As a running coach, who mostly specialises in introducing beginners to our wonderful world of endorphins, it never ceases to amaze me how many times I hear people complain that they’ll never be fast, or that they can’t run, or that they’re not a natural runner. Having been running myself for 15 years now, I can empathise with this feeling, as I think back to how I felt for a long time, but I no longer agree. The truth is, mindset is everything in running, and if a person believes they are not a fast runner, then they will never be a quicker runner because they will continue to train within their comfort zone and never challenge themselves, and so become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Make sense? I know, because I did this for the first 8 years of my running life.
We’ve all been there during a race, or a training run, when it starts to hurt, as lactic acid builds up or our legs get tired, or our lungs are burning, and your head says “you can’t do this” so you slow down or stop to walk, and give up on yourself. Heck, despite knowing how my inner self-doubt chimp works, I still battle with it a lot, but with practice it’s getting easier to put the chimp back into its cage and carry on.
With a mindset aimed at improving yourself, and willing to accept that running should be uncomfortable sometimes, you can really make a difference to your running. I’m going to share a few tips below of how get your mindset focused on improving, rather than your mental attitude getting in your way.
Train your body and your mind to deal with pain
Running should feel uncomfortable sometimes. I’m not talking pain here – if your joints or muscles are giving you acute pain, please stop running and consult a specialist – but that feeling, that burn, as you run beyond your natural aerobic threshold and start to get out of breath and uncomfortable. If you truly want to train to get faster, you have to be prepared to accept that sometimes it’s going to have to feel uncomfortable. I’ve had a conversation only today that a 5k parkrun never feels easier to me. It’s not because I can’t run the distance, it’s simply because every time I try it, I try to run it faster. It’s human nature.
The more you practice that uncomfortable feeling during training, the more you will get used to it, and be prepared for it during races. This is what training is for; learning how your body reacts to different paces and distances. Use it wisely and don’t be scared of experimenting on yourself.
Focus on your goal
Have you even set yourself a goal? Many people are wary of setting goals, in case they fail at them. What’s the worst that going to happen? You’ll have a go, you might succeed. Brilliant. Worst case scenario is you won’t reach your goal, but you’ll have learned a lot about your own body and your training approach, and you’ll probably be a lot closer to that goal than you would be had you never attempted it. Actually, thinking about it, the absolute worse case scenario is that you injure yourself trying to achieve an unrealistic goal, so choose something that is within reach, but that is also challenging.
While training, visualise how you will feel achieving that goal. Think about your state of mind once you’ve reached that point, which could be crossing a finish line, or achievening a certain time or distance goal. Do you feel happy? Proud? Joyful? Emotional? Who will you share that moment with? It’s important to connect a goal to an emotion, so that it becomes more meaningful to you.
Take the pressure off and enjoy yourself
My best performances have been on days where I’ve taken the pressure off myself, trusted in my training, and decided not to beat myself up if I don’t hit a target. It happens time and time again, when I’ll tell myself “stop caring so much” that I completely unexpectedly smash a PB. It’s when our minds are relaxed that our bodies can perform to their best.
I spent the latter part of 2015 and the entirety of 2016 desperate to get under 50 minutes for a 10k. I entered race after race, and each time at around the 7-8k mark I would allow my legs to talk my mind out of it. “It’s too hot; it’s too hilly; there’s a fellow club runner who needs my company; you’re never going to get under 50; you’re too slow; have a walk.” Classic self sabotage. I would generally knock seconds off my 50:xx PB and beat myself up about how near yet how far I was.
Eventually I recruited my husband to pace me around a 10k course. It was horrific. I put so much pressure on myself. I shouted at him a LOT on the way around. I crossed the line with a massive effort in 49:59.5 seconds. I lay on the ground. I should have been happy, but I knew he had dragged me round; I hadn’t achieved that on my own.
So for my next 10k I decided to stop focusing on that sub 50. I’d technically hit that goal anyway, even though I had had help in the form of pacing, so I decided to enjoy this race which was a looping out and back course with the opportunity to cheer on fellow club runners along the way. I had so much fun, and forgot to even look at my watch, so when I looked at it when I crossed the finish line and it read 48:48 I laughed out loud! What a difference taking that pressure off has made. My next 10k was a similarly fun event when I went effortlessly under 48 minutes. Give yourself a break sometimes. We all crack under too much pressure. Remember that we all supposedly do this for fun.
Focus on your form
I find when I’m tiring during a run, and especially a race, that taking my mind off the pain and the tiredness, and focusing on my form, really helps me by not only distracting my mind, but by helping me to run more efficiently.
Fatigue means we stop running as economically. Our shoulders often tense up, we stop lifting our knees as high, our pelvis tends to sit back as we loosen our core. A mental check in with your body and its form really helps. I always run through the following head to toe checklist:
Head – are you looking forwards, not at the ground? Imagine there’s a piece of string from the sky holding your head upright.
Shoulders – are they tense? Roll them backwards, and relax.
Arms – are they moving? Legs follow what your arms do, so pump them backwards and get some forward momentum going.
Hips – is your pelvis in a neutral position? It often sits back when you’re tired and this can cause back ache, which you’ll probably notice on longer runs. Tighten your core and realign your pelvis.
Knees – make sure you are lifting your knees as high as you can. This will help lengthen your stride and give you more power through your legs.
Feet – move them quickly. Concentrate on a faster cadence, which will be helped by moving your arms quicker. You may also find if your pelvis has sat back, you will probably be landing heavily on your heels. Readjus your pelvis into the neutral position and you’ll probably find it easier to run on your midfoot or toes again
Going through this checklist really helps to distract my mind and make my running more economical.
Distract your mind
There are other things you can do to distract your mind from running. As well as critiquing my own running form, on particularly long races such as marathons I love watching how other people run and thinking what I would advise them to do differently (that’s just the running coach in me). I also love to take everything in and plan how I’m going to write up the race review. Some people find counting very helpful – this is a method Paula Radcliffe famously employs so she knows when a mile has passed.
If you’re really tense before a big race, breathing exercises can help reduce your anxiety. Breathe in deeply, allowing your diaphragm to expand, for the count of 5; hold that breath for the count of 6; then exhale slowly for the count of 7. Repeat this a few times, with your eyes closed, thinking about how you would like to feel during the race.
Mantras can be a very useful technique to use. Choose a few really positive, and specific, mantras that come easily to you, for example:
I am a strong, efficient runner and I am finding this pace really easy.
I am relaxed and smiling because I am having fun.
Those who find themselves talking themselves out of PBs during a race will probably find mantras the most useful, as they are designed to help convince your mind that you can do this. Mantras are about positively reframing your circumstances and helping you believe you can achieve your goals. And believing is, after all, achieving.
I’m currently undergoing some more in depth mindset training with @jo4848 so if you are interested in finding out more and getting involved, please have a look at her website http://www.jorodriguezpsych.com/
Miles with Michelle x