Building Mental Stamina: 4 Strategies for Runners

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Finishing a distance race requires a significant amount of physical training. The importance of mental preparation and building mental stamina is often overlooked. It’s been my experience that mental training can have a tremendous impact on the quality of a race experience. I’d like to take some time today to talk about the value of “gettin’ your head in the game.”

Let’s take a journey back to 2003. I was 22 years old and had just finished cancer treatment. I was in what I consider to be the worst shape of my life. I was thankful to be healthy, but definitely wasn’t feeling strong or athletic. A friend of mine approached me and told me she wanted to sign up for a marathon. Two seconds later I responded by saying, “That sounds like fun. I’ll sign up with you.” I had no prior running experience and didn’t even know how many miles were in a marathon (hence the reason I so quickly committed). A few days later, I was registered for the San Diego Rock N’ Roll Marathon, and ready to start training for my first race.

I knew it was going to take me a while to be ready to run what I now knew was a 26.2 mile race. I had to start from nothing. Being the nerd that I am, I knew there had to be a book that would teach me how to train for a marathon. I went to the book store (this was pre-Amazon prime days, y’all), and stumbled upon a book called The Non-Runners Marathon Trainer by David A. Whitsett and Forrest A. Dolgener. The book is based on a training program developed by two authors at the University of Northern Iowa. Their training program is designed to help novice runners successfully complete their first marathon. A central theme in the book is that mental training for a marathon is at least AS important as physical training.

FullSizeRenderJust a few pages into the book, I quickly realized I also had quite a bit of mental training to do. A couple years of cancer treatment had left me defining myself with words like “weak” and “ill.” I used The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer to help me successfully finish my first marathon. The training was hard, but it dramatically transformed my physical stamina and, more importantly, my mental representation of myself. I replaced descriptions such as “weak” and “ill” with words like “strong,” “healthy,” and “marathoner.” Finishing the San Diego Rock N’ Roll Marathon is one of the best moments of my life.

I’ve continued to use mental training as a part of every race I’ve done since 2004. Many of the techniques I use come from The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer, but I’ve picked up tools from other sources, too. Here is a list of the mental techniques I use the most:

  1. Act “as if:” There is no special club you have to join to become a runner. If your goal is to run a marathon, then you are a marathoner. Acting “as if” you are a marathoner will help you create thought patterns that build your confidence and optimism for finishing a race. If your goal is to finish the race, act “as if” you have already finished. You construct your own reality. This means that your mind has a tendency to believe whatever you think. Try telling yourself “I am a marathoner. I finish races strong and with my arms raised in triumph.” You can create a mantra that you can repeat to yourself when you are out on long runs.
  1. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good: This tip comes from Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Before and After. Marathon training is a time commitment. Things will not always go according to plan. You will have days you get stuck at work, or days where Queen Elsa blasts your favorite running trail with a 10 foot ice wall (well maybe I’m exaggerating there, but you get the idea). Try to avoid thinking about running as an all or nothing process. It can be common to think things like, “I only have 30 minutes, that isn’t enough time to do 5 miles, so I will just skip my run today.” It’s ok to not be perfect. Do what you can. All movement is good movement. Here is a post about not making perfect the enemy of good. 
  1. But…It doesn’t matter: In The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer, the authors devote a lot of text to the impact of negative thoughts. Negative thoughts require a lot of energy, and undermine your goal of finishing the race. Common negative thoughts include statements such as, “I’m tired today, and I don’t want to run.” Whitsett and Dolgener recommend adding the statement “it doesn’t matter” to the end of negative thoughts about running. For example you could say to yourself “It’s cold outside today, but it doesn’t matter. I will finish my run anyways.” This helps your mind create the image that you are resilient and you will finish the race.
  1. Use Visualization: You will have runs where you feel like you can run forever. All the stars align, and you achieve running bliss. When you have a great run, take in every detail of the experience. Pay attention to all the sights, sounds, and feelings of the run and create a mental movie. After awhile, you will have a “library” of mental movies that you can access in the event you are having a not so good run. When you approach a large hill, or feel like you can’t go on, replay the memory of your strongest running moment. This can give you the extra little bit of energy you need to finish strong. When I have a tough run, I frequently access the image of Amanda and me running through Cinderella’s castle at our first Disney Princess Half Marathon.

That’s all the tips I have for now. I hope some of these help you “get’cha head in the game” on your next run. I am always looking for more mental tips and tricks. Do you have any mental strategies that help you get through training? I’d love to hear them!

-Christine