Tough Long Runs and the Mental Game Of Running

In my opinion, running is 75% mental and 25% physical. You don’t have to be in tip top shape to run, you just have to have the mental power to keep going when your thighs are screaming and you want to lay in a corner and die. Last May I was talking to my motivational and insightful Uncle Bob (we will refer to him as Coach Bob) who just so happens to be a Sports Psychologist about the inner mental game of running. I was starting to get frustrated about my inability to break a 2 hour half marathon. At that point, I had run a handful of 13.1's at a variety of different levels of preparedness from very little training, to unprepared, to over-prepared. It didn't matter how little or how hard I trained, I continued to run times between 2:00:37-2:04:34.

I was suffering from a mental block and it was incredibly frustrating. I started thinking about the advice Coach Bob gave me last year during my 12 mile long run yesterday. Yesterday's run completed week 2 of “Operation Speed Demon” and I am supposed to running all of my long runs at a 9 minute pace. I won’t lie to you, I’m all over the map. I’m running everything from 9:30 minute miles down to 8:30 minute miles. I’ve never buckled down and paid attention to my pace. Since I started running, I've run according to my comfort level, pushing myself when I could. I’m learning how to zero in on running a consistent pace instead of achieving the average pace I am hoping for.

I have set some lofty goal times for this year and I am starting to feel the pressure. I wasn’t necessarily disappointed with my performance yesterday, my average pace was on target, but I started to get frustrated with how difficult it is for me to run a consistent pace. Then I remembered the advice Coach Bob gave me the race before I broke 2 hours:

Performing well when it matters most presents a paradoxical challenge to the runner: the more one focuses on the outcome the less likely they are to perform well in the moment. But since the outcome really matters it is difficult not to think about the results of all the hard work that you have put in training for this one opportunity. So how does one go about staying focused on the process rather than a result? In other words, how does one pretend the outcome doesn’t matter and that this is just another training run? The key to performing well will be holding onto that feeling of readiness and joy throughout the race. When you catch yourself thinking ahead to the finish line and the time you might achieve, refocus back onto the joy of running the race in that moment. Check in with a friend, take a selfie, take a couple deep breaths and remind yourself of why you run in the first place, anything that keeps you focused on the here and now will work.

If you want to get more serious about this, check in with your body; how do your legs feel, how is your breathing, is your upper body relaxed, could you go a little harder if you wanted to? If the answer is yes, then pick up the pace for a little bit. If that feels good, maintain that pace. What you are doing now is focus on the process rather than the outcome, and that paradoxically, will get you the time you’re actually looking for.

To summarize: stay in the moment; focus on the process, not the outcome; remember why you run and have fun; and when you catch yourself thinking about the outcome too much, take a deep breath and refocus on the here and now.
— Coach/Uncle Bob Corb, PHD

It’s simple and effective advice. When the going gets tough, get back in the moment. When you find yourself dwelling on how uncomfortable you are and how difficult the run is, bring your attention back to yourself. Why do you love running? Why are you putting yourself through it in the first place?  Do you have something to prove? Why are you feeling exhausted, do you need to adjust your pace or your gait? Take a couple deep breaths and keep going forward. Readjust. Not every run is going to be a great run, sometimes it’s going to take everything you have to get through it. Other times you’ll be able to reset mid run.

If you’re new to running or coming back after a break, there’s an adjusting period. It takes time and strategy to mentally prepare and execute goal and pace times. It’s like your brain and your body are a bickering couple arguing about fatigue, pain, and exhaustion. You have to adapt and find the will power to dig deeper and pull through when you feel like giving up. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the throng of a race or in the middle of your long training run, it takes practice.  Until tomorrow, #RunSelfieRepeat.