10 Mental Tricks to Run Better

Tired and cranky? Use these simple ways to beat brain fatigue and run strong.

Mental fatigue can negatively impact physical performance, according to a study out of Bangor University’s School of Sport, Health, and Exercise Sciences. Researchers split athletes of similar capabilities into two groups prior to an exhaustive cycling exercise. One group performed a tough 90-minute cognitive task, and the other watched documentaries. Once on the bikes, the mentally tasked riders displayed significantly less stamina than the movie watchers and felt the exercise was more difficult. Their physical performance suffered because their brains were tired.

The challenge, then, is to find ways to change your thought process and realise that your body can handle a workout. Refocus, acknowledge that you’d rather crash on the couch, but put on your running shoes anyway, says Dr Marshall Mintz,  a clinical and sports psychologist. “Once you get going, even if it’s for an easy 5K run, it almost always feels good to be running,” he says.

1. Restate Your Goals

Deciding between the remote control and your running shoes? It isn’t easy to get out the door without a clear reason to run. “If you can’t answer, Why am I doing this?, you won‘t last long,” says Rick Lovett, a running coach and coauthor of Alberto Salazar’s Guide to Road Racing. He suggests keeping a training diary that includes your goals and the reasons you run, whether that’s to reduce stress, or for friendship or better health.

ENERGY SOLUTION: When you feel the urge to call it quits at the end of a tough day, pull out your diary and review your lists. Staring at your plans in black-and-white will make it tougher to lounge. Rice, for example, keeps the dates of several shorter races leading up to her goal marathon prominently marked in her log. “It energises me to see that I have those little races ahead of me,” she says.

2. Be Flexible

“You have to be organised in order to be good at several things,” says Rice. By pencilling in your run for a certain time, you arm yourself with the necessary energy to get through it. That said, adds Mintz, be prepared with a backup workout plan if something unexpected comes up.

ENERGY SOLUTION: If work demands that you stay later than planned, go for a shorter run. If a sick child leaves you homebound, work on your stretching and strength training while they sleep and save your run for tomorrow. “It’s okay for that daily structure to be flexible from one day to the next,” says Mintz.

3. Turn on the Tunes

A long line of research shows that music can be a big exercise motivator. A study published in the Journal of Sport Behavior found that on top of helping athletes work harder, music also reduced their perceived exertion. Lovett encourages runners to try and tap into the benefits of music in advance of their workouts to help get them in the right frame of mind.

ENERGY SOLUTION: Listen to your music while you answer those last few emails at work, or on the drive home turn off the news and put on your favourite playlist. You’ll be more likely to lace up as soon as you get home. “Out of all the things an athlete can do to get energised before a run,” Mintz says, “music really lights up the biggest part of the brain.”

4. Manage the Moment

On those days when your mind starts ticking off the negatives – Everything went wrong today. I’m really knackered. – stop your internal debate and “manage the moment”, says Mintz, who suggests countering such thoughts with positive ones: Yes, but I’ll have more energy after I run.

ENERGY SOLUTION: As tempting as it can be to give in to the negatives, he says, push your body to go through the motions of your running routine: grab a quick shower or cup of coffee, put on your gear, do some jumping jacks to get your heart rate up, step outside. “The beginning of the run is always the hardest,” admits Rice. “But once I get myself out on the road, I‘m always better for it.”

5. Call a Friend

When you’re running alone, it’s easy to end up ruminating about those new clients at work or your kid’s report card. This takes all the fun out of it. When you run with other people, the social banter gives you a mental timeout. Research out of the University of Rochester in New York demonstrated that a positive social circle helps foster motivation and a greater commitment to exercise, compared with going it alone.

ENERGY SOLUTION: Keep the numbers of some fellow running pals on speed dial, and don’t think twice to call one or two of them spur of the moment. Chances are they’re having a similar day and would love the camaraderie. And if they can’t meet you, at least they’ll be able to give you a pep talk. “With any kind of fitness program,” Mintz explains, “there’s a greater likelihood of success if you’re collaborating with someone.”

6. Feel Better

When your blood sugar drops, your motivation drops, too. An hour before a run, snack on crackers with peanut butter or an energy bar.

7. Pick It Up

“There’s nothing like a few hard pickups to get rid of the day’s stress,” says Lovett. Pick a sign and increase your speed until you reach it.

8. Go a New Way

You want to be present in your run, not still stuck at your desk in your mind. Choose a new route or find a scenic trail to help you get into the moment.

9. Dial It Down

If your mind is completely zapped, don’t force a demanding workout. Instead, go out for an easy 5K and reschedule the long run.

10. See Your Best

Rather than focusing on stress, use your run to picture the athlete that you want to be, says Mintz. Pay attention to your form and breathing.

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