Mind games of long distance running


As I gain more experience I am finding new discoveries every day, especially when it comes to the mental aspect of long distance running.  So I am writing a little about it to arm beginning marathoners against their worst enemy while running…themselves.  I realize there are many books on marathon running, and blogs where many attempt to warn of difficulties.  From what I have seen they all amount to “It is tough”, “you will want to stop”, and “you will feel pain”.  However, I know that I personally was prepared for the pain and hardship, but I did not fully appreciate the level at which my mind would go to try and stop me.

I have a few long runs behind me and have found that my mind plays a much larger role than I would have ever thought possible ,in whether I finish a run or race.  We have all experienced the mental shutdown whether it is on a 5 or 50 mile run.  It starts the minute we start to change into our running clothes, put on our shoes, stretch (or not), and head out the door.

  • Stages that I have been attacked by my mind (luckily my mind doesn’t always attack at each point, as each run is different)
    • Sometimes it is while I am getting ready
      • Too cold/hot, rain, snow, sun, mysterious aches/pains, certain clothing not ready
    • Other times it is during the warm-up
      • Something else to do, lonely, traffic, dark, need sunglasses
    • During the first miles the attack may be like this
      • Tight muscles, feel bad/sluggish, not in the mood, feel bad/sluggish (yes I realize that is a dupe)
    • When I am in “the Groove
      • During this time most of us don’t get any arguments from our minds.  We are warmed up, moving along at a comfortable pace, feeling great as we hit “the zone”.
      • Be prepared, our mind is preparing to hit us hard if we keep going.
    • In the mid-run it is possible that bargaining may start
      • At this point the first signs of fatigue set in.  My mind bargains with me and tells me that if I turn at the next corner I still have a good run in, but can cut it short and no one will know.
    • Naturally our brains can’t let this time pass since we are tired on long runs
      • My body is getting tired, and my mind thinks I really should quit because of this.  It tells me that it would be so nice to walk, even though it means I would need to walk 10 miles home.
    • During a Marathon somewhere between 20 to 26 miles we are all vulnerable
      • This is where the mind will outright rebel, and will even come up with things you really don’t mean and have never thought of before.  This is the hardest deception to get past, and most runners simply quit.  Your mind will make you doubt that you can finish.  It will make you swear you won’t run another marathon again, and make you wonder why you did this time.  It will tell you that it is alright to have a DNF (did not finish) as long as the pain is gone, because yes it is painful.  This is the point where your mind really has its greatest possibility of taking over.  You will want to quit just to shut up the mental anguish and physical pains as you hit the wall.
    • The finish 26 to 26.2
      • For me this .2 miles is the best.  I feel great, and am able to drastically increase speed as I find energy from somewhere.  My mind has no hold in this time period because I am almost done and nothing can stop it.
    • Even higher
      • I have gone up to 50 miles only once, so am not really sure what to expect here but will share what I experienced.  I know that I personally was challenged by my mind every…single….mile.  I was in pain, I was tired, I was lonely, I was hungry, and I felt that I was injured.  But when I finished it was one of the best moments in my life as I ran the last 3 miles at a 9:30/mile pace with no pain, lots of energy, and only the finish line in my mind.  It was my best “zen” moment I have ever experienced as I ran in the woods in total darkness.

Most runners I know, or have read about, use many different methods of overcoming their minds.  Some bargain with their brain saying I will run a certain amount of minutes/miles/streets, once I am there I will continue if I still feel good.  Others fool their mind by drowning it out with music, or running with a buddy to keep them busy, or many other things.

In the recent article in Runner’s World about Kara Goucher, her trainers talk about using a “secret word”  they changed periodically to match the current goal.  Whenever this secret word was uttered it would provide a mental boost to carry the athlete to higher levels and help them to push through.  I played with this during my recent 50 mile ultra last week and found that it worked awesome.  I trained for a few weeks prior to the ultra using the word “endure”.  When I was completely drained and felt very close to dropping I uttered the word on my exhales 4 or 5 times.  I could actually feel the adrenaline rush as chills ran through my body and an energy surge came from nowhere to keep me going strong until the finish.

I am not “the authority” since I consider myself a beginning runner.  But I just thought sharing these moments and thoughts may help someone else.  Up to this point I have not had a DNF, and never gotten to the point of giving up.  But with each run my mind thinks up new attacks.

Leave a comment and tell us how you battle your mind during runs.


4 responses to “Mind games of long distance running”

  1. ohh I love this topic!! I think my tricks have changed the longer that I’ve been running. Sometimes it’s just ohh let’s not stop until I’m at a round number…or just to that next light or…I’ve also found oddly that if you speed up when you really want to stop it’s like a little adrenaline and then slowing down doesnt’ feel so hard!

  2. Ok, finally getting caught up on some new blogs!! Sorry about that, I’ll be better I promise. 🙂

    The more I run the more I think it is all in your head. 90% is physical and the other half is mental – right?

    Wait…. So not only did you run a 50 mile, but I was reading and part of the race prep was a warning about bears and panthers!? Weee doggies.

    Good luck on the run towards boston – can’t wait to hear all about it! My 2010 goal is 3:20 as well. And next year, down to 3:10 to get there!!

  3. Oooh, that’s a good post. In my first and only official ultra (34 miler at the North Face Endurance Run), the only thing I could fall back on was a weird competitiveness. It got so bad b/t miles 15 -19 that I was not only going to quit, but pissed off that I didn’t have the means to quit immediately. You know? Like, “What’s a guy gotta do around here to DNF?”

    When I finally hit mile 19’s aid station, I sat in a chair and started to ask the volunteers who had a cellie so I could beg a ride out, but then I saw people trucking past. I ate the whole time and just watched people roll through and finally thought, “F*&^% — they’re not tougher than I am.”

    So I got up and ran to a 35th-place finish.

    But that salvation was only available to me because of my adventure racing background. IF I hadn’t done 24-hour and multi-day races, I honestly would have given up. So, yeah, there’s no way of telling people how hard it is, but you did do an amazing job of explaining how your mind works against you!

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