Running: A Mental Sport

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First up- some FUN news!!!! :D

I signed up for the Toronto Scotia Bank Half Marathon on Sept 27th 2009!!!! :D I’m so excited!! Does anyone want to run it with me?? Let me know! I heard it is filling up really fast so be sure to sign up if you want to secure a spot.

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I have always been interested in the psychological or mental aspects of sport and competition and my recent 10k and 10 mile races have renewed my interest in this area.

I came across this article on the mental aspects of running by Dr. Rob Udeqitz called ‘Mental Tools To Boost Running Performance and Pleasure’ It’s a good read, so I thought I would share it will all of you tonight.

During my recent 10 mile race, I quickly realized that my ‘mental game’ was not up to par with my physical game. Several times during the race, I had negative thoughts creep into my head that told me that I wasn’t going to be able to finish, I wasn’t running fast enough, or I wasn’t doing good enough. I basically psyched myself out as much as I probably could have! It was VERY distracting and quite frankly, annoying to have to deal with the negative voices. Afterall, this was my time to celebrate my progress, not be weighed down by some untrue negative thoughts.

For my next race, I really want to focus on training my mind to reduce the amount of mental ‘drain’ entering my mind. I think this article below is a great starting point for anyone looking to improve the mental aspect of their chosen sport.

Mental Tools to Boost Running Performance and Pleasure

by: Rob Udewitz, Ph.D.

The Mind’s Choice

During most runs the road is laid out in front of us and we can see where we are at and where we want to go. I often do my most challenging runs on the Reservoir in New York City’s Central Park. There is a spot I’ve noticed at the Reservoir where the path turns and I can see only a few feet ahead. However, if I look to my left I can see clear to the spot where my hard run will end in about 400 meters. It is at this moment where my mind has a choice. I can keep my gaze forward and see only where I’m at, or I can look to my left at see where I want to be. On the surface, my first choice promises nothing more than limited scenery, my own heavy breathing and the pain of lactic acid buildup. The second choice holds the promise of a

beautiful view of the water and the place I want to be…the place where all the pain will stop. Initially, the better choice seems obvious. George Sheehan (Running To Win, 1992) wrote, “of all the lessons sport teaches us about life, perhaps none is more dramatic than the danger of focusing on the outcome.” This statement is most closely associated with our tendency to focus solely on success or failure and winning or losing. Most of us know that when these factors become our primary goal, performance and pleasure usually suffer. During a

strenuous workout or challenging race, a primary focus on the finish line (even if you’re not worrying about your time or place) can also put you at a disadvantage.

Goal Setting and Quieting your Mind

Runners sometimes wait to “figure out” their goals like distance and pace during the actual run. They can fill their minds with thoughts like “run hard to that lamppost” or “just one more lap around”. The mental chatter of goal setting and goal shifting during a run can detract from the pure pleasure of your run. Setting a goal prior to your workout will allow you to quiet your mind of these thoughts and allow you to focus on your run. When setting your goal for a run, account for variables like cardiovascular conditioning, workout schedules, weather conditions and how you feel that day. If your training calls for a harder workout, try setting a moderately challenging goal before the run based on these factors. Then make modifications, if necessary, after you’ve warmed up. If your schedule calls for an easy day, try to keep your mind on

making your run as comfortable as possible. Setting a goal while allowing for flexibility will put your mind at ease and reward you with more enjoyable runs.

Distraction and Running

There are many places to direct your attention during a run. Running is a great opportunity to experience nature, people watch or just review the struggles and triumphs of your day. Others prefer to listen to music on the run that inspires them to persevere or distracts them from discomfort. The problem with distraction is that it leaves little room for awareness to experience what you are actually doing. It’s possible that we freely place our minds on everything else because running can come so naturally to us. Running is easy and most people can do it with minimal instruction, but it can also be very hard, requiring great effort. As the distance and intensity of a run increases, the simple mechanics of your stride begin to change and break

down. Maintaining some focus on these elements will help you stay efficient, more comfortable and are guaranteed to bring you more pleasure during your run.

Staying in touch with your mind and body during a run will help you reduce negative thoughts and physical discomfort. You’ll also be better able to avoid injuries by differentiating between types of pain. When you are unable to maintain your form because of discomfort you are at a greater risk of injury and better off slowing down or stopping. Checking in with your body also allows you to warm up better and get into the flow of the run more evenly. If you are listening to a Walkman, the intensity of your run is more likely to be dictated by the tempo of the song rather than how you actually feel. Subsequently, you may go too fast before you’ve sufficiently warmed up and leave yourself prone to injury.

