Training Runs - How the mental training can be just as hard as the physical

Updated: Jan 1, 2020

This post comes following a major realisation during a long run today. After talking about it with the Runnovation team I thought it's important to chat about how critical a role the mental element of running plays and the strategies we use to overcome the hard times. Although my specific thoughts were about my running journey, some of these principles could be employed whenever you are learning a new skill (or relearning one following a break).

My triumphant return to running

I have recently returned to running after a lengthy break following a difficult pregnancy and the birth of my son. I waited until I was 4 months postpartum to get back into the running shoes and at that stage I hadn't been able to run or do much more than a gentle waddle for roughly a year.

I was a little apprehensive but I thought for certain that once I got into it that I would froth it like a wild mutt. I was wrong. I laced up my shoes, reluctantly stepped out of the front door and after a mere 400ms was contemplating whether I would be able to jack the nearest car, turn the battery into a defibrillator and revive myself. I was slow, I was as red as a tomato and I had so much sweat pouring out of me I was wondering if my waters had broken for a second time somehow. It was far from the graceful gazelle-like image I had pictured I could be once I had just warmed up (this was never me by the way, I have no idea where this idea came from ... I blame hormones). In fact, a bowl of melting raspberry jelly would be a more apt description.

So what did I do? I kept going because I am ridiculously stubborn and experience told me that it takes time to rebuild physically. I was also surrounded by a lot of very supportive runners who assured me that I would back to where I was eventually. It would just take time and consistency.

The mental game

Now, conditioning my body is taking time. I am starting to make my brain realise that when my pale, flabby body starts moving it is not because I am being chased by clowns - it is because running is actually an enjoyable form of exercise. Little by little I am getting stronger and faster (so my coach assures me).

It has taken me 5 months to develop my mental game to a point where my thought patterns are actually helpful to my running practice, so I thought I would discuss a few strategies I use which really help during training runs to keep me positive and motivated.

  • No negative self-talk - You all know what I mean, you will be in the middle of a run and it may or may not be totally going to plan when you start thinking things like "what's going on, you could be doing so much better" or "you're running like shit today" etc. Not only is this unhelpful it is a real motivation killer. Talk to yourself and think about your performance like you would for a good friend (preferably one that you don't want to be an arsehole to). I used to think in these terms a lot until I actively stopped them in their tracks and changed them to be more helpful. Instead of "you're running like shit today" it became "this is a tough one today, but you're doing the best you can".

  • Stop the comparisons! - stop comparing yourself to other people, to how you used to be if you've returned after a break or to where you think you should be. I read somewhere that comparison is the thief of joy and it is true. When I first got back into running I lost count of the number of times my happiness about a run would turn into disappointment once the comparisons started. It is bullshit. It doesn't matter what other people are doing or what you used to do, all that matters is what you are doing now and that you are making good decisions to move you towards your goals.

  • Stop thinking that you have to kill yourself on every training run - I used to think that I had to give it 100% in all of my runs in order to drive improvement. Not only does this put a crapload of pressure on yourself but it's completely unrealistic. Improvement is measured over a much greater time than between training runs and sometimes being better than your previous training session is simply getting out of the door when you've had a tough day.

  • Think about your goals - when I am going through a tough training session, rather than focusing on the difficulty at that moment I turn my mind to my running goals and why I choose to train. I think about how good achieving those goals is going to feel and I even think about goals I have already achieved. For instance, one goal I had getting back into running was to be able to go out for relaxed runs with my partner - so now when runs start getting hard I think about how all of the training I have put in has allowed me to share some beautiful quality time with him.

  • Break up your sessions - this can be particularly relevant for long runs but can be equally applied to any training session. If you are starting to struggle, break up the run into much smaller parts. If it is a 40-minute speed session then you can break it up into its respective intervals and count them down. If it is a long run, instead of focusing on the total number of kilometres you need to complete, focus on smaller chunks - I sometimes measure them in parkruns. You can also give yourself little rewards along the way - I often make water breaks at particular times as rewards or a geographical point a reward to stop and take photographs.

  • Focus elsewhere - I find that, particularly on tempo or long runs it can be helpful to engage in some mindfulness practice. Now, before you think this is some new-age bullshit, hang in there and just hear me out. For my mindfulness practice, I bring my mind to the present moment and I focus on aspects of my environment in parts. First I might focus on sounds, then on different things I can see around me, then I might focus on scents etc. I then focus on how the environment is making me feel - the sun on my face, the wind against my skin etc. I then focus on my breathing and making sure that I am breathing as effectively as I can be. I often cycle through these things and by the time I finish a cycle or so of this practice then a substantial amount of my training session is complete.

  • Bring the joy back into your runs - this means different things to different people but if I know that I have been struggling with motivation or particular training sessions I take pre-emptive action. I will organise a training buddy/I will be armed with a playlist of killer tunes that are going to perk me right up/I will run in a place where the scenery is beautiful and relaxing/run somewhere new. Now, I am not suggesting that these are going to be everyone's go-to strategies - but find something that works for you and use it.

If you have any other strategies that work for you, please feel free to comment with them below. We always love to hear from fellow runners about their different perspectives.

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