MENTAL TRAINING

Running isn't all physical, there is a big mental component to it too. Our brains heavily influence our perception of pain, confidence in our abilities, and even our motivation to run. The brain has a large influence on how our body's react to training. 

 
 
What Makes a Complete Athlete?

The most successful athletes are not only physically strong, but mentally strong as well. You don't need to be an Olympic caliber athlete to get benefits out of mental training. Mental training can benefit athletes of all abilities. Your mental toughness can influence how you perceive pain, your motivation, confidence, and even more aspects of your training. Mental training can be used to boost motivation and confidence. 

Mental Skills Successful Athletes Have:

  1. Confidence

  2. Goal Setting

  3. Mental Imagery

  4. Concentration

  5. Emotional Control

  6. High Levels of Motivation

Skills such as these are essential for performing well in your sport, these skills can also help you outside of sport as well. Mental skills like physical skills can be honed and improved upon with time and practice. 

Confidence

Confidence if one the the keys to success, if you don't believe you can, then you aren't giving yourself a fighting chance. It's easy to lose confidence whether it be from a string of bad workouts or comparing yourself to other athletes, but remember that success in running completely individual. Running should be seen as an opportunity to challenge and compete against yourself and learn from both your successes and your failures. If you still have issues finding confidence in your running or are nervous on race day:

  1. Remember that you've been training hard for your race and improve your fitness. Everything you have done is for you!

  2. Have faith in your training and fitness. Ultimately, have faith in yourself!

  3. Don't dwell on negative thoughts. Negative thoughts won't help you through your race or workout.

Goal Setting

Goal setting is an important, yet complicated skill to acquire. If you set a goal that's too large in too  short of a time span, it can feel daunting and impossible to reach. On the other hand, if you set the bar too low, you'll reach that bar and wonder, "Now what?" The best way to set a goal is to set different types of goals. Having a long-term goal that can be broken up into smaller more reachable short-term goals makes any big goal seem a little less frightening. Goals in running can be performance goals, fitness goals, or process goals. Goals set should be realistic and measurable. If your goal is to vague it is hard to say you've truly achieved it. For example, saying you want to run more is not measurable, but saying you want to train for a half marathon gives you an exact distance and date. Having goals that are more quantifiable helps you feel more accomplished once that goal has been reached.  

Mental Imagery

Mental imagery is one of the more difficult mental skills to learn. Mental imagery is imagining or visualizing the scene or activity you would like the execute. Athletes can prepare themselves for a race by imagining the race itself. These mental images should be as detailed and realistic as possible. Mental imagery can be performed in several ways, which will be discussed in the next section. 

Concentration

Maintaining focus and concentration is essential during a race or hard effort. A lack of concentration can impact performance during a race. A common way to stay focused is to concentrate on pacing or effort. This can be measured in multiple different ways: heart rate, speed/running pace, or perceived exertion levels. Another way to stay focused is to concentrate on your breathing, which could also help you regulate your breathing more under pressure. Whatever pacing tool you choose to use, make sure you have a plan to stay concentrated during a hard workout or race. If you do lose concentration during a race it's important to quickly regain it.

Emotional Control

Everyone is different when it comes to emotional control. Some people have difficulty controlling their emotions, while others can remain completely calm while there's a house fire. When it comes to racing, everyone has a different sweet spot for how they like to feel at the start of a race. Some people love the excitement and getting pumped up, while others prefer to stay calm. If you find yourself outside of what you prefer feeling you can use certain techniques to regulate your emotional reaction. Some athletes choose to calm themselves by taking deep breaths or meditation, while other choose to pump themselves up with some fast music. Whatever you prefer it's important to understand and accept the emotions such as, excitement, anger, anxiety and sometimes even disappointment come with racing. These emotions can be channeled and used to improve as a runner. 

Motivation

Even the best athletes are 100% motivated everyday. Motivation is a very individual thing. Some athletes can train forever without a rest day or a down period, but other may lose motivation after 3 to 4 weeks of training. You will need to figure out what ultimately motivates you. Do you want to set a PR? Does the race atmosphere itself motivate you? Does gaining fitness and health motivate you? Sometimes you'll need to utilize different ways to keep yourself motivated during training. 

  • During a race you could break the race into smaller more manageable chunks to stay motivated. This will help you focus on the mile you're in and not what you have left to run. 

  • Remember what led you to train as hard as you did. (Are you running for a charity? Did you want to set a PR?)

  • Remember that your friends and family will be there at the finish line to celebrate your accomplishment.

  • Train with a friend, this will keep you accountable. 

 
What Exactly is Mental Imagery?

Mental imagery is when an individual visualizes an event or an activity they want to execute or excel in. Mental imagery engages all of the senses and what is truly amazing about visualization is that when executed properly, the muscles involved in the activity will be engaged in real life and at the same rate, just as if the activity was actually being performed. 

