6 Mind Strategies to Improve Your Running Performance
By: James Williams & Luke Tyburski
If, like most runners, you don’t do any specific mental training exercise, then maybe it’s time to change. We’ve all heard the phrase that ultra-running is 90% mental and there is even some evidence to suggest that’s true. Ultra-running expert Professor Tim Noakes argues that we only have limits on our performance because of our brain. This is known as his "Central Governor Theory."
Our brain is there to protect us, which is obviously a good thing. In ultra-running, however, sometimes our brain tries to stop us from achieving our goals. For example, have you ever said these things to yourself during a hard race: "I can’t do this" or…"I shouldn’t do this" or even… "Why am I bothering to do this? It’s pointless!" When we are trying to push ourselves to our limits, we want to overcome these issues. Luckily, there are a wide range of mental strategies and tactics that you can use.
1. The Reframe
How often have you ever said to yourself, “I could never do that” or “I can’t do this.” I would say most of you have had that internal conversation with yourself numerous times. Saying “I can’t” is limiting your potential, your options, and drowning your mind in negativity.
"The Reframe" is simple - Instead of thinking (or saying) that you can’t do something, start asking yourself a simple question… What if I can?
Merely asking this question can inject a small amount of curiosity and, with curiosity, comes a notion of what is needed to accomplish the task in front of you.
"The Reframe" helps you to figure out how to achieve your goal (whether it’s an entire race, or just a mile at tempo pace which never ends). It also covers your thoughts in an optimistic layer, helping you turn a negative “I can’t” into a positive re-frame of “What if I can?”
2. $100 Million Spend
At times you will struggle to create positive thoughts when pushing your body (and mind). Simply trying to "will" your pain away won't cut it. So, distract yourself from it instead. At some stage of our lives we have all imagined what winning the lottery would look like. When your legs are hurting and your mind is diving into a negative dark hole, imagine you just won $100 million. What would you spend it on?
The key to this exercise is to be specific. Don’t just say you’ll buy a house. Visualize exactly what it looks like. What each room has in it. The colors, the detail, the personalized features you would have throughout your perfect home when money is limitless. The "$100 Million Spend" distraction exercise can keep your mind occupied for a few vital minutes, or even hours. It can be that bridge between the negative head space you are in to the positive one you need.
3. The Weather Attitude
Your attitude is a secret weapon that most athletes do not use all that well. The attitude you take to any situation, scenario, or outcome is not only your own choice, but it can also swing your mood (then your energy levels) into a positive upswing, or negative downswing.
A prime example of this is when the weather is “uninspiring” before or during a run. A lot of people will complain, feel unmotivated, and dread facing it. You cannot control the weather, but you can control your perception of the reality in front of you! It’s your choice whether you let something out of your control (like the weather) dictate your thoughts, and ultimately your actions. Choosing a positive attitude is a choice, and one you are in full control over!!
4. Focusing on Process, not Outcomes
There are generally three types of goals that you can set for yourself - outcome, performance and process goals.
Outcome - This is the result or the end (singular) goal that you are working towards.
Performance Goals - These are the performance levels that you need to be able to achieve if you are to reach the outcome. These should encompass physical, technical and tactical, psychological, functional movement, and lifestyle markers.
Process Goals - These are the things that you need to do if you are to achieve the performance goals.
Most people focus almost exclusively on the outcome goals they have. For example, I want to finish a 100-mile race in 24 hours. While this is a good first step, it is not the only goal you should have. An outcome goal is useful because it helps you create the performance goals you need to achieve to reach the outcome.
For example, in order to run 100 miles in 24 hours, I need to average 4.17 miles per hour. Both the outcome goals and the performance goals can be impacted by a lot of things outside of your control. If the weather turns out to be horrendous on race day, or if you have a problem during the race with nutrition, your kit, getting lost, or something else, this is where process goals come in. Process goals give you the building blocks and the specific action plans for what you need to do to achieve your performance and outcome goals.
For example, in order to average 4.17 miles per hour in the race, I need to practice running at that specific speed in training, because it would seem so slow if I did it for the first time in a race and I might set off too quickly.
I find that it’s really useful to actually write down your goals, rather than have them in your head.
5. Using If/Then Strategies
The "if / then" strategy is a really simple way of making it easy to perform a habit or specific action, when under pressure. I’ve found this strategy particularly effective when planning for the inevitable "bad moments" that come up in ultra-races. When you’re in the craziness of a race, or if you are not thinking clearly because you’ve been out running for hours on end, this strategy can help you stick to processes that will help you achieve your goal. An example of an "if / then" strategy I’ve used in races is:
If I start to feel less strong, then I will eat and drink something.
If I am still feeling bad, then I will slow my pace.
If I am still feeling bad, then I will use my trigger word.
The list can be as long, or as short, as you like. You can use it for various problems that may come up in the race. For example:
If I get lost on the route, then I will stop immediately, and refer to my watch/map/etc.
If I get a sign of a blister, then I will stop, take off my shoes and socks and inspect it.
You can make lots of these before the race. The idea is that when the situation comes up, you have an action plan to deal with it, rather than having to think about it in the moment itself, when it can be difficult. Some athletes that I coach have even printed out their "if /
then" lists and brought them along on race day.
6. Trigger Words
While process goals and "if / then" strategies are things that you can implement before the race, a trigger word can be used most effectively in the race itself. It is similar to a mantra, but whereas a mantra is a phrase, a trigger word is typically only one word that helps you to instantly become more positive. I try to have a unique trigger word for each race that is specific to the goal I have for that race. For example, in my Autumn 100- mile race win, I used the trigger word “Bullseye." The reason I used "bullseye" was to remind myself that, no matter how bad I was feeling in this specific race, my training was on track for the bigger goals that I had set for myself at the time - A world-record 800+ mile attempt a few months later. It sounds simple, but it really helped.
The mental side of ultra-running is hugely important, but it is often not thought about in the same way that other aspects of training are. I hope that these six tips help you to mentally train better.
About the Authors
James Williams is a father of two, husband, and runner with race victories at 100 miles, 100km, marathons, half-marathons, 10k's and 5k's. Most recently, he attempted to break a world-record by running more than 800 miles in 9 days from the bottom of the UK to the top. He writes informative articles to help other runners improve their own performance and achieve their dreams on www.JamesRunsFar.com.
Luke Tyburski is a performance mindset coach, ultra-endurance athlete, and author.