The Mental Games of Running


If you've ever trained for a race before, you are probably quite familiar with the idea that running is such a mental game -- especially long distance running. Yes, of course, you need the muscle and stamina, but if you can't get your mind in the right place, you won't get anywhere. When you're training for a marathon or a half marathon, you have to be a little bit crazy (by non-runner standards). It takes a degree of craziness to be able to wake up at 5am, get outside in the cold, and run 10 miles straight. 

1. The Schedule Game

This is at the top of the list because all of the other games are kind of contingent on being good at this game. If you don't get yourself out the door, you can't increase your speed or distance. Step one is just getting out there and sticking to your schedule. And this can be really hard, especially if you work full-time or you have kids. Sticking to your running schedule usually involves waking up earlier. So you have to become the crazy person who goes to bed super early and wakes up at 5 to make time for her runs. Stick to your schedule. Don't skip runs; don't pile miles all into one day (learned that the hard way). 

2. The Distance Game

This is probably the weirdest mental game that I play with myself. I don't know if any of the rest of you do this, but this is kind of the only way I can mentally get myself to finish super long runs: I pretend like I'm just going for a normal run. So let's say my schedule wants me to run 13 miles. I would not do a 13-mile down and back. That's not how my brain works. I would combine a series of my normal, shorter routes. I would get out the door and think, oh, I'm just running my normal 6 mile route. I would run my 6-mile route and when I got back to my apartment, I would lie to myself (as if I hadn't run anything yet) oh, I'm just running my normal 4 mile route. I would run the 4 mile route, and get back to my apartment to lie again. Oh, I'm just running my normal 3-mile route. No big deal. Yup. That's how I do it. 

3. The Pace Game

I like to use a running app to track my pace. It tells me every mile what my current pace, split pace, and average pace is. I have to set the tone from the first step. If I start out my run at my goal pace, it's much easier for me to push to maintain that than it is for me to try to speed up in the middle of the run. 

4. The Recovery Game

Once you get into the swing of your schedule, you may not want to take rest days. They feel counter-productive. But they're not. They're necessary. You should really allow yourself at least 2 rest days each week to let your muscles and joints recover. Make sure to place one of these rest days after your long run. On the days that you don't run, you can still be productive for your training. Try cross training with yoga or weights. I wouldn't do a leg workout the day after your long run, but on your mid-week rest day, try doing some squats and deadlifts. Increasing your deadlift strength will do wonders for your running speed. 

5. The Comfort in the Uncomfortable Game

There's a lot of discomfort involved with distance running -- chafing, joint aches, general tiredness, etc. I have to convince myself that all of that discomfort is fine, and despite the fact that I'm feeling lazy or sore, that I still need go get out and run. Disclaimer: if you're actually injured, you should take some time off. 

6. The Nutrition Game

A lot of people take up running to lose weight. They eat a small amount of food and then run forever, and think that that is what's best for their body/weight loss. When you create such an extreme calorie deficit, you're putting your body into starvation mode, which makes your metabolism slow down and actually makes losing weight harder in the long run. Instead of cutting calories, you should really increase them. That's another mental game. You feel like you shouldn't eat as many carbs, but your body needs carbs to fuel your long runs. So, eat up!

7. The Treadmill Game

I think this might be the hardest one for me. I really really [really] hate running on the treadmill. You too? Running without going anywhere is a whole different mental game for me. This one is a game of distraction. If I stare at the distance creeping up one tenth of a decimal at a time, even a 3 mile run will feel like an eternity. I have to distract myself and only allow myself to look at the screen at designated moments. At my gym, the treadmills are placed in front of TVs. I watch a show, and I only allow myself to look at the treadmill screen at the beginning and end of commercial breaks. This seems to make the time go by [a little] faster, and does a decent job of distracting me from how much I hate running on the treadmill. 

Do you play mental games with yourself in your running practice? Which ones?