Five ways to improve your running mindset

Five ways to improve your running mindset

If you are a runner, you will know that on some days you feel you have totally nailed this running thing and then the following day you just don’t feel it and it’s like you are back to stage one. When we experience what some runners call “bad runs,” it can feel discouraging and challenging to continue. This is most likely at times when our inner critic is showing up and reminding us of things such as we are “running too slow,” “never going to improve” or that we should “quit.”

During the Olympics in 2021 there was a lot of coverage about athletes using different mindset techniques to improve their performance and reach their goals of gaining a medal. However, it doesn’t have to be just professional athletes that can benefit from these strategies, as we all can improve our mental strength and resilience, so that when the inner critic starts telling us to “start walking,” “stop running” or to “give up” we can respond in a different way to help support our run, rather than self-sabotaging it.

So how can we do this?

Focus on a smaller run

One of the main internal conflicts that most of us runners can relate to is when we are not feeling that we want to go for a run and the sofa feels likes it’s calling our name! We can spend valuable time going around in a loop of internal chatter about what we know would be good for us compared to just wanting to relax and watch TV. This can feel even more difficult as the nights get darker and its cold outside.

A way to make the decision easier to get out of the house can be to reduce the expectation of the run we are intending to do so it feels more achievable. So, if we would usually do an 8 km run, we could set ourselves the option of going out for 2 km and then give ourselves permission of retuning back home, should we need to. Typically, once we have started running, the endorphins will kick in, we will have got into our flow, and we increase the likelihood of us continuing with our run.

Positive self-talk

The self-talk we have around our running is a powerful tool that can either work for or against us. Our brain works on using the neural pathways that are most used and easily activated rather than what is helpful or unhelpful. It’s a bit like a field with long grass, once a few people have walked across it, the grass gets flattened and further visitors will see this as the quickest and easiest route to use. This means that if we tend to have self-talk such as “I can’t run up hills,” “I’m never going to finish this” or “I am always going to be slow,” this neural pathway will be strengthened and become the dominant way that our brain responds to future runs. In addition to this, the brain will highlight aspects that confirm this, such as focusing on RW posts of faster runners than us and disregarding the slower, as our brain is programmed to look for evidence supporting what we tell ourselves. This can result in futures runs having the inner critic more easily activated and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The good news is that we can break this cycle as our brains can be rewired by starting to use more positive self-talk, enabling this pathway to become stronger and more easily activated. To do this, we need to start changing our internal dialogues to highlight the things we are doing well such as “I can run up this hill and will feel great when I get to the top” or recognising “I am getting stronger/faster every run” and “I can keep running as I have done it before.” Overtime, this will become the stronger neural pathway and in our example of the field, the grass will start growing over the old pathway that is not being used and a new pathway and direction will be more easily activated. This new pathway will be associated with positive feelings leading to enhanced enjoyment when running.

Visualise yourself at your best

The mind cannot tell the difference between what is happening and what we imagine which can work to our advantage when trying to improve our mental strength. We can use all our senses in this exercise and develop a mental image of us achieving an amazing result before and during our runs. This could be us running across the finishing line at an event, getting that RW medal after achieving our target distance, the sense of accomplishment when we get to the top of the hill or when we achieved our PB. If we do this regularly, the neurons in our brain respond to this and can make us run more effectively as the brain perceives the imagined situation has just occurred. This can allow these aspects to feel more familiar and build our confidence and reduce our anxiety for future running.

Break your run into chunks

A long run can feel overwhelming at times and our inner critic can make us question if we can complete the challenge. A way to overcome this and enhance our mental mindset is to break the run down into more manageable chunks. This could be to the end of the road, breaking a 10km run into two 5 km targets or committing to running for another 5 minutes. Our brain responds positively to things that feel more manageable and when we achieve our smaller initial target, it rewards us with a dopamine hit. When we receive this neurotransmitter, also known as the pleasure chemical, we can experience increased motivation, enhanced well-being and this can drive us to feel better able to continue to the next chunk of our run. This can also work with techniques such as Jeffing, where we can set a specific amount of time or distance before we will allow ourselves to walk for a short period. This enables our brain to stop focusing on how long our overall run is and instead focuses on the next chunk and the reward that it will receives accomplishing this.

Reframe tough experiences

As humans, we are pre-wired to try and escape or avoid things that feel challenging and uncomfortable (hill training and intervals spring to mind!). A way to reframe these training sessions when we experience discomfort can be to see this as an opportunity to further increase our resilience and enable us to become mentally and physically stronger for our future runs. This can help us to perceive these experiences as a form of personal growth and reframe them in a more positive light, increasing our chances to continue with the challenge.

As runners, we are all aware of the need to work on building up our physical strength to reach our goals. By adding some mental mindset strategies into the mix, we can further enhance our running and experience more enjoyment, better results and greater confidence in the future runs we engage in.

This article was written by Dr Sarah Berger, Senior Clinical Psychologist, co-owner of Stressed Out to Feeling Fabulous & long standing member of the Running Woman community

1 comment

  • Jo

    Thank you Dr Sarah, this is so very valuable to me right now. Struggling to get myself out there after another family bereavement (3rd since July) and it’s really making me think about my own mortality and those I’ll leave behind. Positive self-talk is the way forward for me right now and I’m going to put this into action! Thank you for everything you are doing xx

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