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Importance of Mental Training for Runners & How to Build It

ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Importance of Mental Training for Runners & How to Build It

Reading Time: 4 minutes 35 seconds

An estimated 55.9 million Americans participate in the sport of running. One in four reports that they started running as a form of exercise. Another 8% say that their main motivation was to participate in a race, such as a 5k or a marathon.

Certainly, lengthy running sessions require some type of training plan. This generally involves gradually increasing run pace, time, and distance. A slow and steady approach helps reduce injury risk and improve physical endurance. However, mental endurance is also important for staying the running course.

Importance of Mental Toughness When Running

Talk to any marathon runner and they will tell you that both training sessions and race day are mentally taxing. When the body starts to become uncomfortable physically, it also becomes uncomfortable mentally. Doubts can easily creep in. 

The athlete begins to wonder if they can finish the course. The urge to give up and quit running becomes stronger with each footfall. Mental fatigue increases right along with physical fatigue. If the runner doesn’t have strategies in place, the mental battle can feel like too much. 

Mental toughness training helps an athlete develop the right mindset to withstand running discomforts. It teaches the mental skills needed to push through the challenges and obstacles that a runner typically faces.

Research Confirms Benefits of Mental Training for Runners

Research shows that mental training can help improve running performance. One study involved three male triathletes and one male elite runner. Those engaging in mental skills training had performance improvements. Participants further noted they were happy with the results of the training, as were their coaches.

Another study involved 74 college-aged distance runners. After working on their psychological skills over eight weeks, their performance on a 12-minute run test improved. A four-week study of 25 recreational long-distance runners found similar results.

How to Begin Mental Training for a Long Run

The first step to developing mental toughness as a runner is to understand what drives you to participate in this sport. Put another way, why did you choose this type of workout over other forms of exercise? What is your running goal?

Maybe you are running because you want to compete in a marathon. Think about what finishing a marathon means to you. What value would this accomplishment provide? Marathon training often begins months before race day. Knowing your why helps motivate you to stick with it.

Next, make a list of things you tell yourself before and during your training sessions. More specifically, what are your negative thoughts? What excuses do you often make for delaying or skipping your workout? What do you say to yourself mid-way through your run that makes you want to give up? This is important because it tells you where you should focus your brain training. 

Once you have this list, find ways to replace your negative thoughts with positive thoughts. For instance, if you normally tell yourself that the run is going to be too hard, tell yourself that you are strong enough to power through it. Shift your mental strategy from one of “I can’t” to “I can.” Positive self-talk can help you reach your running goals.

Additional Strategies for Building Mental Toughness

Mental preparation for running or any type of workout falls into the sport psychology realm. Thus, a runner’s mental game often involves using similar techniques as athletes in other sports. Among them are:

  • Create a mantra. Come up with a word or phrase you can repeat when you feel your mental strength begin to dip. “I’ve got this” is one option. “With each step, I am getting stronger” is another. You can also incorporate your goals into your running mantra. For example, if you’re training to do a triathlon, create a mantra around the time you want to finish the running portion of the race. 
  • Add the word “yet” to your vocabulary. When running, do you find yourself saying that you can’t do something? Maybe you tell yourself that you can’t run that fast or that you can’t run that far. Follow these statements with the word yet. “I can’t run that fast…yet.” “I can’t run that far…yet.” Just because you may not be able to conquer that goal today doesn’t mean that you won’t conquer it tomorrow. As long as you stick to your training, you’ll get there. Sometimes you just need to remind yourself of this fact.
  • Train in undesirable conditions. It’s often said that you don’t know how strong you are until you are forced to be. The same is true with running. If you want to reach your peak performance, train in undesirable conditions. This teaches you how to push through the discomfort. Go running on rainy days and learn to train in the heat. This not only increases your mental toughness but also better prepares you for race day. Who knows what the weather will be like during the race. As long as you’ve trained in a variety of conditions, you will be prepared.
  • Celebrate your wins. Mental training isn’t just about finding ways to overcome your obstacles. It also involves celebrating your accomplishments. Remind yourself how each step is taking you closer to the endurance athlete you want to become. Reward yourself every time you master a new mental skill. Training may be tough, but it should also be enjoyable. Don’t wait until you’ve reached your major running goal to appreciate your journey. Take the time to celebrate each win. This makes the process more pleasurable while also keeping you motivated.
  • Tend to your total mental health. Sometimes what makes running more difficult is less about the activity itself and more about how you feel overall. If you’re struggling with depression, for instance, you may find it harder to do your running workout. Maybe you have a lot of anxiety and that makes it hard to focus on building your toughness. Getting professional help with mental health concerns can help get you on the right track. The better you feel emotionally, the easier it is to stick to your training.
  • Hire a running coach. A coach can help push you when your motivation starts to wane. They also hold you accountable for your training. You might be able to give yourself excuses for not running, but a coach won’t accept them. Choose a coach with experience in helping people achieve the same type of goal you have for running. For instance, if you want to finish your first marathon, find a coach who offers marathon training. You may be able to find one who trains beginners specifically.

Learn more ways to help clients improve their running performance with the ISSA’s Performance Enhancement Specialist certification. This course teaches effective strategies for improving speed, strength, and coordination. These techniques can help an athlete better reach their running goal.

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