Body Awareness on the Run

You might think that running comes so naturally to experienced runners that they freely allow their minds to wander. Actually, elite runners often use a flexible style of focus that changes with the demands of the run. When the going is easy they may pay attention to other things, but they continuously “check in” with their bodies. When the going gets tougher, they pay particular attention internally, to their minds and bodies.

Focusing inward gives you greater control of your run. Our tendency is to try to ignore the pain that can come from a tough run; but when we ignore we ultimately lose control. Becoming involved in the rhythm of your breath can help your lungs more efficiently exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide and flush lactic acid from your muscles. Maintaining awareness of your form can help relax your muscles, reduce pain and allow you to run faster and farther.

Negative Thoughts

Our first inclination is to distract ourselves from negative thoughts when we feel their weight bearing down on our minds. If we consistently ignore a persistent thought, we often end up fueling its power and pull. We are telling our mind that it is too scary to “go there” and our fear subsequently grows. Paying attention to these thoughts might be another path to managing them. If you really follow your thoughts, you may notice that they are more associated with how you might feel in the future, rather than how you actually feel in the present. We may think, “Wow, how will I ever finish this run if it feels so tough now”. Even though the future could be as short as a few seconds away, you really cannot know for sure how you will

feel down the road. During a tough run we may worry that we cannot maintain intensity or even make it to the finish. But these thoughts, although very real, often have no basis in reality. We do, however, have control of the present moment. If we remain aware of our thoughts we are better able to understand their basis in reality and connect with how we actually feel in the present. Finally, you leave yourself open to the very real possibility that you might actually feel better down the road! If you keep bringing your mind back to the moment you will be better able to manage how you feel during your run. You may notice that you feel pretty good or you may be able to change your breathing and form to help yourself feel better. Many runners successfully manage negative thoughts by noticing them while

detaching from them emotionally. Some effective strategies might be to think, “Oh, there are my negative thoughts again”. Or you could actually say hello to them and invite them in. Much like an annoying houseguest, these thoughts are often less emotionally draining when you welcome them and take them lightly. If you really are having difficulty with negative thinking, you may experience a great sense of power in knowing that you can maintain the intensity of your run while feeling so lousy.

Let your Mind Flow

The beauty of running is that there is so much time to think. The ability to engage our bodies while allowing our mind to flow may account for the great emotional benefits of running. There are no right or wrong ways to think or feel, but having some mental tools to try will reward you with the most pleasure from your runs.

ABOUT the AUTHOR

Dr. Udewitz is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. He is affiliated with Behavioral Associates of New York City. His dissertation at Hofstra University was on psychological processes in runners. A collegiate runner, Rob still competes in races and most recently completed the Boston Marathon.

He can be reached at: rudewitz@rcn.com

Tonight’s Questions:

What are your thoughts about this article? Do you struggle with the mental game of your sport? Do you find you have problems with negative voices during races or competition? What do you do to improve the mental aspect of your sport?

angela signature thumb63   Running: A Mental Sport

Hey guys- Ange here again! :D

My sisters and I will be TWEETING today and tonight, so be sure to check us out on Twitter for Party updates and random pictures!! I might throw up a random post later so be sure to check back. :)

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica July 25, 2009

Thanks for this article Ange! Great find. I really enjoyed reading it because I definitely struggle with things like this. I like running without distraction, but I feel I almost need distraction to get to a point where I feel comfortable without it, as I am still working on my running skill since I got a little out of running shape.
Anyway, I am so excited for your run! I wish we had more to sign up for around here :(
-muffy

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Armando July 25, 2009

Excellent article, I´m going to use it in my daily running.

Thanks for sharing it

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Kari July 25, 2009

I was impressed with this article because it seemed to draw on current research and practice perspectives, but also made sense at a day-to-day level :) He seemed to draw on a lot of the recent mindfulness and acceptance & commitment approaches to psychology/therapy (especially the points about inviting your negative thoughts in). I personally REALLY struggle with those approaches, in the sense that they just don’t come naturally to me, but I think they are very useful for a lot of people…the idea of being focused and aware on the present moment in particular.

Practice makes perfect I guess – thanks for posting it as it’s nice to see how the approach applies to running.

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Rosey Rebecca July 25, 2009

Yay for signing up for a marathon!! I just started running outside the gym and am definitely starting to love it!

