This week I had a 40-minute tempo run. To be completely transparent, I almost always have a tough time with tempo runs. I knew I needed a secret weapon to succeed. I needed a good mantra for running to stop the negative self-talk and get into a positive mindset.
So, I picked one. A new mantra. A simple word. I thought about my intention for the workout. I wanted to stay in control during this very hard run. I wanted to stay smooth. This intention was born out of the mistakes I typically make with tempos—I start out too fast and ride the struggle bus to the end.
My running mantra was a single word: Smooth.
I changed my watch screen to only show my heart rate and I had only one word to guide my effort. Smooth. When the negative thoughts started to crop up that I wasn’t going fast enough or that there was so much more time left, I shut them down with the best running mantra I could think of for this run.
Smooth. Stay smooth, Whitney, I told myself.
Guess what? It worked. I stayed in control for the whole workout, kicking it at the end, averaging 30 seconds faster per mile than I did a month prior.
In this article, I want to help you find the power of mantras so you can achieve your best race times and workouts. I will answer:
- What is a mantra for runners?
- Do mantras work?
- How to pick a running mantra?
- How do you use a mantra while running?
- What are examples of the best mantras for runners?
Let’s get going!
What is a mantra for runners?
A mantra can be defined as a “prolonged repetitive verbal utterance.” Simply put, mantras are positive affirmations to stop the spiral of negative self-talk when you are in a rough patch. It is a tool for thinking that has been known to lead to calm concentration, quiet mental chatter, and even lead someone to a mystical state.
For runners, a mantra is a single word or short phrase that has the power to stop the cascade of negative thoughts provoked by the pain of running tough workouts or long runs, or racing. A mantra can redirect your thinking to what your intention is for that race or workout. Or it can simply stop your thoughts altogether.
The earliest mantras were composed in Vedic Sanskrit in India. The ancient tradition of mantras have origins in both Eastern and Western religious practices including Benedictine Christian traditions, Stoicism, Buddhism, and Taoism, in which followers repeat chants to calm and guide their thoughts.
When taken apart, the word mantra means vehicle (“tra) for the mind (“man”) in Sanskrit. For those who use it in these traditions, it provokes a deep state of meditation.
For runners, using a word or phrase that stops your train of thought from going off the tracks can help you reclaim your focus and execute what you set out to do that day.
Do mantras work? Can a mantra help you run faster?
Specifically, a 2015 Brain and Behavior journal study used MRIs to study brain activity when mantras were used. It found that “subjects who repeated a mantra displayed decreased brain activity, allowing for increased focus and relaxation.”
That means, when your lungs are screaming, your legs feel like lead, and your brain is telling you to stop, a single word can quiet those negative thoughts and shift your focus to tackling the task at hand.
That’s pretty darn powerful.
But you got to be able to choose the right mantra that fits you, your goals, and the race or run at hand.
How do I pick a mantra for running?
The mantra you choose for running can be something that invokes a positive quality in yourself such as your toughness or persistence. It can also be your intention for the day—to try your hardest, get what you worked so hard for, or to be proud of yourself.
Your mantra should resonate with you. It should feel familiar, comfortable, like it fits YOU—not something you are striving to be.
Mantras are a powerful tool to have in your mental strength toolbox. Powerful mantras start with the word “I.” I am strong… fierce…deserve this…worked hard for this…can do this.”
Third-person mantras are also powerful as they sound like someone cheering for you and encouraging you when you’re riding the struggle bus.
I suggest creating a list of favorite mantras to call upon when you’re needing to call upon your inner strength to complete the workout or get to the finish line proud of yourself.
How do I stop making excuses when running?
I find myself making excuses A LOT when the going gets tough in my running. My brain goes into self-preservation mode and internal struggles churn. My brain starts thinking about the explanations (or excuses) I will give to my family, friends, coach, or Strava followers for why I had a bad day or underperformed.
The truth is no one really cares about how I did. They won’t love or respect me less. The excuses are for ME. And I know the truth and I’m not buying it.
So, what to do? Create a mantra that shuts down the excuses—“No Excuses.” – Just like those cheesy t-shirts all the boys had when I was in middle school. (Yes, I am showing my age here.).
It is simple. Yet, it works. As soon as I feel bad or my pace stops slowing, the excuse storyboards start popping up. And now, I whack them down. I say to myself, No excuses. And, then my brain stops and turns to something else like the hill or runner in front of me.
