You’re in the middle of a race or workout and suddenly your legs feel heavy, your lungs scream, and all you want to do is stop. What do you do? Some runners ease up, only to beat themselves up later for doing so. But others don’t. They barrel through the pain and survive – legs and lungs intact.
What separates those of us who give in from those of us who push on when fatigue and discomfort hit? While there’s lots of data on the mental coping skills of elite athletes, no study has examined the tactics used by recreational runners – until now. Cindra Kamphoff, Ph.D., director of the Centre for Sport and Performance Psychology at the Minnesota State University, US, interviewed marathon finishers, ranging in age from 24 to 59 with finish times between 2:38 and 4:45, to find out what mental obstacles they faced and how they hurdled each one. Her findings will help you persevere and run your best, whether your goal is to finish a marathon, a 5K, or another lap around the block.
OBSTACLE 1: Negative Thinking
The top mental roadblock that Kamphoff’s runners reported were destructive, woe-is-me thoughts: How can thousands of other runners meet their goal and I can’t? Or Seriously? I worked so hard and here I am cramping up. “Negative thinking hurts our running because it doesn’t allow us to see possibilities or our own potential,” Kamphoff says. It can also lead to shallow breathing, increased heart rate, or tense muscles, any of which can make it physically harder to run.
HURDLE IT: Midway through her race, Tere Derbez Zacher was hurting and thinking, Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this. But the 41-year-old family counsellor pulled it together. “I kept telling myself, Where the mind goes, the body follows, and that got me through,” she says. Indeed, the trick to managing negative thoughts is to recognise that you have the power to silence them, says sports psychologist Greg Chertok. On your daily runs, practise being aware of your inner voice, and when it says something negative, employ a stop mechanism – a tool that enables you to shift your focus to something positive. A motivating word or a distracting song or body cue, like concentrating on your breathing or on your arm pumping, can work. When Jeff Weldon, 40, started struggling at 37 kilometres, he stayed positive by smiling. “Sounds corny,” he says, “but it really worked.”
OBSTACLE 2: Rigid Goals
I won’t be happy if I don’t run 3:40. My only goal is a negative split. I must run a faster time than my last race or all my hard work will be for nothing. Performance goals keep us motivated and help us push hard to reach our potential. But if you are fixated on just one outcome, you risk disappointment if it’s not your day and you fall short, Kamphoff says.
HURDLE IT: As early as the three-kilometre mark, Derbez Zacher knew that running a 2:45 personal best wasn’t possible. But her secondary target – a sub-three-hour finish – was within reach. “Having that backup goal kept me going,” she says. Kamphoff suggests using a goal range, such as aiming for a 1:50 to 1:55 half-marathon. “A range changes your self-talk,” she says. “If you’re hitting 5:25s in the early kilometres and have a rigid 1:50 goal [5:13 kilometres], you might worry and stress. But with a range, you’d be on pace, increasing the chances that you’ll stay positive.” Make sure your goal range is realistic: the faster end should be something your training suggests you can do on a dream day. The slower end is something that will still make you feel satisfied.
OBSTACLE 3: Doubt
Runners tend to question their abilities, particularly when they’re tackling a new distance or aiming for an ambitious time. But doubt’s opposite – confidence – is among the most important predictors of athletic performance. If you don’t believe you stand a chance, says Kamphoff, you’ll be less likely to take the risks and actions necessary to reach your goal.
HURDLE IT: Go public with your insecurities, suggests Rebecca Williams, 43, an education program coordinator, who questioned whether she could finish a marathon. She expressed her doubts to other runners in her local training group and on the group’s Facebook page. The simple act of voicing her concerns stripped them of their power, and the encouragement she received from others eased her anxiety. Sports psychologists also recommend drumming up evidence that disproves the insecure thoughts. For example, if feeling sluggish during your taper makes you worried you won’t be able to PB, remind yourself of all the strong workouts you did that indicate a new record is within reach. If butterflies linger, put them to good use. “Studies show that professional athletes have as much doubt as anyone, but they see it as a stimulant,” Chertok says. “They learn to interpret body signals positively, reading nerves not as worry or doubt, but as excitement for the race.”
OBSTACLE 4: Unfair comparisons to others
Concluding that other runners – in a race, in your club, or on your routes – are faster, stronger, or somehow better than you is equal to putting yourself down. “Comparisons are often acts of judgment on how you don’t measure up,” Kamphoff says. Such negative self-assessments undermine confidence.
HURDLE IT: When she sees seemingly stronger, fitter runners on her runs, Derbez Zacher sometimes finds herself calling into question her own fitness and training – Is what I’m doing enough? Would I be able to keep up with her? She turns to a mantra – one step is enough for me – to stay in the present and focus on the only thing within her control – herself. At kilometre 29 of her first marathon, Williams realised that she was in last place. Instead of obsessing over all those who were in front of her, she redirected her attention and repeated to herself, I want the shirt. I want the shirt. “Really,” she says. “It was my desire for that finisher’s shirt that got me to the finish.” Kamphoff says refocusing is a smart tactic. Research shows that mentally tough athletes tend to be internally focused – concentrating on their form, pace, and goals. So Kamphoff recommends countering comparisons with a mantra like Derbez Zacher and Williams used or a visualisation (like a highlight reel of past accomplishments) to bring your attention back to yourself