A strong men­tal game can help you run your best on race day

Runner's World (UK) - - Body+Mind - BY ALEX HUTCHIN­SON

For decades, sports psy­chol­o­gists have told run­ners that fo­cus­ing on the act of run­ning is the best way to chase PBS. But what are you sup­posed to think about? New re­search sug­gests that cer­tain midrun thought pat­terns are help­ful, while oth­ers can do harm. And the more men­tal tac­tics you prac­tise, the more likely you are to have one that works in any race sit­u­a­tion, says Ul­ster Univer­sity sports psy­chol­ogy re­searcher Noel Brick. To master the men­tal side of your next spring race, start train­ing to use these tac­tics now.


Elite run­ners are masters of ‘metacog­ni­tion’, or think­ing about think­ing, says Brick: they plan what they should think about at var­i­ous stages of a race to max­imise their per­for­mance, and they prac­tise those thought pat­terns in train­ing. Af­ter the race, they as­sess which strate­gies were suc­cess­ful and which weren’t. Did you start fall­ing off goal pace when you fo­cused on stay­ing re­laxed, and then pick it back up when you started look­ing ahead to the run­ner in front of you? Take note of that pat­tern.


‘Can you main­tain this pace to the finish line?’ is the big ques­tion in rac­ing. To an­swer it, you need to as­sess how you’re feel­ing, then slow down or speed up ac­cord­ingly. But if you fo­cus non-stop on how you’re feel­ing, it can make the run feel harder. In­stead, Brick sug­gests, do a pe­ri­odic body scan – at each mile marker in a marathon, for ex­am­ple – and if all is well, turn your at­ten­tion back to other mat­ters, such as your run­ning form. Ex­per­i­ment in train­ing to find form cues that help you feel smooth and fast. Fo­cus on main­tain­ing a quick ca­dence and light steps, or keep­ing your shoulders down and arms swing­ing freely.


Your in­ter­nal dia­logue isn’t just a re­sponse to how you’re feel­ing; it also helps shape your re­ac­tion. Think­ing that you feel like crap isn’t go­ing to make your race any eas­ier. In a 2014 study, re­searchers showed that pos­i­tive self-talk im­proved time to ex­haus­tion by 18 per cent in a cy­cling test. Draw up a list of mantras to use at dif­fer­ent points in a race (eg, ‘Feel­ing good!’ early on and ‘Push through this!’ in the clos­ing miles) and try them in train­ing to de­ter­mine which feel com­fort­able. Then prac­tise them un­til they be­come au­to­matic.

Alex Hutchin­son is a for­mer elite athl ete and the author of Which comes first, car­dio or weights? ( Wil­liam Mor­row)

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