The ultimate goal of a runner in training is to improve their running fitness so they can meet their goals.
The ultimate goal of a runner in a race is to be able to produce their best possible performance in the race.
There are both physical and mental components of training and racing that go into accomplishing these goals. There are thousands of books and articles that talk about the physical aspects of training and racing. These books and articles explore the workouts to use to best improve fitness in training and what physical strategies yield the best race performances. I talk extensively about those physical aspects here in this blog and on my website EliteMarathoning.com. But what I want to focus on here today is the mental aspects that are often overlooked and under discussed.
The mental side of producing your best possible training or racing performance is the area where the greatest variability is. Runners are a diverse group and have all sorts of different personalities, have all sorts of different and varied life experiences and as a results often have extremely varied tendencies, strengths and weaknesses and stress and comfort triggers. Because of this no matter how carefully crafted, no one mental strategy will work well for everyone. So rather than spending our time trying to force square pegs into round holes, our time is best spent developing a hole that fits our own personal mental pegs the best.
So how do we go about doing this? I think this requires personal honesty, introspection, and experimentation.
Personal honesty: I think the first thing we must realize is there is no right or wrong answers here. We need to free ourselves from embarrassment in our weaknesses or pride in strengths, at least enough in order to be honest about them and recognize them for the role they play in our running. We must do away with our defensive shields and illusions and be open and honest about what is happening in our own minds. This will allow us to move forward.
Introspection: once we have allowed ourselves to be honest about what is happening in our minds, we need to take note of the things that are stress triggers for us, what our comfort triggers are, and what are the underlying sources of our own personal motivation. Warning: this can be hard to do so take your time and be honest and think of multiple examples of each to confirm the tendencies. These each will be unique to us personally. It is very easy to fall in to answering what we think we are supposed feel. We need to make sure that we come up with what is true for us personally and not how we wish we where or how we think some great athlete is supposed to be. Note: a stress trigger for you may be someone else’s comfort trigger so there is not much use in comparing yourself with others.
Experimentation: Once we have been honest with ourselves and sought to understand better what is happening in our minds, then it’s time to use that and figure out a mental strategy to use our strengths, motivations and comfort triggers while staying away from our weaknesses and stress triggers. Then try these strategies out in training (tempo runs can be a great place for working on this) and in races and fine tune them as you go to find which produce the best results both in terms of our performances and also our enjoyment of the performances. The possibilities can be almost unlimited, so don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Personalize it and make it uniquely you. Once we have done this and determined what works best for us, our running will be better aligned to us personally and as a result our training will and racing will be more enjoyable, and fruitful, and consistent.
I almost hate to give examples because I don’t want to bias or limit the scope of our thinking, but at the same time I do think it can be good to help us realize the type of things I am talking about and how much individuals can vary in mental approach and still be very successful. So let me talk briefly about 2 of the bigger example areas:
Motivation: some people are externally competitive people, they enjoy racing others and beating rivals and going after records, and that competition is very motivating to them. For other that external motivation is not as present and instead they are more motivated by a quest for personal betterment or some other aspect that running provides (such as helping others through running). Each runner is best off examining and understanding their own personal motivations and then using those in formulating their mental approach. For many people motivation will be a combination of things but it is helpful to explore those and understand which are dominate and which are more passive and in what situations. Ultimately in order to perform our best we must find what way keeps us more motivated than we are tired and focusing on something that is not as motivating for you just won’t get the job done. I have worked with very successful runners on all ends of the spectrum here and there is no hard and fast rule as to what is the “best” motivation, it is only a matter of which is the one that personally motivates you the most.
Measurement: every runner has their preferred way to judge or manage progress in training or in a race. For a great many it is time or pace, but for some it is heart rate, and for others perceived effort or something else. Many runners like to use one method primarily and then have another method as a safety check or back-up. Experiment and know yourself, which way works best for you and produces your best performances. There is no right or wrong way, so don’t limit yourself on the possibilities. I have had runners win major races and have no idea what their time would be until they see the clock at the finish line (they used HR and feel/rhythm as their measuring sticks), and others who target, know, record and nail every split along the way. The most successful runners are the ones who figure out what works best for them personally in terms of measuring and judging their performance.
As you can see now, because of our mental, personality and life experience differences, there never will be 1 right mental strategy for everyone. The key will be come up with your own personal strategy, tailored just for you. The more fully you embrace that journey of finding and crafting that, the better the results you will have. Be honest, and be true to yourself and you will be successful in your running, and in life.