Running is a tough sport. And it arguably takes more mental strength than physical strength to do it—from getting started, sticking with it, and going after a goal. Mental training for runners can be the difference between not only a personal record but whether running becomes a permanent fixture in your life. In this article, I will explore key mental skills so that you can unleash your peak performance whether that is nailing your fastest mile time or your first marathon.
In this article, I interview experts to answer:
- what is mental training
- what are mental training techniques
- and reveal nine mental training for runners skills from sports psychologists
What is mental training?
Mental training is a practice in sport psychology or performance psychology that focuses on helping athletes break through mental barriers to reach their peak potential. It is more than “grit” or “mental toughness.”
Just as we train our bodies to go the distance, we must train our minds to do the same.
Part of what makes running so challenging is that deep-seated self-doubts and self-limiting beliefs can throw up roadblocks in the way of our goals.
I see this with the athletes I coach as well as with myself.
Through mental training for runners, one can conquer these self-limiting beliefs and realize their full potential not only on the roads but in other aspects of life.
My need for mental training
Personally, I began to notice these self-limiting beliefs when going after my Olympic Trials qualifying time in 2019.
My self-doubts manifested themselves in comparing my workouts to others, over-analyzing every split, negative self-talk and repeatedly asking my coach, friends, and husband if they thought I could actually qualify for the Olympic Trials.
It became clear that I did not believe I could run the qualifying time which is why I leaned so heavily on the opinions of others.
And, if I didn’t believe in my abilities, then there would be no way I would be able to achieve my goal.
I ended up partially tearing my hamstring in the middle of my marathon cycle. I continued to train with the hamstring injury, running a 2:56 at the 2019 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon.
Since then, I have viewed my hamstring injury and a string of other setbacks as opportunities to strengthen not just my body but also my mind through mental training.
Mental training techniques
The mind is a powerful tool that can overcome almost any odd to help you achieve your goals. Below are some mental training techniques to help you tap into your potential and up your mental game:
- Journaling: Using a journal or training log to dissect workouts and mindset can help you uncover mental blocks to your performance and your ultimate “why.” Studies show that people who are motivated by something personally meaningful are more likely to achieve their goals.
- Meditation: Meditation, including those directed by apps such as Calm or Headspace, can clear your mind of barriers to your performance. Specifically, studies show meditation can remove blind spots and improve sleep, immunity, and endurance.
- Practice regularly: Practice breathing, staying positive, and embracing discomfort on your runs on a regular basis to strengthen your mental fitness as you strengthen your physical fitness. Find a running mantra that helps you keep a positive mindset within reach.
- Peers: Talk with your peers about your training and mindset. This can act as talk therapy.
- Visualization: Visualize yourself (from start to finish) successfully nailing a race or workout.
- Mindfulness: Practice being acutely aware of oneself and your surroundings while objectively acknowledging your physical and emotional feelings. Studies show mindfulness improves athletic performance by allowing athletes to overcome negative feelings.
- Positive self-talk. Talking to yourself in third person in a positive way during tough physical training like long runs, hard workouts, or a race so that it is like someone else is cheering you on.
I got with mental training experts, performance psychologists, and sports psychologists to reveal mental training tips for runners to optimize your performance and get you out of the way of yourself!
9 Mental Training Tips for Runners from Sports Psychologists and Experts
Challenge negative self-talk.
Performance psychologist Dr. Haley Perlus advises athletes to overcome unhealthy negative self-talk by first recognizing and then challenging your negative thoughts.
Assess where these negative thoughts and comparisons are stemming from and shift your perspective. Train your mind to focus on your strengths, especially when it comes to comparing yourself unfairly to others.
“When we compare ourselves to others, we usually focus on their strengths and our weaknesses,” she says.
If social media like Instagram or Strava are the sources of many of these negative thoughts, edit your feed or spend time away from these networks.
Recognize limiting beliefs.
Recognizing self-limiting beliefs is perhaps the most important and hardest mental training exercise to do.
“Limiting beliefs are stories we have bouncing around in our head that we usually don’t realize,” says certified running coach and life coach Amy Stone.
The first step is to identify these limiting beliefs as you challenge your negative self-talk. Next step is try to find the origin of where these stories came from. “Intentionally choose whether you wish to continue to hold onto the story or not,” advises Stone.
If not, work to set up a new replacement thought that is more aligned with how you want to move forward.
Stone says uncovering limiting beliefs is heavy work and mostly effectively performed with a trained coach or sports psychologist.
Set realistic goals.
Don’t set yourself up for failure by setting unrealistic goals for yourself. Your goals should be challenging but within reach.
“If you’re a 10-minute miler, then don’t set and run at an eight-minute pace starting out. Remember, it truly isn’t a sprint — it’s literally a marathon,” advises psychotherapist, Jonathan Alpert, author of best-seller Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days.
Instead, break your big goal into smaller “process goals.” If your goal is to run a marathon, run shorter races first. If your goal is to stay healthy, set mini-goals to achieve this. That is what pro runner (and mother runner) Neely Gracey does:
“The process goals along the way are smaller goals to track the progress and keep me focused,” Gracey shares. “Get to bed by 9 p.m. each night. Swim twice a week…I typically track my process goals in a bullet journal each night so I can see the consistency build.”
