We talk a lot about mental game in running, how it helps us come race day, why it’s essential to practice during training, and now is the perfect time to be working on it. You’ve been cleared a pathway to improve without the pressure of performing on a race day that typically creeps up on you.
First, know that you’re already strengthening your mental game just by living, and adjusting to these very different times. You run alone. Your schedule is different. You don’t have the same access to your regular distractions. Maybe your kids or your partner are home all day. You’re already asking so much more of yourself, your mind and your willpower every day you wake up to make normal decisions and do normal things right.
Training your body without training your mind is performance left on the table. It’s just as true in a boardroom as it is on a startline. In my coaching practice outside of running, mental training is a huge focus to support people to get the most out of themselves. With plenty of time with your own thoughts, why not listen in and tidy up what you tell yourself and reap the benefits. We can all get a mentally stronger, and kinder, with ourselves and others. So here’s a good place to start.
Listen to yourself talk.
You are never not talking to yourself, even while someone is talking to you, and while you read this very sentence. It’s a constant playlist that can either help or hinder you through-out the day, and your life. Practice listening to your thoughts. You can do this literally anywhere. Try it on a run, while you work, when you talk to people. Once you’ve practiced listening to yourself, tune into what you tell yourself specifically about yourself. It might not be whole sentences, but there are words, feelings, tones you take. Listen in a variety of scenarios. Is it kind? Is it true? Is it what you’d yell, if you were cheering your friend on in a race? Does it have qualifiers or is it unconditional? I.e. Are you kind to yourself unless you miss a workout, had a lazy day, said something you wish you didn’t?
Tell me (you) something good.
Call it a mantra, call it positive self-talk, but next time you’re in a workout, come up with something you can say that you’d find helpful. You don’t have coach Rob telling you “this is a good group right here!”, so maybe tell yourself that, “good group right here!” (even though it’s just you in your group of one). Or, “last minute (…last lap, last interval…), you got this!” Everyone is motivated differently, so this will be really individual. I know some people will take a tough love approach, make a dedication, align to a higher purpose or value, or just say something they’d actually cheer on a sideline.
Ask yourself a question worth answering.
Our brains are wired to find an answer when we’re asked a question. We can’t help it. What did you eat for breakfast yesterday? You probably started to mentally answer it. This is such a powerful tool, because you can ask yourself questions that force you to change your thought pattern. Think of a question like, “why am I so tired” and try replacing it with something like “What do I need to boost my energy”. Hot tip: if you’re at a loss for coming up with a good question to ask yourself, start with what, or how, when instead of why.
Send your focus where you need it.
Have you heard of the saying “what you focus on expands”? Well it’s true. Use your mind to focus on specifics. A few years again, I was in an Ironman swim getting absolutely pummelled. I remembered the anecdote I read about focus and I started repeating “arms, arms, arms….arms, arms, arms” in my head. I’ve even cheered for my glutes during hill repeats. It’s ridiculous, but it’s based in fact and it works. Try focusing on your breathing, your shoulders, and tell me how it goes.
I recommend meditation whole heartedly and yet have a pretty patchy relationship with it myself. But the research is compelling and proves undeniably vast benefits, so I keep trying. Meditation is like when you have twelve browser tabs open on your device and then close all but one. You don’t need a fancy app. Just take a few moments, set a timer and spend some time just quietly witnessing your own thoughts. You might say “I’m bad at meditation” and the thing is everyone is bad at it. But do it with some consistency and you’ll get a little less worse. And better yet, you may find brief moments of static free mental airtime. Hot tip: if you have a hard time working meditation into your life, or any habit really, pair it with something you reliably do at about the same time every day. For example, add meditation before or after you brush your teeth.
Exercise your willpower with care.
Your willpower is the energy you use to make yourself do something or refrain from doing something. It’s like a rechargeable battery. It starts fully charged and drains through-out the day or week until you charge it again. This is why you might eat well, get your work done, have a great workout and then cave at night on something you didn’t really want to do. Or you diligently stick with a plan until you just can’t make yourself do it anymore. There’s a lot to unpack here but there are a couple things you can do to extend your willpower. First you can exercise micro-indulgences, in other words give in sometimes along the journey instead of being so strict you can’t make it to the destination.
Second you can plan around this fundamental humanness by knowing when you are strongest in your ability to get things done and use it to your advantage. Alternatively, know when you struggle and avoid situations or times of day when you really need to call on yourself in a compromised state. The last thing I’ll mention here is that willpower grows. Each time you will yourself to do something or avoid something it builds your capacity, over time to do it again. because you have a mental picture of already having success doing it.
I just want to reiterate that you are already mentally strong and these tips are about building on that foundation. Above all else, give yourself a mental cheer for all the personal wins you’ve recently experienced and show yourself the kindness you would to a friend when your world doesn’t come together exactly how you want it to.