Mental Tips for Dealing With Challenging Runs

The right types of thinking can help you run faster.

woman running on the road around mountains

Jacob Ammentorp Lund//Getty Images

Many of the mental challenges associated with running can be predicted. For example, you can predict—even if you’ve never run one before—that running a marathon will feel hard toward the latter stages. You might also expect hills or a headwind at some point along a race route. If you’re competitive, you might expect to be ahead in a race or struggling behind a competitor.

The Psychology of Running

Each of these scenarios bring psychological challenges that we need to respond to in the best possible way. In some cases, as research on self-talk has shown, using motivational statements can help us through crisis moments. As such, what’s often more important isn’t the events that happen to us, but how we respond to them.

One strategy that can help us to respond better in challenging situations is “if-then” planning. 

If you’re going to run…

If-then planning—or implementation intentions—is a strategy whereby we first identify potential obstacles or challenges that can impact our performance. These are the “ifs.” How we would like to respond to these challenges, or what will help to maintain our performance, are the “thens.” Researchers have studied the effectiveness of these responses, which can be planned as part of your pre race preparation.

In one study, researchers asked participants to consider four potential stressors or challenges that they might encounter during an upcoming race (that is, “ifs”) and think of potential strategies for dealing with each challenge (that is, “thens”). Examples of strategies included focusing on their breathing or encouraging themselves to relax. After formulating their if-then plans, participants were encouraged to practise and refine them in the build-up to their race. The findings revealed that people who developed if-then plans perceived that they had more control over the stressors they encountered during their races than a no-intervention control group, even though both groups rated the stressors they encountered as equally intense.

In other sports, such as tennis, if-then planning has also helped players to increase concentration and effort and deal with unhelpful thoughts and feelings by implementing a range of coping responses, such as remaining calm or using positive self-talk. As a result, players trained in the use of if-then planning rated their performance in a critical match as better in comparison with a group of players who received no such training.

These studies highlight some useful ways that if-then planning can help runners regulate their emotions, cope with stressful and challenging situations, increase concentration, or deal with unhelpful thoughts. For example, a marathoner might avoid going too fast at the start of a race (“if”) by focusing on staying relaxed and implementing a process goal to run at a specific pace. Some other examples:

  • If experiencing an urge to slow down or stop during a race, then you might plan to repeat some motivational statements to help maintain your pace.
  • If running up a steep hill, then you might plan to narrow your attention and chunk the distance, focusing on getting to the nearest landmark, and then repeat, until you’ve scaled the hill.

On-the-run decisions

Sometimes, however, it can be difficult to know the best course of action to take at a particular moment. For example, if you’re really struggling during a race, should you persist with your “dream” goal (the best possible outcome) or adjust your pace to achieve your “happy” goal (a satisfying but not optimal outcome)?

One strategy that can help in these situations is called mental contrasting. It’s is a problem-solving technique whereby we first imagine a future goal or wish, and also imagine the best possible outcome, like finishing a race in a personal best or beating a competitor. Next, we contrast that outcome with our present reality, like what our current pace is, how far we have left to go, or how hard the challenge will be. Mental contrasting helps us realise the actions we need to take if we’re to progress from where we are now, overcome potential obstacles, and get to where we want to be. It can also help us weigh whether persisting with a goal or changing it is the best course of action to take.

Combining mental contrasting with if-then planning can be an effective strategy for runners and has been shown to reduce the number of obstacles people perceive when trying to achieve a goal. In other words, by having considered the challenge and developing a plan to overcome potential hurdles along the way, we perceive fewer obstacles to achieving our goal because we have an effective plan that helps us overcome obstacles more efficiently ( Riddell et al., 2023 ).

This process can be summarised in four steps—Wish, Outcome, Obstacle , and Plan (WOOP)—that can lead to better performance in many areas of life, including changing health-related behaviours like exercising more and eating fewer unhealthy snacks. (You can learn more about this process here.)

The best tools for the job

In a recent study, we interviewed runners who reported having an optimal experience during a race. This including winning, setting a world record, or running a personal best. We found that these runners often reported using mental contrasting and if-then planning during races to help them deal with challenging situations. The strategy also helped them decide whether their prerace goals were realistic in the moment and to adapt these goals if needed. One half marathoner reported using mental contrasting, if-then planning, and a combination of other psychological techniques like motivational self-talk to help with decision-making, accept the pain they would experience, and persist with their prerace goal during a critical moment in the race:

You are always worried in the middle of a race that the wheels could come off, that you could run out of energy, or something happens and you just slow down. You are always worried about that, but you are going, “Let’s deal with this pace, let’s keep going.” You just keep taking it a bit at a time. I wouldn’t really break it into kilometers or anything like that. I just keep going, “Yeah, I feel okay,” and then in another bit, “Yeah, I feel okay,” and in the last three kilometers, I am going, “I am going to have to dig deep now and, even to hold the same pace I have been doing, I am going to have to hurt a bit more.”

Having this range of psychological techniques to call on in the moment can help you perform at your best when, inevitably, you face challenges during a race.

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