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Kelly July 25, 2009

The mental side of running is so tough – especially with the longer distances!! When I did the Chicago Marathon a few years ago, I had a word that I used as a motivator, distraction, and method of keeping my thoughts positive. I got this idea during a seminar I went to that was help by a local running store, that was geared towards tackling the mental part of running a marathon. The word I came up with was “white”. As I thought of the word white while I was running, I would think of all things that were white that I loved. Thinking about my future wedding dress (I was engaged), snowflakes, the color of our boat, the color of a wave when it crests, white cake, puffy clouds, coconut scented lotion…the list went on and on! I also always focused on how much I HAD done, not how far I had to go – I had little goals – celebrating when I finished the first 5K, then 10 miles, then halfway, then 17 miles (an injury during my training prevented me from going any farther than that – so once I passed the 17 mile marker, I had run farther than I ever had before!) reaching 20 miles, etc. etc. I would also actually force myself to smile and try to feel a happy emotion when it was getting really tough – I found that connecting with the volunteers at the aid stations and smiling at them really helped with that. It is just important for runners to find out what works for them!

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k July 25, 2009

Congrats on signing up! I did the Waterfront half marathon last year. There are a couple of very mentally challenging stretches that I wish I had been prepared for, but since you’ve done part of the course and are probably more familiar with the area, you’ll probably be more than prepared. We stayed at the race hotel (the Delta Chelsea) the night before and found it really helpful to be so close to the start line. Warning though- bring your own food! The hotel restaurant and room service didn’t have food available early enough Luckily we found that out the night before and were able to go buy some stuff.

As for the article, I really liked it. Thanks for posting it.
I have a couple of tricks that I use with the negative thoughts. When I am feeling pain and finding myself thinking “man, if I feel like this now, there’s no way…” I take stock of how exactly I feel. What hurts, why it sucks, and then I think one of two things (unless of course it is the kind of pain that I actually need to pay attention to and maybe think about injury instead of just tiredness): “Embrace the pain” or “I can handle this for now”. I find the “I can handle this for now” really gets me through the tough spots because it almost gives me permission to scale back “later” even though I don’t really allow later to come. As for “embrace the pain”, it allows me to acknowledge the pain and to accept it as a part of what I’m doing. I kind of think “yup, this hurts…but it will get me to where I need to be”.

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Cait (Cait's Plate) July 25, 2009

Yay! Congrats on signing up – that’s further that I’ve ever gotten so far! :)

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caitlin July 25, 2009

love the piece about negative thinking! and congrats on the half!!

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Bridget July 25, 2009

I needed this today! I had my first training run with a group that is preparing for a 1/2 marathon. It was a 5-mile run and it was AWFUL!! I was so frustrated after it was over because I had a complete mental breakdown that led to a physical meltdown and walking the final 1.5 – 2 miles. I know if I am going to make it to the end of this 1/2 marathon I have to be in a more positive mental space and these tips will help. Thank you!

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Amy July 25, 2009

To me, running is 10% physical and 90% mental… if I’m not into it mentally, then its all over for me!

A friendly suggestion, is to listen to your body when training for your half. You’re adding distance quite quickly. I’m not sure if you to a LSD run (long slow distance) but running slow when you’re adding mileage is SUPER important. A proper half marathon training schedule is about 16 weeks… and you’ll be training for it in less then half of that.

Check this article out: http://runninginjuryfree.org/2008/10/long-slow-distance.html

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Amy July 25, 2009

Sorry, I hit enter too quickly. I forgot to say: Have a blast training… the half is my favorite distance, I’ve ran 9 of them! :)

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Paige@ RunningAroundNormal July 25, 2009

First off, you’ll be running your half marathon on my husband and my first anniversary! haha

Secondly, I really agree that most of running is mental. If you can’t get your mind in it, the chances of completing the run are significantly lower (at least for me!)

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Kirsty July 25, 2009

I find that my mental battle is toughest before I’ve stepped out the door. Typical example this morning – I bailed on a 6km fun run because I hadn’t run all week and decided that there was no way I’d be able to finish in a respectable time, without collapsing, feeling like crap, blah, blah, blah. I’m so annoyed at myself because I know I would have really enjoyed it if I’d just gotten my lazy ass out the door. I don’t know why I over-complicate things and stress so much before every run. I just need to get out and do it, then I can think while I’m running. Definitely brings much more positive thoughts than being an old grumpy-pants at home!
Thanks for a very thought-provoking post :)

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Angela (Oh She Glows) July 26, 2009


Awesome, awesome tips guys!!! I can’t wait to re-read these tomorrow when I’m sober. LOL.

Amy- I don’t consider myself training for a half marathon in 1 month. Ive been running consistently post-injury since about May now and I successfully completed a 10 mile race last weekend with no problem. I feel like I will be fine for the half which isn’t actually until Sept 27th anyways :) ~A

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nicole- chasing blue July 26, 2009

Congrats on signing up for the half! I think the half is the perfect distance. It’s long enough to be challenging but training for it still gives you time for yourself and your family.

