The mental game

February 16, 20122 Comments

How much of your race performance is physical and how much is mental?  Yogi Berra would say that 90% is mental, and the other half is physical.  I truly believe that there is a HUGE mental component to running.  Most of it is based on limitations that we put on ourselves.  A lot of those limitations are are created during training.  A big one is the weekly long run during marathon training.  So many runners think they have to run a certain distance before they run the marathon.  Yes, the long run is important, and arguably the most important workout of the week during marathon training, but will one extra mile make or break your race performance?  If your longest run is19 miles, and you have never run 20, that doesn’t mean you won’t meet your goals, or that you won’t be fit enough to run that PR.  For some reason this mental game of mileage haunts many marathoners.  The reality is that running your best marathon is not about one workout, but the summation of all the workouts that you have done.  It is about the consistency of your training.  You must have confidence in your training.

It is also important to have a positive attitude on the day of your race.  Positive self talk or mantra, what ever you want to call it, will get you through those tough last laps or miles of a race.  If you are running for a personal best time, I guarantee the last 25% of the race is going to be uncomfortable.  It is then when you must decide whether or not you can continue pressing through the discomfort and maintain your pace.  In longer races a lack of fuel may physically force you to slow down, but most of the time it is the runner giving in to the mind which is saying, “this hurts, slow down.”

I broke 5 minutes for the first time in the mile (actually 1600m) at a post season time trial after my Junior season of cross country in high school.  I think I ran 4:58.  It was a huge mental barrier and I was in great shape.  That next spring at the end of track season, I could only run 5:01.  Was it all in my head?  My training was consistent, but I could not run any faster that I did six months earlier.  I was no less fit, in fact I probably had more speed.  The problem was that I had put a mental barrier on myself.

My point is that if you can run 5:01, you can break 5 minues.  That one second has nothing to do with your current fitness level.  Of course this can’t be used for any mark or goal.  If you can’t break 20 minutes for a 5k you will not be able to run under 3 hours in a marathon.  But that doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to run that time with more training.  After recently breaking the American record in the indoor 5k, Bernard Lagat said, “There is no mark that you cannot achieve if you work hard and if you believe in yourself.”

Recently a friend of mine from high school ran in her first marathon.  She did not run cross country in high school.  I remember her running a few seasons of track but as a sprinter or hurdler, not a distance runner.  She took up distance running later in life and found a new passion.  Not only did she set a goal for herself to run a marathon, but her goal was to qualify for the Boston Marathon on he first time out.  When she told her goal to others they said, “Timette, people don’t qualify for Boston in their first marathon,” but that did not stop her from holding onto her goal.  She trained hard and consistently and followed a plan.  Two weeks ago Timette finished her first marathon at Surf City in 3:31, and qualified for the Boston Marathon with nearly 4 minutes to spare.   She did not put limitations on herself, she put in consistent training, she kept a positive attitude, and she met her goal.

To some, that positive attitude comes naturally.  For others it requires help.  Believing in your training program is hugely important.  Certain key workouts can let you know that you are on the right track with your training.  Tune up races can also be a good gauge of your current fitness and give you confidence toward your goals.  Having a coach can also help give you mental confidence with constant feedback on workouts and help with goal setting.

Next time you toe the line, make sure that you arrive there with a positive attitude and a confidence that you have done your best in your training.  So many runners get to the race wishing they had just one more month to train.  In reality you won’t gain much fitness in one month, and certainly not in one week, or one extra mile.  There is a lot of time during a race to talk yourself down.  Make sure you are talking yourself up.

“Never count yourself out, you never know what you can do.” –Kara Goucher

2 Responses to “The mental game”

  1. Mary says:

    Great post! I have a half coming up next weekend and was sick for the past week and a half. I’ve been mentally talking myself out of the race since I’ve missed a few runs. This post motivates me to change my thoughts about the race and go into trusting my body. Thanks!

  2. Wow! I love this post. I am thinking that I will revisit it just before a race and key workout. I struggle with the head game a great deal. Breaking and continuing to lower my time well under 3 hours for the marathon is a goal. I do work hard. I give up my time with friends and the so called happy hours to be better. I have little doubt that I will reach and pass my running goals.

    Great post coach Karl!

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