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Mind Over Matter: the mental game of running

Everyday at work, I look up from my desk to see the following quote:

The body does not want you to do this. As you run, it tells you to stop but the mind must be strong. You always go too far for your body. You must handle the pain with strategy… It is not age; it is not diet. It is the will to succeed.
Jacqueline Gareau (1980 Boston Marathon Champ)

This is one of my absolute favorite running quotes, particularly as it applies to marathoning. I think it so accurately captures the old adage that “running is 90% mental, and the rest is physical.”

It’s that mental aspect of it all that makes running so dang tough. You can be in the best physical shape of your life, but if your mind isn’t into it, chances are you’re not going to have a great run. And you’re probably not going to get very far, either.

Marathon training is as much about building mental toughness as it is about developing physical strength. And believe me, after you get through a solo 20 mile training run, you feel as though you could conquer the world.

pre race.jpg

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the how much my mind affects my running. And how the heck I managed to do so well during my half marathon, on a day when I least expected it. I was reminded of Corey’s recent sport psychology post about emotion and performance. The way you’re feeling on race day can have a huge impact on how you do overall.

While good physical preparation is definitely important, I think people too often over-look the mental part. When I think back to the times I have done the best in races, they haven’t necessarily been just because I was feeling strong physically. At the end of the day, my mental state (including my emotions and overall beliefs about how I could do), have had just as much impact as my physical one. The first time I qualified for Boston, I stood on that starting line filled with excitement. I was nervous, too, of course. But mostly I just felt happy to be out on a beautiful course on a beautiful fall day, and I couldn’t wait to start running. I felt awesome through the first 23 miles (the first and last time that has ever happened!) and was fueled through the last 3 not because I wasn’t tired, but because I was so excited that I was going to meet my qualifying goal.

LB Bay State.jpgThis was around mile 22 – I really was feeling that good!

It’s never a perfect formula (sometimes I have bad days for no apparent reason) but over the years, I’ve found a few key themes that have given me a strong mental edge on race day.

1.) Be prepared

This might sound like it relates more to your physical strength, but the truth is, when you feel prepared for the challenge, chances are you’re going to feel more confident. And when you’re confident, you’re much more likely to succeed.

2.) Channel that nervous energy

A little anxiety on race day is a good thing because it’ll make you run faster. The trick is to not let it paralyze you. Don’t get overwhelmed with anxiety or let the nerves create doubts in your mind. Remember that you are prepared (#1) and that these nerves are your friend – they’re going to help you run faster than you even thought possible!

To be perfectly honest, last weekend I was more nervous about making it to the bathroom before the start than how I was going to do in the race. The fact that there was no pressure was probably one of the biggest things that helped me do so well, because it didn’t even get me the chance to get carried away with nervousness.

3.) Rock out

I have made no secret about my love for running to music. I strongly believe that a good playlist can be a tool that transports you to another place, and give you wings to fly.

Exhibit A:

LB Hyannis_musicShhh….don’t tell capstone….

I spend a lot of time crafting the perfect playlist before races, and from the above photo, you can see it pays off – I’m clearly rocking out (most likely to my current obsession). During races, my favorite songs to listen to either a.) have a good beat; b.) have a fun chorus; or c.) build up to an awesome crescendo.

Some tunes that I’m absolutely loving on my runs right now are:

Black and Yellow – Wiz Khalifa and We R Who We R – Ke$ha because of the beat

Dog Days are Over – Florence and the Machine and Rolling in the Deep – Adele because they both have a great chorus

Waiting for the End – Linkin Park and pretty much anything by Mumford and Sons because they have amazing crescendos


Tonight (I’m Loving You) – Enrique Iglesias and Marry You – Bruno Mars just because they make me want to shake my booty!

4.) Have fun

Sometimes we get so caught up in the stress of performing well that we forget that racing is supposed to be a celebration – of all your hard work, your dedication, and of running itself! Our bodies can do some pretty amazing things. Don’t lose the joy of racing.

