Running is Mental

"Running is mental", Coach Sharp would shout at us as we ran our grueling cross-country practice. In fact, he would go so far as to classify running as "99% mental" to which we would all mumble things under our breath like, "then why do our legs hurt so much!?" or "then let’s just stay inside and think about running!". It became a joke and something we would playfully tease each other with as we ran our hearts out during practices and meets…but it wasn’t until much later in life that I realized that our coach was right: Running is mental!

My alarm clock went off way too early this morning and as I got dressed for my long run, I could hear the rain slapping against the house. How I wanted to crawl right back in my warm bed! But I knew there weren’t many windows of opportunity to go for a 3+ hour run with all of the kid’s & life’s activities…it was now or never. So off I went. After just one mile of running on the park’s dark and wet path, I felt exhausted…my legs hurt…and the over-whelming voice in the back of my head finally convinced me to stop and walk. As I walked for a few minutes, I took deep breaths and convinced myself to start back up and just run comfortably and take in the park’s scenery – even if it was just for one more mile. I watched the sunrise over the harvested corn fields, and the rain glisten on the multi-colored fall leaves. I saw deer, rabbits, and many flocks of geese and as I focused on things outside of me, I ran one my longest and quickest workouts of the year…and forgot all about the cold rain and my sore legs!

We focus so much on all of the physical aspects of running which makes it very easy to forget that running is mental. A few deep breaths and positive thoughts changed a disaster workout into a great morning! I know there are a few folks out there that will scoff at my story, but who can deny the power of positive thinking? I know my limits and understand the difference between the body’s signals of discomfort and its signals of serious pains. But I also know that by focusing outside of myself instead on my little discomforts I can surpass the phony limitations that I place on myself. And while the actual running itself can be a physical challenge, it’s much more of a challenge to maintain focus and stay positive when the logical part of our brain tries to coax us back in bed!

The fields of self-hypnosis and sports psychology are very popular amongst professional athletes, Olympians, and sports teams. Why? Because they know the power of positive thoughts. How many times have you seen a team gain ‘momentum’ in a game? What happened? In most cases, an event or play in the game caused one side to actually believe that they can win, and in doing so they pursue and fulfill their own vision. This belief or faith is an extremely powerful tool, and one that we should try to harness to help ourselves achieve our goals.

If you’re starting a running routine or trying to train for a longer race, you’ll have many hurdles in front of you…and most of them are mental. Here are a few tips, breathing exercises, and positive phrases that have helped me face the mental hurdles of running and can help you, too:

  • Write down your goals
    By writing down your goals, you’ve fortified your mental goal into an objective. It’s almost like signing a contract. While it may seem like a small act, it’s a sign of commitment and it may help keep your focus during the ‘low’ moments in your training.
  • Positive phrases
    A few catchy phrases can make the difference between an anguish induced pity-party and a hardened resolve to complete the workout. Phrases like, “You can do it” & “I feel good” will help drown out the negative signals of physical discomfort that your left brain will start bombarding you with.
  • Take a deep breath!
    The power of deep breathing is under-valued. Deep breaths flood your system with oxygen and help relax and calm your mind and body. Deep breaths are the foundation of hypnosis, yoga, meditation and many other routines. Remember: Running is mental; so when the proverbial flood gate of negative thoughts opens up (and it usually will), divert your mind back into positive thinking. If you have to take a pause in your workout and take a few deep breaths to settle down…do it! Breath slowly in through your nose and let your diaphragm fill up your chest with good clean air. A few of these deep breaths and you’ll likely be back on track!
  • Favorite Song
    Another reason I know that running is mental, is the different paces I subconsciously run depending on which song is coming through the headphones. I have everything from Classical to Country to Hard rock on my little MP3 player and each song evokes a different pace. During races, I’ll pick a few songs to mentally recite. This helps me regulate my breathing and keep the tempo of my goal pace.
  • The Finish Line Prize
    Sometimes the best mental trick I play on myself is the ‘finish-line bribe’. I’ll envision the soft pretzels at the race tent; the cup of coffee when I get home; going out to dinner that evening; or some other treat that will seem more than justified after a good work-out or race. Thinking about these rewards has really gotten me through some of the more challenging spots in my workouts.

Now that you know that running is mental – use this to your advantage. Make your goal a vision – focus on the vision – and it will soon become a reality. If the body’s aches and pains start to drown out your positive messages, focus outside of yourself. Admire the area you’re running through; Look around the gym; Think about the rewards and achievement of your workout. Harness the power of positive thinking and you’ll enjoy the many, many rewards of a successful fitness program!

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