When you sign up for a race, you don’t expect your speed or endurance to automatically be there. You train your body specifically for the demands of the race, whether it is a 5K or 26.2 miles.
Just as you train your body for a race, you need to train your brain in order to be a successful runner and achieve your goals. Developing mental toughness alongside physical fitness helps you overcome self-doubt, push through discomfort, and remove self-imposed limitations of what you think you can and can’t do.
If you’ve raced before, think about the last few miles or minutes as you pushed towards the finish line. Whether it was a 5K or full marathon, you were likely experiencing physical discomfort and were tempted to slow down. For many half and full marathoners, the temptation to slow down often leads to running slower in the last few miles and missing (or barely scraping) your goal time.
The secret to running your best race is not adding in an extra 20-miler for your marathon or another brutal workout of 12 x 400 meters before your 5K. Especially if you’ve followed a training plan and logged your miles, your fitness should be there. What you need to train is your brain.
Your mind and body are linked together. The sensations in your muscles are sent to your brain, which interprets them as discomfort or pain. Oftentimes, athletes quit a workout or hit a wall not because they have reached the limit of their physical capabilities, but rather their mind is convinced that they are reaching the point of exhaustion. Matt Fitzgerald, author of Brain Training for Runners, argues that confidence in your ability to achieve your goals is the secret to racing, whether your goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon or finish your first 5K.
Oftentimes our limits are self-imposed. When I first starting training for my first half marathon, I thought I could not finish in less than 1:50. I had only ran a 50:15 in the 10K earlier that year, so realistically I could run around a 1:53-1:59 half marathon. However, I set a goal of running a sub-1:50 and practiced mental training as well as physical training. I completed my workouts as prescribed (with of course a few exceptions of bad workouts), but it was in part the belief that I could run fast for me at my first half marathon that got me over in the finish line in 1:46 on a windy and cold day.
So how do you train your brain and build confidence for optimal racing? Follow these tips!
Think in the Positive
Never tell yourself that you can’t; as long as it’s not something that will injury you (say, racing at a 7:00/mile pace when you train at a 10:00/mile pace), focus on what you can do. Negative thinking and self-talk damages your confidence and breeds self-doubt; these in turn will allow your brain to take control and slow down your body when the running gets tough. Instead, engage in positive self-talk when you discuss your goals, focusing on what you already have achieved. If you had to cut a workout short, emphasize what you did (“I ran 8 miles!”) instead of what you didn’t do (“I cut my 10 mile run short”). This way, when you hit the wall or feel your legs burn in a race, you can use the positive self-talk to keep yourself going through the discomfort as you think “I can finish this race strong.”
Practice Fast Finishes
Most runners slow down near the end of the race. Fast-finish runs in training not only prepare your body for the last few miles or minutes of a race, they also prepare your mind to push through the discomfort and run faster despite fatigue. Doing a fast-finish long run once every other week in training will help you teach your brain to run faster when your legs are tired.
Visualize Your Success
Visualization has repeatedly been shown to help you achieve your goals. To further establish the mind-body connection, practice visualization during your runs, especially the runs most specific to your goal race. If you’re training for a 10K PR, visualize running fast throughout the entire race as you power through your speed intervals. If you are aiming for a goal time in the half marathon, use your long runs to mentally envision crossing the finish line at your goal time. Recite your goal time in your head as you do your goal race pace workouts. And with that…
Practice Running at Goal Pace
Workouts with miles at goal race pace will not only teach your body what the pace feels like; race pace workouts train your mind to run at a harder pace for an extended period of time and mentally ingrain what that pace feels like at the start and end of a run. Additionally, running at goal pace helps you prepare your mind for race day; you’ll learn how to adjust if you run too fast or too slow without ruining your race. If you slow down during race pace runs, pick up the pace and train your mind that just because you feel discomfort doesn’t mean you can’t keep going.
Focus on Your Form
One would think that dissociative running (where you distract your thoughts as you race) would help you during racing; however, the opposite is true. Associate thinking during running provides you with a focus point. If you begin to experience self-doubt or are overwhelmed by the burn of your muscles during a race, turn your mind to your body and running form. Listen to your breathing and your footfalls, readjust your form, and run tall. This mutes destructive self-talk while keeping your mind focused on your running; additionally, readjusting your form can help alleviate discomforts and keep you running strong. When I race or run a hard workout, I repeat the mantra from the running brand Oiselle: head up, wings out. This helps me think about my form rather than any discomfort and reset my mind and body for running fast.
Reflect Back on What Went Right
It’s easy to dwell on what went wrong in a workout or race, even if it was something beyond your control like harsh winds or high humidity. Instead, spend some time after your race to reflect on what you did right, no matter how small. Did you put together a motivating playlist, maintain your pace in the last few miles, master your fueling strategy, or keep going when you wanted to quit? Reflecting on these things will build your confidence for the next time you race and teach you about how you run your best.
Question of the Day:
How do you train your brain for racing and running?