Becky RTB.jpg

Not every run is going to feel awesome, and they certainly won’t all be easy, but when you approach a race as something fun, chances are you’re going to feel better than if you’re filled with dread.

5.) Just Believe

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that it really is mind over matter. All you have to do is believe in yourself. Just like the Little Engine That Could, if you think you can, you will.



Still not convinced? Here is a really interesting article from Running Times about just how much power your brain has when it comes to running.

What mental strategies do you use to help yourself through a tough run or a race?

25 Responses to Mind Over Matter: the mental game of running

  1. You definitely hit the nail on the head. Running is such a mental sport. There are so many times when I think that I’m tired and don’t want to run anymore and I actually think about it and realize that it’s not my legs that are tired at all.

    Also, I love running to Mumford & Sons. The last minute of The Cave is especially good.
    Lee´s last post ..Big Green Salad

  2. My best marathon (Chicago 2010) was run when I was having fun and enjoying myself…I was super nervous for my other marathons, but I was so calm on the morning of Chicago and I was just ready to run! Definitely a different mental state and I think it played a big part in how the race went.

    I also used to get really worked up about THE TWENTY MILE RUN, but now I’ve run long so much that it’s not a bit deal anymore. Last week I extended to a 22 mile long run because I know that on marathon day I get into trouble because I freak out about the fact that the marathon is 6.2 miles more than my longest training run. Finishing 22 miles feeling strong (with stuff left in the tank!) really helped me mentally…I just hope it pays off on the big day!

    I also set little goals for myself…during my 20 miles today, I broke it up in four mile segments. At mile 14, I thought to myself “only two miles until four to go!” It makes no sense in actuality but I promise it helped at the time…

    I also rockout to the soundtrack in my head…who knows what will come on next!
    Susan´s last post ..a running tour of queens

    • I do that too! My brain doesn’t always think logically when I’m running, but I find that if I use something like “4 miles to go” as my goal and then count down to that, it somehow doesn’t seem so overwhelming

  3. I might just have gone out and bought the Mumford & Sons album last time I was in the UK because of you…

    Great tips too, I find the be prepared really is so important in many situations not just running. Public speaking, interviews and travelling comes to mind… Mind you whinging it can also be fun, but nerveracking.
    Mari´s last post ..Hasselback Sweet Potatoes &amp more…

    • Great point. How you feel mentally can have a huge impact on the outcome of any situation!

      And I love that you went out and bought the album!! That’s awesome. Although the question remains….do you like it?? (Hope my endless spouting off about it didn’t let you down)

  4. It’s amazing how powerful the mind is. I definitely have more mental battles than physical ones throughout the course of training. I tend to sell myself short and expect less of myself than I am actually capable of. When I am with other people, it definitely helps me perform without obsessing on whether I am not going to make it.

    And this probably won’t surprise you at all…Dog Days Are Over is my new favorite running song. I seriously listen to it on repeat. I kept meaning to mention to you that I loved it, but of course, great minds…
    Becky´s last post ..The Common Bond

  5. Great post, Lauren! To get through a tough race, I think positive self talk has been key for me. “You can do this” or “Keep pushing, this will make you a better runner” kind of stuff. But also, always remembering that running is fun, and that I’m lucky to get out there! Thinking how of I’ll feel when I finish helps too, and whether I’d be proud of my performance.
    Kelly´s last post ..On the Return to Running and Serena Williams

  6. My mom used to tell us that running was 90% mental all the time, and I never really believed her until I started running longer distances. Everything you listed are such important things to keep in mind! When I feel prepared and go into it with a positive and hopeful mindset, I generally do much better. And I totally agree about the nerves – it’s normal and okay to be nervous, but it’s important to train yourself to use the nerves in a positive way to help you, rather than let them hold you back. I start to really need my strategies when I’m hurting, get a stomachache, or just really am not into my race. In those situations I try to breathe and give myself some motivating self-talk, and remind myself that I’m doing this to have fun and I’ve worked so hard to be here. Awesome post Lauren – you know I am obsessed with sport psych, and I love talking about it with other people (especially runners)! Thanks so much for thinking of my post, I’m glad it helped :)

  7. To power myself through a tough run, I break it up into smaller amounts and just focus on the next mile, etc…if I’m really battling, feeling tired, etc…I give myself a goal of “one more mile” or “run to that lamppost” and then give myself permission to stop, but when I reach my goal, I usually set another and another until I finish my original plan. Mantras also help me get through as well.

