Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Mind of a Runner

We are all at different places with our running.  Some of us are just beginners, while some of us have been running for a long time but never seriously trained for something. There are those of us who are back to training and working towards a goal that they have had in mind for some time and then there are those that just run because they like to run but are not training for anything in particular.   No matter where we are at, we have to find what works for us....the shoes and clothes we wear, fuel we use, what inspires us, and even what our mental focus is when we run.

 One of the things I've been thinking about recently is the mind of an athlete.  In particular, I've been reflecting on what goes on in my head when I am running, racing, and pushing myself to new levels.  I think I've always realized the importance of being mentally focused and having images and mantras to get me through tough workouts or races.  In high school and college I spent a lot of time visualizing before, during and after my races.  I would really try to see myself running strong, achieving my goals, and finishing the race that I was working towards.  I have memories of sitting in my room at home with my "in the zone" music in my walkman and meditating on my weekend race.  I could see myself winning, breaking the time barrier that I wanted to, having a strong stride, and trying to really feel what it would feel like to succeed. Did all this mental visualizing help?  Yes, I think so.  It helped me get my mind ready to believe that I could meet my goals and run strong.  I was never fully able to push past the mental blocks I had set for myself but I think I got better and better with this as I learned about myself and worked through other things in my life that held me back.

But running isn't always about training for something.  In fact, many of us just run because we love to run.  We don't always have a time goal or an event we are working towards.

I read a blog recently where someone was trying to get through one of their longest runs yet and they asked for advice on what they could be focusing on to help them get through it.  This made me think of all the different things we can focus on mentally while we are running.  Sometimes they are total "in the zone" thoughts and sometimes, as we all know, there are those runs that are just an escape and time for us to let our mind wander without all the intense "go get 'em! burn baby burn" thinking.

Here are just a few of the different ways I focus mentally during my different kinds of runs:

Having a Mantra or a Go To Phrase
There are those times when I'm running where I just need to dig deep and push myself.  Times where I don't think I can go on much longer or times where I've pushed myself so hard and I can feel myself hit a wall.  It is these times where it helps to say something to your self that helps to pull you through.  Some of my go-to phrases are:
*  You can do this!
*  You're better than this Amanda!
*  Fight!
*  You're strong, amazing, and powerful!

Focusing on Form/Stride
In my current training I'm really trying to make every single one of my runs a time for me to be mentally focused on my stride/form.  In my last blog, I mentioned that my training program gives me a new proprioceptive cue (mental images related to my form) to work on every week and eventually I will have worked on them all.  The purpose of focusing on these cues and working on each of them for an extended amount of time is so that I can train my brain to do them naturally.  I can already feel my form improving!  When I find myself getting lazy with my mental thoughts, I can feel my form start to change and I get my mind back in the zone and focus on the cue/cues that I have in my plans.  To read more about this, check out this article on Sensory Cues.  

A Time For Prayer
Let's face it.  Not every run is about having a time, form, or distance goal.  When I'm not training for something, running is just part of what makes life good.  Like a cup of coffee in the morning or a good laugh.  Running is a treat.  A time to escape and feed my soul!  Many of my runs serve as a spiritual time for me.  They end up being a time where I feel God and connect with myself on a spiritual level.  I find that I've had some of the most deep and reflective prayers during my runs and I always come back after these runs feeling fully alive!

Letting Off Some Steam and Reflecting on Life
Today was one of those runs that I just had a lot on my mind.  I was red hot mad.  Angry.  Feeling frustrated and needing a major processing of my feeling and thoughts.  Perfect time for my 11 mile run.  No music, no phone...just me and my mind.  I tried focusing on my stride and form but I just had too much steam to let off so I ended up mulling over everything for the entire run.  Great outlet for me to think!  I usually come to some sort of Ah-Ha moment and return home calm and grounded.

Getting Unstuck or Inspired
I've had so many times where I've been working on a piece of writing, a lesson plan, letter to a friend or some kind of project and I find myself stuck.  No matter how hard I think and try to change things up, I'm just at a creative block.  During times like these, it usually helps to go on a "getting unstuck" run.  Usually my runs during these times help my ideas to start flowing and my block to be unblocked.  In fact, sometimes the ideas and energy starts flowing so fast that I've been known to stop random strangers to ask for paper and pen in the middle of my runs so that I can write my ideas down.

What do you mentally focus on when you are running?  Speed workouts, races, long runs, easy runs? 

Do you always have a goal (time, distance, focus) in mind when you are running?  

Do you have a "Go To" phrase or mantra that gets you through the toughest moments in a workout, race, or training run?  



