The psychology of running


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Your legs aren’t the only body parts that can propel you to run faster – your brain also plays a crucial role in pushing yourself to keep going. Elite athletes rely on the right mindset to enhance their competitive edge, but rookie runners can use the same psychological techniques to improve their training too.

“Whether you are training or running a race, being there fully in mind and body is crucial,” says Registered Sport & Exercise Psychologist, Patrea O’Donoghue. Here she explains four ways to think yourself faster...

Set long-term goals

Actually take the time to think about why running is important to you and then set a long-term goal to address that. For example, if you want to be stronger choose to sign up for a half marathon, then if you hit any hurdles while training you can refocus on how every step takes you closer to your ultimate goal. “Having a clear ‘why’ enables you to ride the inevitable ups and downs that come with striving for anything that presents mental and physical challenges,” says O’Donoghue.


Implement short-term strategies

Look at that long-term goal you’ve chosen and break it into actions that you can work on in the short-term, for example running steadily for a certain length of time, then next time increasing it. “These actions allow you to shine a laser-like focus onto a specific aspect of your training or competition,” says O’Donoghue. “This could be an aspect of your attitude, attention or form. These specific actions that you choose to focus on enable you to fine-tune your overall performance, one part at a time.”

Use imagery

Imagery is an especially useful tool as you can use it at times you can’t actually be running, like on your commute to work or before bed or when you are injured. How to do it? “Imagine yourself as the runner you aspire to most be like,” says O’Donoghue. “Physically study that runner – what is it about that person that resonates with you? Now as you study this runner’s style, commit it to memory – really be able to ‘see’ that person running with your mind’s eye. Then begin to see yourself running stride for stride in this person’s shoes. What do you look like running in this manner? What does it feel like to run like this person? Embody that feeling. When imagery draws on all of the senses it is very powerful. Parts of the brain cannot tell the difference between physically executing a skill and imagining executing that skill.”

Practise positive self-talk

“Positive self-talk helps direct your thinking in the most constructive way possible to enable you to perform at your best,” explains O’Donoghue. “Just as ‘nature abhors a vacuum’, if we leave our thoughts to chance, chances are that the void will be filled with a focus on what’s going wrong or what could go wrong.” Instead she suggests you write down some positive and meaningful statements to repeat over and over during training or a race. This will keep your mind focused. You can go with helpful reminders like ‘Steady breathing’ or ‘Steady strides’ or something to pep yourself up when you feel fatigued such as ‘Just do it’.