In the middle of a Saturday’s track workout, my teenage daughter experienced a moment of clarity that may forever change her approach to running. We were transitioning from a set of 800m repeats and enjoying a walking recovery when she said, “Dad, I need to work on how I think about running. When I think it’s hard, it’s really tough for me to run fast. But, if I don’t think about it being hard, it’s a lot easier to keep going.” Yes, indeed.

The mind of a runner is more important than anything else. A mediocre runner with a tough-as-nails attitude will beat a perfect running specimen with a poor attitude any day of the week. The three pounds of grey matter between our ears controls our perception of effort, our exertion, and ultimately our performance. Tough workouts and races are as much about training our brains as our bodies. If we can get used to the suffering in practice, we can ignore it and even push beyond it during races.

The First Mile

The mind of a runner is very good at dismissing the thousands of errant signals and observations that the mind sends us while we run. Consider the thoughts that bombard your mind as you begin the first mile of your next run. “I think there’s a rock in my shoe. My heart rate is way too high right now. My hamstrings feel tight. My left ankle is sore. I don’t want to do this. I’m dehydrated. My fingers are cold. I should have worn gloves. I’m not sure I can make it the full distance today. Walking is great exercise…”

For beginning runners, the onslaught of negative thoughts can make running seem intolerable. Many runners make it through a week or two and give up when they realize that it’s just no fun. The trick is to train your mind and your body in unison. Veteran runners develop many different coping mechanisms to silence a noisy and distracted mind.

In the mind of a long-time runner, the internal dialogue is more positive and encouraging. “The first mile always feels like this. After 10 minutes you’ll feel like yourself again. Don’t worry about mile 12 right now. Focus on this mile, at this moment. Breathe. Let yourself open up and enjoy the freedom of running.” 

Beginning runners, like those beginning meditation, are told to focus on their breathing. Our breathing provides life force energy. Every inhale provides fresh oxygen, every exhale rids our bodies of toxic carbon dioxide. Beginning runners often feel overwhelmed and panicky because of their quick shallow breathing. It’s only through training our bodies and our minds that we learn to relax and breathe deeply.

During Competition

During competition, how we respond to the struggle to ‘keep pushing’ defines us as runners. Steve Prefontaine’s famous quote about running to see “who has more guts” resonates with runners because it reveals the stark truth about racing. Running fast hurts. It takes a lot of grit to keep pushing when your brain is being flooded with pain signals and your body feels as if it’s on the verge of collapse.

To keep from decaying, to be a winner, the athlete must accept pain–not only accept it, but look for it, live with it, learn not to fear it. – Dr. George Sheehan

Completing tough workouts will improve your mind’s ability to deal with the chronic pain and discomfort of running beyond your threshold. Your brain will eventually adapt to your workload and readjust its internal parameters for alarm. The bad news is that you’ll still suffer. The good news is that you’ll learn to deal with it better.

On Long Runs

Long distance runners are often introverts. This makes sense considering the extraordinary mental stamina required to focus on a singular goal for hours, or even days. A runner must be at ease spending long hours training alone with only his thoughts to keep him company. It’s often a delicate struggle between awareness and escape. As the miles go by, fatigue creeps in and the mind drifts to interesting and sometimes unexpected places. It’s a rather enjoyable experience, but one that’s reserved only for those who have earned it.

One of the most important attributes on a long distance runner is confidence. As Abigail discovered at our recent track workout, how you think about running has a direct impact on how you run. Or as Henry Ford once said, “Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re probably right.”

2 thoughts on “The Mind of a Runner

  1. Jason, I agree 100 percent. I’m sharing this on our Women Can Run/Walk page on FB. Last week I was running with our beginning runner group, and I said, “I used to think running would be easy someday. I eventually realized that it gets easi-ER, but it’s never easy.” One of the ladies gasped. 🙂 I told her that running is hard even for the elites. One of the other coaches added, “Yeah, because when they achieve a goal, then they set their sights higher.”

    Good post.

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