Running mental health training is key to hitting any new personal record. As a coach, there is nothing I love more than hearing a runner wants to set a new goal, and for many that is finishing a longer distance event, such as moving from 5k to a 10k or from a half-marathon to your first marathon. While this type of goal requires a lot of physical training, I have found that just as much, athletes need to pay attention to their mindset in order to crush that new goal.
In this post, I’m going to break down some of the common runner’s mental health roadblocks I observe, and how to overcome them.
Roadblock #1: Picturing the Worst-Case Scenario at the Start Line
Those moments before your race begins have a lot of emotional power over you. For many runners, facing the start line for a new distance is when all the worst-case horror stories start flooding your mind. All of a sudden, you can only imagine yourself failing. Your running mental health plummets, making it harder for you to start the race on the right foot.
Visualization is a powerful tool, but you should save your worst-case imagining for well-before the race so that you can plan against it.
Visualizing things going wrong – and imagining how you will handle those obstacles – can actually be a great source of confidence. That way, you know that you are prepared for whatever comes up. However, this type of visualization is best done before race day.
If the race is local, I recommend running at least part of the course as part of your training before the event. If you don’t have access to the course ahead of time, then study the course map to know the turns and terrain. In Team RunRun’s bank of race reports, you may be able to find details such as typical weather for race-day, what kind of elevation you’ll face, the specific spots where runners typically fall, and what to expect from aid stations. Being able to visualize the course in specifics, rather than going in with a vague impression, will help you realistically plan for what might go wrong.
Plan for Surprises
Expect the unexpected. This helps you prepare in the event things don’t go according to plan. Maybe there will be physical problems like cramps, bonking, and GI issues. There could also be surprises like being the sole runner for a stretch of the course, or getting stuck in a pack. And then there are things like losing a shoe (it happened to me once) or fueling malfunctions. While you can’t know what will go wrong on the course, you can plan to be surprised during your race.
Visualize Positive Outcomes
Once you have visualized what might go wrong, be sure to visualize positive outcomes, too. Where on the course will you be able to run easily? Where will you be able to spot your mom, partner, or friend cheering you on from the crowd?
By doing this visualization work before race day, you will have a plan for which images to draw upon as you line up behind the start line.
Roadblock #2: Getting Distracted by Logistics
Logistics may not seem like they will impact your running mental health. After all, when you decide to run your first marathon, you probably aren’t thinking about the commute or which fuel packets you like best. However, without planning these logistics, you can’t properly visualize race day, which means these little details can snag your whole race plan.
Start thinking about logistics well before race day so you don’t get frustrated by any surprises. Follow your normal routine as closely as possible. Be sure to allot enough time to wake up, eat breakfast, and report to the start line with at least half an hour to spare. At the race, make time to stretch and hydrate, especially since these routine movements will help you calm your nerves.
Research Race Logistics
As far as race logistics go, be sure you know ahead of time where bathrooms and aid stations are throughout the course. Many bigger long-distance races, like the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series, begin in corrals rather than a mass-start. For many runners, waiting in the corral exacerbates nerves, so plan to wait somewhere else in the pre-race area until you need to report to your assigned corral.
Finally, during the race itself, many runners get tripped up worrying about fueling. Again, you will want to start adding the fuel during your training. That way, you can figure out what kind of fuel works for you and when you need it. Just remember: if your fuel plan gets messed up during the race, that is ok!
Roadblock #3: Anxiety Before the Race
For many runners, the excitement you feel at signing up for your first longer distance event transforms into anxiety the closer you get to race-day. Suddenly, you start second-guessing your training plan or your fitness. You worry about what will happen if you don’t finish. Your running mental health, in other words, plummets before you even get to the event.
The closer you get to the race, the less you can control. For example, you cannot go backwards in time and add more strength training, nor can you add extra weeks to your training plan. Instead, you have to breathe and trust your training.
Focus On What You Can Control
Rather than thinking about would-have-could-have-should-haves, focus on reality. Remember those great workouts that brought you this far. Get enough sleep, remember your stretch and foam rolling routines, and don’t forget about nutrition and hydration.
Surround Yourself With Inspiration
During the taper part of your training leading up to your race, you will have more time to rest, which means more time to get anxious. If you like podcasts or movies, this is a good time to turn to inspirational media. There are lots of podcasts about training for races that may give you new ideas for mantras or physical check-ins. You may also want to queue up your favorite sports movies, like Prefontaine or Rocky.
Remember What Success Means to You
As you approach race day, you may start fixating on beating a certain time or getting on the podium or other goals that are more specific than the reason you signed up for this event: to run a new distance! It is important to keep perspective at this point. Remember that bad races happen for all of us. Not every day is a personal record, and sometimes it takes multiple attempts at a distance before you crack the code so to speak (I, too, am an example of this). While running is a big part of any runner’s identity, it isn’t the be all end all so be okay with the outcome, no matter how it pans out. Chances are you aren’t the cream of the crop doing this for a salary, but for fun and fitness. You are much more than just a finish time on a clock.
Both in failure and success, have a short memory so you can learn from past experiences for the future and move onto better things to come (or coming off a success, leave you hungry for more).
Roadblock #4: Negative Thoughts During the Race
Once you get going in the race, the obstacle may not be any external element but your own negative self-talk. Sometimes it is as simple as seeing you aren’t pacing to your preferred time while other times it is the physical fatigue that comes with long distances. Whatever it is, the negative voice in your head that says you’ll never finish this race certainly isn’t going to help you crush your goals.
After the visualization exercises explained previously, you will have a good idea of when this voice might pop-up, so now all you have to do is plan for how you will handle it. I recommend choosing a positive mantra or two. This can be a statement that reminds you of why you want to complete the race, an affirmation of why you will complete it, or any other sentiment that will remind you that you are awesome, you are prepared, and you are going to succeed.
Physical Form Check-Ins
Another great technique for interrupting your negative thoughts is to have a physical response. For example, when you catch yourself in a negative spiral, check in on your form with a routine of relaxing your shoulders or face or both. This re-centers you in your body so you have time to remind yourself that you will be successful at this challenge.
Music can also be helpful. You may even want to prepare multiple playlists, such as one to calm you or give you a sense of ease and another that gets you pumped up. Use your own discretion on when to use them and what songs to include as you know yourself best and that includes what you need (and when).
Good luck on your race!
When it comes down to tackling any new running goal, your mental health is as important as your physical training. As you prepare for your race, be sure to plan for how you will keep yourself mentally in-shape throughout the event. Once you overcome your mental roadblocks, the sky is the limit to how far your legs can carry you!
Brian Comer is a personal, online running coach with Team RunRun. Based out of Portland, OR, he helps runners of all levels maximize their potential with consistent training that fits their lifestyle. Hire him as your running coach!