I”m actually doing one the day before you! If you need a training plan, just email me! My coach set one up for me that is awesome.

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WholeBodyLove July 26, 2009

Great post. I can really relate to the struggle with negative thoughts. I had never realized the connection between distraction and negative thoughts. Thanks for the useful information!

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MarathonVal July 26, 2009

Congrats on signing up for the half!!! I love half marathons :) they may be my favorite short distance… as exciting as a full maraton but less prone to injuries ;)

I have always known that running can be about 98% mental, which is partially why I basically failed at it for years when I was insecure and pretty emotionally weak. It was not until I gained confidence in myself and my abilities that I managed to triumph over running challenges and to realize the extent of my own skill level!

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Susan July 26, 2009

I like the idea of goal setting before hand. I find I’m more likely to achieve more when I set out with a goal in mind, rather than waffling back and forth during my workout.

I like working out with music though. I’ve actually spent more time running without an iPod than with one. My favourite part of running is matching my stride to a great beat. I find I “zone-out” the most when listening to music. I tend to start obsessing about things when I run in silence!

Yay for a half-marathon!! You’ll be able to do it no prob ;) That’s my goal distance for next summer.

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RunToFinish July 26, 2009

Running is so very mental! I think it’s probably the hardest part for many people to figure out…it’s amazing what our bodies can do if we believe it

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Katie July 26, 2009

Everyone has to struggle with this! I do badly. I keep thinking my pace should be higher, but have no fact based reason. I have been running since March! The fat that I am even training for a marathon is great who cares about speed? Then I second guess my legs. With very bad knees and a bad hip I keep thinking it’s going to go back to not even being able to walk so I break. It’s a mental challenge but I LOVE to run os I’ll take it ;) I just try to put some reality on my negative thoughts because most are me thinking I should be able to do more then I possibly can do and that is ok because what I can do is pretty damn amazing!

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Steve Levinson July 26, 2009

I’m a clinical psychologist who has spent years studying the effect of mental states on performance. It’s clear that being able to control one’s own attention – to focus it and keep it focused at will – is an essential ingredient in the recipe for peak performance. Unfortunately, because of some primitive leftover “wiring” in the human mind that makes us far more distractible than we ideally should be, controlling one’s attention is easier said than done. That’s why I invented a simple electronic device, called a MotivAider, to give people greater control over their own attention. The device has been used to help athletes improve their performance by controlling their own mental state. (http://mentalpractice.com)

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Jess July 26, 2009

I have run on the treadmill for years but am finally starting to race (just 5Ks for now) and run outside more often. I’m having a very hard time getting my mind in the game – so I’m excited about this article! Thanks!

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Meghan@traveleatlove July 26, 2009

Great article. I must say that my running mental game stinks! I talk myself out of it and doubt myself all of the time. I am even thinking that I won’t be in shape for my half marathon on October 18 and its months away. My next run gooal is definitely going to be to concentrate on the mind game and stress less!

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Cait (Cait's Plate) July 26, 2009

HAH! That looks like such a blast! I’ve never tried the WII but now I really want to!

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Nina July 26, 2009

Congrats on signing up! And thanks for finding that great article. I think that’s exactly what I go through when i’m trying to run. :)

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Michelle hisae July 26, 2009

I psych myself out when I DO set a distance goal. Long runs intimidate me, but when I run for the fun of it, I end up just going with the flow and running farther in general.

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Michelle Gay July 26, 2009

That is such a great post. I actually think that you can apply it to not only running/working out, but other aspects of your life. I think that what you’ve consistently brought up in your blog is that positive thinking is the key to any success in life. It’s about enjoying the moment, regardless of how frustrated, painful, etc. it is. There’s always beauty, there’s always an end and there’s always joy.

I too have honestly struggled getting past about 4 miles. I once ran a 10km and cried afterwards because I was so proud of myself. However, I have contributed the success to being ‘in the moment’ and not something that I could see myself doing again. This post has reiterated to thought that you can do whatever you put your mind to.

Thanks Angela!

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Caroline July 27, 2009

Thanks for the article! I’d say 80% of the time I give up on runs mentally before I reach a point of needing to stop physically. I feel like it is really holding me back. On outdoor runs I’ll try his advice and go without music, but I think on a treadmill at the gym I’m still going to need a distraction from the monotony (and 95 degree weather in Georgia is going to keep me there for awhile).

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cali July 27, 2009

i’ve already signed up! it’s my first race and i’m more than a bit nervous because i’ve never run more than 8 miles before. i’m following the online training plan they give you when you sign up.

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