Take it in stride: The mental game

The mental part of running is more difficult to train for and equally, if not more, important to your ultimate success than the physical aspect.

All runners have hit the wall. Your body feels like it wants to shut down and your brain starts telling you to pack it in. It is a very difficult feeling to overcome.

If you read about the experiences of ultra-endurance athletes — those crazies who do distances ranging from 50 to 300 kilometres — you will find a common theme: the truly great athletes have the mental strength that makes the difference.

These athletes talk of times when they collapse, literally. Through sheer determination they get up and finish their run.

Unlike ultra-distance athletes, us mortals aren’t collapsing from sheer exhaustion on most of our runs. That said, the mental process we all go through during a run is the same. It ranges from euphoric to disconsolate, sometimes fluctuating back and forth.

Take the time to think about and prepare for the mental aspect and you can become more effective, and perhaps happier.

Acknowledging your success is step one. A friend of mine is working through a walk-to-run program. She recently graduated from short bits of jogging to running for a kilometre or more. That takes serious mental fortitude. Sticking with your training, particularly when starting out, is hard. Lots of folks abandon their exercise programs because of this.

When you succeed, take a moment to acknowledge your success. I liken it to putting money in the bank. For each success, make a mental deposit in your running bank. You’ll hit the wall again and when you do, force yourself to open the bank and think back to one of those times when you succeeded. Your past success can help you break through your current challenge. The more experience you add to your running bank account, the better off you will be when faced with adversity.

I was demoralized during the last 10 kilometres of my first marathon. I could barely get my legs to move. I finally managed to shuffle the last kilometre by teaming up with another struggling runner. We encouraged each other to the finish. It added to my mental currency. Now when I struggle or flirt with the wall I remind myself that I made it through that marathon and finished standing up. It also motivates me to re-tackle the marathon in the future and finish stronger.

In the dark and cold of the Yukon winter it is hard to stay motivated. Draw on your running bank account and remind yourself of how great you ran last summer due to your training last winter.

In the middle of a race, thinking back to all the training you did can help. Think of that long run that you dreaded doing because it was cold and dreary. You did it and felt better for it. Think of that tough hill you climbed in training. It was way steeper than the one in your race. You own this.

There will be days where you won’t be able to get over the hump. Sickness, fatigue, stress or life gets in the way. Know when to be gentle with yourself. Skip running for the day or bail on a race for your mental sanity and physical well-being. Tomorrow will bring you another opportunity.

It is also easy to get caught up in comparisons. This can be healthily competitive, but it can also be extremely unhealthy if taken too far.

Success should be measured against yourself, first. Many of the fast runners have been at it for years. The mileage and experience in their running bank accounts is hard-earned. For them, hitting a personal best feels just like you hitting yours, even if the times are different. Challenge yourself, but be reasonable.

For those looking to get a kick-start on the season, join the weekly Run for Mom clinics in April. It is a great cause with excellent coaching and leads up to the Run for Mom on May 12. Athletics Yukon will launch the season with our second annual Athletics Expo at the Old Fire Hall on April 17. Visit AthleticsYukon.ca for details on both events.

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