How do I use mantras for running?
Your mantra may change depending on the day. You may have certain mantras for certain workouts or races.
Just as my simple mantra for my tempo was “smooth”, my mantra for the last 10k of a marathon may simply be “Run. Just run.” Because at that moment, that may be all I need to keep moving forward and not let my negative thoughts spiral and hold me back.
You may choose a single mantra for your current training cycle. For instance, if you are coming back from an injury or having a baby, it may be “Comeback.” This word serves as a reminder that now is your time to shine! You have waited patiently. You have put in the work. And today is YOUR day.
To make the most of using your mantra when running, you can tap into other mental tools to set yourself up for success:
6 Mental Tools for Runners
Studies show that bracing for pain can help your performance.
Before going into your race or workout, acknowledge that it is going to hurt. Expect discomfort. Some elite and pro distance runners like Deena Kastor invite it. They see it as a challenge. (You might have the mantra then of ‘Bring it on.”) Remind yourself that you have been here before.
Studies show that people who can regulate their emotions (and have a higher emotional intelligence) perform better in endurance events. Remember that you have a degree of control over your emotions. Acknowledge that your thoughts and emotions are not reality.
A mantra can help you do this. When your brain is sending you negative thoughts, remember that your thoughts are just thoughts (a process called metacognition), and then shut them down with your word or phrase.
Choose your emotion.
Remember when I said you have the power to choose your emotion. Then, you can try to pick the emotion you want to race or run with. Some people choose to run with joy, seeing the race as a celebration of their hard work and the beauty in the community and sport of running.
Others like to race angry—thinking about something that riles them up or picking competitors they want to pick off. When I was in high school, my coach thought I raced better angry, so she told me she heard my competitors saying I didn’t look very fast. I ran a personal best in the 800 meters that day.
Break it up.
Studies show that elite runners who break up their races, also known as “chunking”, perform better. This is when you break up the distance into smaller segments, like to the next mile mark or next tree. After you complete that segment, you choose another one. This makes the task less daunting.
Elite runner Gina Rouse talks about this strategy for success with me on The Passionate Runner podcast.
Deal with discomfort.
The other day, Kara Goucher shared on Instagram that she would often run with a rock in her shoe to bolster her mental toughness. Many elites will willingly serve up discomfort in their lives in the form of things like cold showers to help them perform better on race day.
You can do this too. Choose to run without music one day or by carrying water bottles when you typically stash them or forgo a pitstop a few extra miles. This will prepare you for whatever comes up on race day.
Think through worst-case scenarios.
What will also help you better prepare on race day is to think through worst-case scenarios. Expect the unexpected. Then visualize how you will respond. Is it a downpour? Visualize you going with it and still racing hard. Tummy troubles? Think about your plan to use the port-a-john, then get back to racing.
By the way, Matt Fitzgerald’s latest book, written with former NAZ Elite head coach Ben Rosario, Run like a Pro, has great tools for mental toughness that served to inspire the above.
30 Best Mantras for Runners
Okay, now let’s get to the good part. Below are 30 of the best mantras for runners.
These mantra examples come from me, fellow runners, and elite runners. Choose the best mantra for you or use them to brainstorm your own. (Get more mantras over at my friend Sheebes.)
- Pain only hurts—Scott Jurek.
- Fighter—Kara Goucher.
- Run without any regrets—Shalane Flanagan.
- Belong—Des Linden.
- Calm, calm, calm. Relax, relax, relax.
- Send it.
- Let yourself run.
- You worked hard for this.
- Get into it—Bob Kersee, Allyson Felix’s coach.
- Run with it.
- Don’t be a whimp. – Matt Fitzgerald.
- Good is good enough. – Keira D’Amato.
- Embrace the suck. – D’Amato
- I’m deserving of my goals. – D’Amato.
- Hard doesn’t mean impossible.
- No one else will do it for you.
- Fit is not a feeling.
- Run the mile you’re in.
- Keep it strong, stupid.
- I can do hard things.
- Summer miles bring fall smiles (for training in the heat.)
- Stay smooth.
- Stay in control.
- I got this.
- I’m fast.
- I’m strong.
- I’m a grinder.
- Stay strong.
- Bring it on.
If you want guidance with your training while running pregnant or postpartum, check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:
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