  1. 1. My focus is usually on what I'm supposed to accomplish. How much longer, how I'm feeling, keeping up my pace for speedwork. Occasionally I'll kind of lose myself in the run and my mind wanders, but it's fairly rare for me to not be thinking about running when I'm running bc it doesn't come easy to me.

    2. Yes. I run to train for whatever it is I'm training for, not because I love to run. Sometimes, as a side benefit, I love running while I'm running. More often, I love that I was able to do whatever it is I was "supposed to".

    3. "You can do it", "Stay strong", "Keep pushing". And, sometimes, "Hang in there, just finish _____ and you can walk if you want to." Usually, once I finish whatever it was, I'm able to keep going.

  2. P.S. Hope today's run did the trick and you came home in a better frame of mind! :)

  3. This post really resonated with me. I am constantly mentally battling every run!

    Great post!

  4. I use my runs to figure out craft projects, costume ideas, things I want to build or change in the house. It gives me time to mull over different options.

  5. Good post! I run mainly for distance and never have time or pace goals. I relax and soak up the moment.

  6. I mostly need a "go to phrase" when doing pace workouts, but you know there are sometimes those easy runs that I have to push through. My go to phrase is "you got this" and I just repeat it over and over. Its funny I can almost feel myself dig in and push even harder. I normally have a run mapped out but don't always stick with it and I need to run w/out a purpose more....

  7. I've definitely had my moments of prayer! But my mantra is You are capable of more than you realize.

  8. Great post, Amanda. Very thought-provoking! A lot of the time during a run I just let my mind wander and forget all about time if I can. Other times I will almost have an "awake dream" thinking about a place or situation that makes me happy (often I am running along a beach in this dream lol). I usually have a distance in mind during a run but I've found that if I just go run, I will run better and further so I try to reframe my thoughts. And my go to phrase... although it's not very sophisticated, it works for me, "f*****' fight!" :)

  9. My mental focus sways depending on how the run is going. I think this is bad!! I get angry or happy. I pray, I zone out to the music.

    Yes I always have a goal time.. That may be why I fail. I think I set my bar too high. :(

    No go to phrase really..That changes based on the run.

  10. I usually have lots of endless chatter going until I get tired, then I focus more on mantra and form. I always have goals for my runs be it speed or distance.

  11. Long runs are my 'zone out time' - if I am with my group we talk about everything except running. If on my own, I just chill out and take in whatever comes. For tempos/intervals, I truly try to be in the moment for the full hr plus.

    Long runs - distance. All others are specific times to make.

    Go to phrase...Suck it up - not in a bad way...just get it down, don't let stuff beat you down or get to you.

  12. I have yet to pick up a mantra, but I am a very focused runner. I am constantly tapping into how I feel, how my legs are moving, etc. when I'm out there. I never feel the need for distraction to get me through a run--love it too much for that!

  13. Fantastic post! So true, all of it. Especially the mantra's... having a phrase that reminds you to snap out of it and power on is so important!

  14. i'm so sad that i'm missing your comment! i assure you that i did not delete it. must have been the comment the night...

    thanks for this post. i am totally with you on the visualizing before a run. i try to picture myself at the beginning, middle, and end, what my mood and attitude will be at these different places. and how i will run strong through everything. sometimes it works...sometimes i have more important, character building lessons to learn :)

  15. Great post Amanda! Lots of food for thought here!!

    I remember focusing SO much on my downhill form in Boston. I was constantly reminding myself to relax my shoulders and not brake....It worked awesome because I honestly felt like every downhill was a rest in the race.

    Lately, it does seem like I always have a goal time or distance when I'm running. Great satisfaction to accomplish it but I definitely miss the simplicity sometimes of just running and not even knowing how fast or how far....

    I had a mantra from a running prayer that I recited in my mind in Boston. I had read it in an inspirational book a few days earlier and it just resonated with me.

    Oh Lord,
    One more breath,
    One more step,
    One more mile,
    FINISH Line!

    I can do ALL things through YOU who strengthens me!

    Honestly, I recited this in my head at least 1000 times.

    Nice work on the 11 miles! Great therapy hey! Even when you can't focus on "running" things sometimes, the run just lets you process!!!!

    I laughed at the flowing thoughts paper pen situation. I've often wished I had a mini recorder to just speak into during my long runs.

    So-how's that for a LONG comment! Great work with the training. You're doing awesome! Hope you're having a fantastic day:)

  16. In the past, my runs have always revolved around running a certain distance because I'm training for a specific race.