The NAZ Elite athletes set intangible goals such as “stay injury-free” or “reach my full potential” to set themselves up for achieving the big tangible goals such as making the Olympic team or running a specific time.
Related: How to Set Running Goals
If you doubt yourself and your ability to achieve your goal, ask yourself why. What needs to happen in order for you to achieve this goal?
“One of the coaching phrases that I use often is ‘confidence comes from competence,’” says Stone. “It starts with the concept that it may not be something you can do today but believing that you can work towards that goal. Ask yourself ‘what do I believe I can do today with what I have?’ Then, do that.”
Repeating this process consistently will build confidence in that skill and move you closer to the ultimate goal.
This mental fitness tip requires you to build a roadmap with the skills needed, the work you need to do, and the process goals that act as stepping stones to get you there.
Focus on the bad.
Elite running coach and famed sports writer, Matt Fitzgerald, author of the new book, The Comeback Quotient, says to expose weaknesses, you must focus on the bad.
By this, I mean look at races or workouts gone wrong and dissect why it went wrong:
Did you go out too fast because you doubt you can hold the pace or have something to prove? Constantly ask, ‘why?’ And then do what you can do to get better next time.
We are skilled at self-deception, so talking this out with a sports psychologist, running coach, or a friend is the best way to unearth the reason for such failures.
Prepare for the worst.
Part of what makes running require grit, perseverance, and an ample amount of mental toughness are all the variables and opportunities for something to go wrong:
It’s pouring for your marathon. You get injured. Your stomach hurts. Your leg cramps. You name it, it can happen.
So, to be able to roll with the punches, you need to prepare for the worst—practically and mentally, says Stone.
“This means that each week during your training, you take a little bit of time and think ‘what might the conditions really be like during my race, and am I ready it?’”
If something unfortunate happens in a race, Stone says to take a second and assess what is really happening and ask yourself if you are okay. If so, think of the next step.“I advise my clients (who are dealing with discomfort) to ask themselves, ‘what can I do to get to the finish line?’”
Fitzgerald, who coaches elite runners, advises his athletes to find the one true thing that’s good. If your quads are burning but your arms feel loose, focus on your arms. Replace the negative with a positive that you can buy into.
Some runners like to add doses of discomfort into their daily lives to amplify their grit like taking really cold showers or purposefully running in really hot, cold, or wet weather.
Turn off the music.
Mindfulness has been shown to improve “focus, concentration and our ability to let go of negative thoughts that can affect our performance. Athletes find mindfulness helps them to be process-oriented and less anxious, allowing them to enjoy better health and improved performance,” reports The True Athlete Project.
Dr. Jason Ross, a sports psychologist, shared on the Strength Running podcast with Jason Fitzgerald, that he has his athletes regularly practice mindfulness on their runs by beginning each run with no music or podcasts. For the first mile or two, he instructs them to take in the sights and sounds of their surroundings, as well as how they are feeling.
He also advises athletes to not listen to music for at least the first half of the race. Research shows music can enhance performance when used appropriately. Thereby, turning to music when you’re hurting in a race can help distract you from the pain and boost performance.
Visualize your success and grit.
“If you see it in your mind then it’s a reality for your body,” says Alpert. “Just like thinking of juice dripping off a tangy lemon makes you salivate, visualizing certain things on race day will give you a boost.”
Multiple times in your training and ahead of your race, envision yourself running the race in its entirety. Feel the butterflies in your stomach at the start. See the crowds, landmarks, and hills. Visualize yourself gliding effortlessly through the race but also see yourself encountering discomfort and pushing through.
“If you feel tight or achy, imagine your muscles smooth and soft and your joints light and gel-like. Relax your jaw and neck while you glide through different parts of the race. Remember, a relaxed body functions efficiently and with strength and endurance,” says Alpert.
Then picture yourself achieving your goal:
Feel what it feels like to cross the finish. See the time of the clock. Get the medal around your neck and hug your loved ones. Embrace the joy and satisfaction that comes with working so hard towards your goal and doing something you once doubted you could do.
In The Comeback Quotient, Fitzgerald analyzes athletes who have astounding athletic comebacks and identifies a trend:
The athletes were what he calls “ultrarealists.”
Ultrarealists succeed where others fail because they fully accept, embrace, and address the reality of their setbacks.
Here’s what that looks like:
- Accept the situation in a way that preserves the ability to make choices.
- Embrace the situation in a way that allows them to make lemons out of lemonade.
- Address the situation in a way that allows them to use maximal effort and good judgment.
Personally, I have found this approach to be true. When I was rehabbing my hamstring in 2020, I had setback after setback in part because I was in denial about how long the rehabilitation process would need to take.
Now, with my plantar fascia tear, I have embraced the time off and am using it to strengthen my mental fitness. I truly believe my comeback will be great despite all the time I need to take off.
Performance psychology in your pocket
Finding a performance psychologist or sports psychologist to speak with in-person or virtually is the best way to optimize your mindset and embolden your mental toughness.
If a mental training expert isn’t available in your area, there are plenty of smartphone apps such as Lucid and WellU that offer mental training sessions. These can help you build that mental toughness muscle to be the best runner you can be!
If you want guidance with your running goals, check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans: