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How to Use Mental 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. 

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