Building A Toolbox of Mental Strategies for Running Success
Dear Team Chaski,
My training is going well right now, but I'm struggling with confidence and motivation. I have trouble when it gets hard during workouts and races because I always revert into negative thought patterns. Can you help?
Runners in the Rut
Executing a mentally perfect race is rare, but I still vividly remember the race that was the closest I’ve ever gotten. The night before the race I was really scared because it was an obstacle race. After the course preview, I called my coach saying “there’s no way I’m going to be able to make it through those obstacles.” His advice was to attack the obstacles without hesitation.
My perspective shifted to believing that I was going to attack every obstacle without hesitation and focus on being proud of myself if I just made it to the finish line. So on race day, that’s exactly what I did; I focused on one obstacle at a time, allowing myself to only think about the obstacle in front of me, and celebrating each obstacle I made it through.
The last one was a giant mud pit that was the hardest 50 meters of a race in my life, but I took it one muddy crawling step at a time. When I crossed the finish line, I can genuinely say I was proud of myself for just making it there. I actually ended up winning the race as well, which shows the power of a real shift in mindset.
So with that, I want to dive into some of these mental strategies that can help us achieve our goals and be proud of the work along the way.
Let’s start with two VERY MOST IMPORTANT things:
- You are far more than just a runner, and even when running isn’t going exactly like you pictured, everyone still loves you and thinks just as highly of you. I had to learn this one the hard way, so I like to make sure all the runners of the world know that you are loved for who you are and not what you do.
- Everyone has ups and downs, and if you are one of the people who can learn and grow from those moments, you will be better, stronger, and more resilient for it. Every Chaski coach has doubted their abilities, toughness, or fitness more than once. All those things are normal. Practicing how we respond to those things helps us become better athletes and people. Recognizing we have the ability to choose our mindset is the first step to changing our mindset.
But let’s dig into the details!
What is your why?
I used to think running was all about running fast, winning races, and living up to expectations. That’s stressful and not always very fun. When I figured out that running was a lot more than that, I found what running meant to me and fell in love. So when we hit points in training and racing when things get hard, it’s important to know why we’re out there doing it.
"It's really hard to have strong motivation without a strong why."
I want you to take a minute to remind yourself why you’re running, what made you become a runner, and the things you enjoy beyond trying to run fast. Close your eyes, brainstorm, and write these things down! What does running mean to you?
Shift From an Outcome to Process Oriented Mindset
A process oriented strategy is one of the keys to achieving big goals. This means establishing process goals, not just outcome goals.
"Process goals are smaller steps along the way that help to set up for potential success in our outcome goals. Besides that, they are independent successes from those outcome goals."
For me, it was focusing on each obstacle and celebrating each time I made it through one, even if it wasn’t pretty. As you think about your big goals, I challenge you to identify some process goals that would help you work toward achieving that big goal, but that you would also be proud of achieving even if you fall a little short of the big goal.
There is always something to get out of every race, even if it is not a PR. I always encourage athletes to take a few minutes after races to identify the thing they did well and any process oriented goals they achieved.
Some examples of process oriented goals might be:
- pushing hard at the end of races and workouts regardless of pace
- getting better at tempo and threshold work
- improving top end speed
- establishing a regular strength or core routine (5 yoga poses for runners)
- sleeping more
- jumping in more lakes
- keeping a positive mental attitude in the middle of runs when you’re tired
- working on your technical trail running skills
- attacking the uphills or the downhills
- encouraging your training partners
Bowerman Babe Colleen Quigley has some great resources if you're interested in exploring journaling to keep track of your goals and training!
"take a few minutes to think about your big dreamy goal and identify a few process oriented goals you could focus on as you work toward that big goal."
Reframe Your Expectations
I find that perceived expectations create a lot of negative stress for some athletes. So another great strategy is to remove the stress of expectations. As a quick mental check in, I just want to remind you that expectations usually come from ourselves rather than from other people.
It can be helpful to reframe how much weight we give those expectations. Like I said, everybody will still love you just as much even if you have a bad race. But there are some really fun tangible ways to remove the stress of expectations.
- Race different distances or different types of races (road races, trail races, shorter or longer distances). With the pandemic and the lack of regular races, this is a really good time for this, whether that is a time trial of a distance you haven’t raced before or seeing if you can PR on your favorite trail.
- Do some workouts based on effort….leave the watch behind. This can be on easy days when pace really doesn’t matter, but it can also be intervals on the track. You might surprise yourself.
- Establish small goals that lead to the big goals. Maybe on your 1k repeats, the only thing you’re really going to focus on is running a strong last 400, or maybe in your 300s you’re going to get a little faster each 100.
- Recruit training partners and be a good training partner. Often times when we focus on team goals and helping our teammates have a good workout, we find ourselves running on a whole different level. Shared goals create shared motivation.
"Identify your expectations that are creating unproductive stress for you around training. What strategies can you use to remove the stress of those expectations?"
Cultivate a Growth Mindset
If you’ve ever taken a psychology class, you’ve probably heard of the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is also connected to that concept of a growth mindset. A self-fulfilling prophecy is the concept that how we describe ourselves and what we say to be true of ourselves is likely to become the truth because we will enact the behaviors to fulfil those prophecies. That sounds a little convoluted, but the words you use to describe yourself matter. Be intentional about the words you use to describe yourself and your races, even if those words are just in your head. If I tell myself I’m not tough at the end of races, I’m probably not going to be tough at the end of races. If I tell myself I’m not good at hills, then when my coach puts hills on my training plan, I’m likely to have a subpar workout that day even if there’s no physiological reason for it. Pick words that describe who you want to be and that facilitate a growth mindset. Want to learn more about the growth mindset? This is a great video about Carol Dweck's book on the topic. Watch here.
"Write your own prophecy. Who are you as a runner and as a person? How do you respond to challenges?"
Most of these tips are about building a toolbox of mental strategies that will set you up for success in achieving your goals and being resilient in the times when you don’t quite get there. All of these things take practice and awareness, so don’t beat yourself up if this is a work in progress. Trust me, we’ve all come up short of our big dreamy dreams a lot more times than we’ve achieved them. But for most of us, the dreaming is part of the process and part of our why.
— Kimber Mattox
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