This can happen because the regions of the brain responsible for motor control are the same regions responsible for conscious thought. There are different forms of mental imagery:

  1. Internal Imagery

  2. External Imagery

Internal Imagery 

Internal imagery is also referred to as internal association. Internal imagery performs visualization from a first person perspective, so you are visualizing finishing the race in your own shoes. Internal imagery focuses on how you feel doing the activity. For example, imagining how a hard effort or race will feel so the discomfort will not take you by surprise. This will help you prepare for the sensations you may feel during an event.  

External Imagery

External imagery is when you visualize the event in third person. This is helpful for visualizing what the event should look like. This is particularly helpful when trying correct or maintain running form. Visualizing how proper form looks can help you correct your own form. 

 
Mental Burnout

Overcoming Running Burnout

Be honest with yourself and listen your body: You know your body best. If you're feeling constantly fatigued or notice any persistent signs of overtraining or burnout its best to talk to your coach and let them know. Your body is telling you that it needs a break. Just because there is a workout on your calendar it doesn't mean you should ignore what your body is trying to tell you. 

Give yourself proper recovery time: Have you been running 7 days a week? Do you do hard efforts all the time? If so, you're probably not giving yourself enough time to recover from your workouts. Try incorporating a rest day in during the week or add in easy runs to help you recover from your hard efforts.

Rethink current goals: If you've been training for the same distance for a while it might start to feel monotonous. This feeling of monotony can lead to burnout. Maybe you've been training for marathon after marathon, and the grind is starting to get to you, try training for something like a 5k or 10k. This will add new elements to your training that could brighten up your routine. 

Give yourself grace and know this is normal: It is so easy to tell yourself that "you're not tough enough" or "you're a slacker" when a workout doesn't go as planned or if you do miss a workout. It's even easier to do if you feel like none of your workouts have been going well, but even the most amazing runners out there have bad days or feel burnout. Don't let you bully yourself over a couple workouts, find the heart to give yourself grace and give yourself another chance.

Keep your running fun: Running is a hobby for most of us. We aren't getting paid to run, we run because it makes us feel good. If you're having a hard time finding the fun in your running you could try thinking of every run as a mini adventure! Try changing up your running route, or run somewhere you love (e.g. a favorite park or trail). Another thing you could do is run to a destination, and have a friend or partner pick you up to change up your routine. Maybe you're into music or podcasts, you could prepare a playlist of new music/podcasts to listen to on your run to get you excited about getting out the door. 

Meet new friends​: Most of us do our runs alone, which can get lonely sometimes. Running with a friend can give you a source of motivation and it can keep you accountable for your workouts. Local running stores are a great place to start. These stores often have running groups that meet weekly, which is a great way to meet new running friends. 

Try something entirely new!: Have you tried everything you can think of and still feel burnt out? Then it might be time to step away from running, even if just for a little bit. This time off can be used to find a new sport to get involved in. Cycling and swimming are great cross-training activities you could utilize while taking a break from running. Or maybe you want to sign up for that new fitness class everyone has been talking about. Running will always be there when you're ready to come back.

Getting off the roads and onto the trails is a great way to keep running fun!

Burnout is is something that can impact everyone at some point in their lives. Burnout can manifest itself physically, emotionally, and mentally and is typically caused by a state of chronic stress. When at its peak burnout can feel suffocating, like you can't function effectively in any part of your life. Burnout is sneaky, and doesn't just happen suddenly, it is slow and compiling. Burnout sneaks up on you by coming in slowly like a small gas leak.

Running Burnout

Like in other aspects of life burnout can happen with your running. Burnout in running is when an athlete has chronically reduced drive or sometimes even a complete lack of drive to race and train. Mental burnout can be due overtraining, but it can also be due to other things going on in your life as well. Burnout is running can be characterized by a number of symptoms including: lingering fatigue or the feeling of being "rundown", not being able to complete workouts, a weakened immune system, more aches and pains, a lack of motivation or drive, and a plateau or even decline in performance. Running burnout can be a real threat to running performance and at worst can lead you to quit entirely.

Signs of Burnout

Physical Signs of Burnout:

  • Chronic Fatigue

  • Insomnia

  • Increased Heart Rate (Resting and During Activity)

  • Weakened Immune System/Increased Illness

  • Loss of Appetite/Unwanted Weight Loss

  • Increased Number of Aches and Pains

  • Poor Performance During Workouts

Physical signs of burnout can also be cause by underlying issues such as anemia. Make sure if you're experiencing physical symptoms to go to a doctor to rule out any physical ailments that should be treated. 

Mental Signs of Burnout:

  • Increased Anxiety Levels

  • Depression/Feelings of Hopelessness

  • Loss of Enjoyment

  • General Bad Mood (e.g. Anger, Pessimism, Increased Irritability) 

 
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