    • I do that all the time too!! It’s a great way to “trick” myself into running further when all I want to do is stop.

  8. I agree that having confidence in yourself is one of the most important factors. During my marathon, I knew I was going to finish after all the training I had done. Once my foot started hurting about halfway through, I was able to ignore the pain because I believed I would finish no matter what.
    I think that “fake it until you make it” applies to running also. Some days you don’t feel like running, but if you start out with a smile on your face and convince yourself that it is going to be an awesome run/race, it will be.
    Liz´s last post ..The Return of Bike Commuting

  9. Great post Lauren! This is exactly how I felt today when I battled it out for 16 miles in the 18 degree temperature this morning! I wasn’t worried about the physical ability to run the miles, but the mental strength to push through when all I wanted was my warm house.

    good luck this weekend with the black cat!
    Karen´s last post ..10 Mile Turn Around

  10. Love this post!

    Running is totally a mental sport. I have psyched myself out many a times, and I’ve had awesome runs when I felt awful.

    I often have to remind myself to have fun! I don’t know why I always take racing so seriously. It’s not like I ever have a chance to win prize money or something 😉
    Jen´s last post ..Ever so grateful

    • haha, seriously! But we can’t help it that we’re both so dang competitive. :) I’ll never win, but that doesn’t mean I can stop myself from always racing against my biggest competitor – myself.

  11. I love that quote! And this post. I definitely think of myself as mentally tough and motivated and credit a lot of my training/racing success to it. I’m all about the pump up jams. One that got me through my last marathon PR was “All I Do is Win” by DJ Khaled. I think the title sums up pretty perfectly why this worked so well.
    Emily´s last post ..Sweat Drink Eat Repeat

  12. My dad always told me “If you think you can – you can. If you think you can’t – you’re right.” I thought it was so corny until I got older and stopped listening to the negative voices in my head. Mental toughness is so important – in running and in life! I think the two are mutually exclusive :) I have a great memory of The Cave and a long walk around an island over the summer. The song reminds of the warm breeze, blue skies and the ocean…sigh!
    Erin @ Big Girl Feats´s last post ..Keep Swimming

  13. I completely agree that running is as much a mental struggle as a physical one, if not more. When my head is not in it my body certainly can’t convince me to get out there! I try to stay positive when I am running, focusing on the good, thinking of my accomplishments and what I am achieving by running right then and I give myself major props along the way too!!
    Samantha @ Health, Happiness & Skinny Jeans´s last post ..A Request From Me to You

  14. Sometimes the mental part of running can be so hard to overcome, especially if I’ve had a few bad runs recently. Music always helps me stay positive. My favorites lately have been Super Mash Bros mash-ups songs.
    Lauren´s last post ..ABC- easy as 123

  15. Just found your blog today. I’ve been stuck on the mental hamster wheel of running and it’s not been a good place for me. My one measly mile was hard today because I think it was so mental for me. I had a lot of negative thoughts swirling around before I took off. Thanks for sharing this. I’d like to step up my 5k status to 10k status :-)

  16. How did I miss this post? I love it!! The quoteat the beginning is also one of my favorites!! Running for so many years had definitely taught me what a mental sport it is!! I think I’m finally starting not to put so much pressure on myself and just enjoy the ride. During my, last marathon training I made myself physically sick with the wrong attitude and I’m trying not to do that again. it also helps to have such inspiring running friends like you. Thanks for your music suggestions too!
    Lizzy´s last post ..Egg Roll Week

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