Running is a mind game

Running is a physical test of strength and fitness, but I believe it is a mental challenge too!  Although physically fit enough to finish longer distances, sometimes “negative” and demotivating thoughts are creeping in and then it seems just too hard to keep going mentally. These thoughts are not of any help at all. Let’s beat that mental battle!

So how can we change our minds and keep ourselves positive and motivated? To win the mind game that is played in your head while running, it is helpful to do some psychological training. This might sound very complicated, but with some practice, any athlete can! You will surely benefit from a more positive mindset.

The following practical tips might be useful:

Recognise the negative mindset

Recognise which thoughts are negatively putting yourself down. Reflect upon those thoughts. What are you thinking?

  • Are you focusing on situations or things you cannot control?
  • Are you focussing on the hard aspect of the course?
  • Are you doubting wether you are able to do it or not?
  • Or are you making excuses?

Decide to think positively

If only it were that easy to stop the negative thoughts, right? But only you can decide what you are thinking! So just decide to think something else, something positive! Remember: all runners face the same weather conditions and the same variables during a race. Is it pouring rain? Well, that might be very uncomfortable, but at least the race was not canceled. Don’t focus on aspects you cannot control.  Ask yourself how bad the current situation really is? Is this the worst case scenario and does it really influence your run today too much? Are your thoughts realistic at all? Is there any good reason to quit your run or even not go for a run at all today? Are you physically absolutely not capable of running? Have you exaggerated the situation? Or are you just making up excuses?

Focus on what you are capable of

If you’re thinking that “you can’t do this today”, try to shift your thoughts to all the training sessions and runs you’ve done previously. Looking back at what you did and what you’ve accomplished before, makes you feel more secure about what you are capable of now. Read your training logs or think of runs you successfully finished. Those are the ones, you want to focus on. Believe in yourself.  Yes you can!

Stop making up excuses! Pep talk and re-focus

Sometimes I recognise how my mind creates all kind of reasons why I’d better quit my training earlier than planned. Or sometimes I feel like not doing any runs at all, because : “it might rain soon, it might ruin the rest of today’s planning, I might need to go to the bathroom soon, I might have eaten too much/not enough, I need to do so many other things today….” etc. I’m basically just making up excuses.

When I am running alone and I’m mentally struggling like this, I really need to kick my own butt and refocus with some pep talk.  It is very important to tell myself that I’m not really physically exhausted,  I’m just not so disciplined today and mentally weak. But I also know how to push through it: I promise myself a “reward”, something that will make me feel better, if I continue my run. It could be a small extra drinking break or a nice massage when I finish the training.

What also works for me to distract me from my demotivating thoughts and excuses, is redirecting my thoughts to something else:  like focussing on my breathing rhythm, my running pace or my running form. Sometimes I even count steps for a while.  Or I try to focus more on the surroundings: flowers that are blooming, or other runners in front of me. Or I sing along with the song that I’m hearing. When I am running on a treadmill, watching a movie is a useful distraction.

How to shift from negative to positive thoughts

Changing your mindset can be tough. Trying to focus on something else and replacing negative thoughts with more positive ones, takes a bit of practice.  But anyone can, really! Here are some tips that might be helpful:

Remember WHY you run:  what’s your running goal?

Sometimes running is just …not so nice. It seems that you simply can’t find a running rhythm that usually makes you feel good.  It happens to many runners every now and then. Just remember what made you decide to run in the first place. Maybe you wanted to run a marathon, or you wanted to raise funds for a charity, or you started running to lose weight? And why do you remain in it? We all started somewhere and we all continue for different reasons. When you feel that during your runs your thoughts become a bit negative: just remember why you run.

Focus on what you’ve done already

Do you still have a few more miles to go but you feel so tired? Just look at the distance you’ve done so far, especially if you are over halfway done!  Do you think this workout is “the hardest one you’ve ever done”? Remember that you managed to complete the previous “hardest one” as well!

Break up your run

Dividing your run into smaller pieces will make a long distance feel much more manageable. For example, if you’re running 15 km, cut it into three sessions of 5 km.  You could even plan a short stretching break and have a sip of water before you start the next 5 km. At the start of each new part, visualise yourself just starting out on a new run with fresh legs and just focus on getting to the end of it. And repeat until you’re done.

It’s not always easy, but you will be so proud afterwards

When you’re doing a long run, regularly remind yourself that it’s not easy to train for a long-distance event. If it were easy, everyone would do it, right? You’ve taken on this challenge and the struggle you’re facing now will make your accomplishment even more worthwhile in the end. You’ll be extra proud knowing how much effort it cost you!

Put up reminders with motivational quotes

Pick a short phrase or motivational quote and write them on post-it memo’s. Place them at visible places: your bathroom mirror, your car’s dashboard, your purse or on your wardrobe door. And then repeat them in your mind during your runs. This could be your inner motivation when you need it most. For example:

  • I don’t stop when I’m tired; I stop when I’m done.
  • Speed doesn’t matter, as long as you do not stop.
  • The secret of getting ahead is getting started.
  • All miles are good miles.

