pass more people than pass you.
In a research experiment of psychological skills training, 18 male endurance runners ran for 90 minutes on a treadmill in a room set at 86 degrees Fahrenheit. The runners were blinded to the run pace and distance, but had control of slowing or speeding up the treadmill. Previous research on running in the heat has identified negative mental aspects such as; decreasing motivation, altering arousal, and creating negative mood states. Over the next four days, the runners were then given four, one hour sessions of psychological skills training, including mental imagery, positive self-talk, and goal-setting toward running in the heat. In a subsequent blinded 90 minute treadmill test with the ability to slow or speed the treadmill, the runners ran 8% longer in the same thermal conditions after psychological skills training (Barwood et al., 2008).
If the mental aspect of training and racing is something you struggle with, you can find books on Amazon with the skills that I highlighted in this blog post. You must be realistic and know that if you haven’t trained or fueled properly for the distance or are training and racing through a true injury, psychological skills won’t pull you through to a personal best.
Runner Image: Kimberly Grady
Barwood, M. J., Thelwell, R. C., & Tipton, M. J. (2008). Psychological skills training improves exercise performance in the heat. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 40(2), 387-396. doi: 10.1249/mss.0b013e31815adf31.
Raglin, J. S. (2001). Psychological factors in sport performance: The mental health model revisited. Sports Medicine, 31, 875-890.
Vealy, R. S., & Greenleaf, C. A. (2010). Seeing is believing: Understanding and using imagery in sports. In J.M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sports psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (6th ed.) (pp. 267-299). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.