Promise yourself a reward to look forward to

It can be good idea to decide on forehand what you’ll reward yourself with after you’ve finish your race. It gives you something to look forward to. A nice warm bath, a massage, a pedicure to take care of your runners feet,  it could be anything. Not only after a race but even after an intensive training you can reward yourself with something: your favourite meal for dinner, an hour of relaxing in the sun, a moment to wind off. Keep your post-run reward in mind when the run is getting hard!

Prepare your race well

If you’d like to train for a running event you might need some help from experienced runners or coaches, but you can find a lot of useful books or online information as well, about  runners nutrition, training schedules, running form, runners needs and injury prevention.

When the race date is getting closer, it is important to prepare yourself well, in order to keep yourself focussed during the run itself:

  • Make sure you have everything you need for your race: shoes, BIB, right clothing for the type of weather, runners watch, gels, etc.
  • Know what the course looks like: where is the start, where are the drinking posts, where are the toilets, is the course hilly or flat.
  • Eat and drink well, and have enough rest. You’re physically prepared well so you can do it! There is no need to be nervous.
  • Imagine yourself running the course and crossing the finish line. Think about how you will feel to see your loved ones at the finish line cheering for you.

Keep smiling!

When the going gets tough, just keep on smiling! A smile on your face can drastically improve your mindset, even if you fake it. Try in front of the mirror and see what happens! Would you like some more on how to improve your mental strength? Have a look at this book:

I hope my tips will help you to beat that mental battle that comes with running. I wish you all More Fun 2 Run!  Please let me know if you have any questions. You can sent me a private message at an*******@mo*********.com or just leave your comment below ands I will get back to you.

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4 years ago

Love this page! When I first started marathoning I remember that it taught me that I was using up all of my strength in the beginning of the race and I had nothing left at the end. I learned how to pace myself very quickly.

I also used to reward myself. One chocolate covered donut at the end of my 32 km training run every Saturday. It made me never miss my weekend runs. That donut tasted so good, and it was completely guilt-free^^

Thank you for the reminders that most of whether I can or cannot is all in my head.

4 years ago

I agree 100% with you with everything you said! I am a runner and it’s as simple as that : when I mind myself to run 8 km, I will do it. But the next day if I mind myself 5 km, forget about the 8 km I made the day before, when I’ll reach 5 km I’ll stop. It’s totally crazy to see how powerful how mind is. We have to continuously train how brain to stay positive and go for it. Most of the time we are amply to do hard things but just because we have negative thoughts we won’t do it.
Thank you for sharing this!


4 years ago

I often redirect my thoughts to my breathing or rhythm as a way of slowing down the mental chatter that can at times be a little negative. Remembering why I exercise is a powerful motivator and when I think of this while exercising, I tend to put more effort into what I am doing. The buzz you get from exerting yourself while running or doing any other exercises feels so good afterward that I know the rewards far out-weigh the doubt, laziness, pain, and tiredness.
Many thanks for sharing.

4 years ago

Hello, dear Angelique,
I have never been a fan of jogging in the previous years, but in the last few months I learned to love it so much I now can’t live without it. It’s excactly as you said. Running is all about the mindset and the training starts from there. Of course, rewards make it even more interesting and easy. I usually treat my self to a healthy, but delicious snack and occasionally (maybe once two weeks) to a burger or a pizza. 😉 Can’t wait to read more from you!

Thomas Blake
4 years ago

I just started running and the article “running makes me poop” was very informative.
Love the look of your site. The margins are easy to read and the articles are written in a lively conversational style. Your personal journey with running is effective this helps connect with the reader and makes you more authentic. Keep up with the good work and keep running

4 years ago

I mostly do strength training in the gym but I’ve started running 3-mile circuits with a colleague once a month to improve my cardio and burn some fat. Running is definitely a mind game, just like lifting us but in a very different way.

When you run you have to endure a lower level of discomfort for extended periods of time vs. enduring extreme discomfort for a short period of time like say during a maximum squat or deadlift effort.

I’ve always found I like to get my suffering over with fast so I’ve never really liked endurance work :D. In both sports, I have found that the beginning is always worse. Once you warm up and the endorphins and endocannabinoids start pumping in your veins, you will start feeling great instead of crappy. The trick is to get past this thrshold and that’s a mind game.

4 years ago

Positive mindset is crucial in achieving any goal in life. Each day needs its own kind of motivation to kick start your day. Running or jogging is not different. You may be skilled and or physically fit but you also need to work on your attitude each day as some days may be mentally challenging as you’ve pointed out.Thank you for all the tips you’ve outlined in your article about how to maintan a positive mindset.


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