    Since having a baby, runs are now my reflection time. I no longer run with an ipod (which is a HUGE accomplishment for me). When I'm running with the jogging stroller I take the time to talk with my daughter about physical activity and our surrounds (i'm sure she understands at 5 months). When I'm running by myself I often will take the time as a time of reflection, enjoying my surroundings. Me time.

  17. When I am on a hard run (like the marathon for instance) I am definitely in mantra mode for the majority of the run. Telling myself things like "you trained for this. you can do this. do not give up. you are strong. don't let anything stop you."

    I actually started thinking about my brother at mile 23. It came out of nowhere. I was struggling and he came into my mind. He has struggled for almost 10 years with drug addiction, homelessness, the loss of his daughter and even more. It made running a marathon seem so easy and beautiful. I suddenly felt so lucky and I dedicated my struggle to him. I sent love to him and kept him in mind. I almost cried at one point but I saved my energy to get to the finish line.

    On my weekday runs I reflect, big time. I process the day and sometimes my life. I think about the "bigger picture" on these runs.

    I loved this post! I can relate to each type of mental focus you mentioned. So beautifully put.

    This is also why I wouldn't be able to run a marathon with music. I would miss out on all of these thoughts.

  18. I hope your 11 miler allowed you to burn off some "steam" and organize your thoughts. That is such a healthy way to deal with frustration!

    You mention the mental aspect of running quite a bit, which is a HUGE factor. I recommemd reading "Mind Gym". This is not a "running" book, but applicable to athletes. Maybe you aleady have read it!

    I have actually been copying you quite a bit and repeating mantras regarding running form when I feel tired. So, thank you for sharing!!!!

  19. This is a great and very thoughtful post... I enjoyed it immensely. However, these questions are way too runner-y for me! lol I think I am in the "just running to run cuz I like it" camp. Even if I did set a lofty goal for my race in May. I tend to be all over the map in terms of what motivates me, runs through my mind, etc. A couple of things that do come to mind are, "Almost there!" and "Could be worse! Be glad you CAN run!" And if I'm listening to music (which I often do), "Rappers Delight" always makes me giggle and can carry me through a good 15 minutes or so.

  20. I used to try and run and "just like it", but I have found that running is so much more than that for me. These are the times that I can reconnect to my inner strength and that helps me immensely in my day-to-day life. That being said... I don't have phrase or motto I use... but when I struggle I crank the music and block everything else out. That is when I find peace.

    I usually have some sort of distance or time goal I am shooting for, but on occasion I will run out on a "sanity" run simply for the purpose on not going crazy in my house with four kids. Generally those I run until I feel sane and then I come home. Luckily I always make it back! : )

  21. I generally do have a goal in mind when I run, whether it's pace or distance or effort, but my favorite runs are generally those spent catching up with friends or problem solving over long miles.

  22. Great post Amanda! I'm all over the place with my thoughts depending on the time of year, the type of run, and the future races I have coming up. Lately I've been doing a lot of mantras *you can do this* *you've got more to give* etc. Sometimes it works like a charm and sometimes it makes me want to punch myself in the face. I TOTALLY use my long training runs for a therapy session...and a spiritual session. I love finding solutions when I can run. It's not running away from's running towards solutions. :)

  23. I mostly focus on not falling down. Sometimes it works..

  24. AMAZING POST!! It really is so fun to see what other people think about because I always wonder. I love saying a little prayer during my runs and just thinking about what I need to work on and who I need to call or talk to that day. A lot of the time I do distract myself with TV or music. I OBSESS over numbers and times and pace:) I love telling myself that PAIN IS TEMPORARY!!! Have a great day!

  25. i loved reading this, Amanda! i do usually zone out to music on my runs. i love listening to music, so i consider running a great time to get to do that. but, once a run gets tough or if i'm trying to push myself in some way during a run, i focus more on the task and try to stay strong mentally. but, i have to say, i've never set a goal where i have to REALLY push myself. i'm hoping to do that this year...i'll try to remember your mantras then!!

  26. My favorite running quote when ALL I WANNA DO IS QUIT...

    "Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, an hour, a day, or a year but eventually it will subside and something else will take it's place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever."

    I find that most of the time it's a mental road block during a run, NOT a physical one! Quitting is so much worse for me mentally that if I think about how I'll feel AFTER I quit... I realize that I CAN do it.

  27. In a race, my mantra is "Polka will never die." (If you're a Harry Dresden fan, you'll know what it means.) When doing a training run, I usually don't have much trouble letting my mind wander. If I do, I tend to think of things like single or double amputees who are world class athletes, meanwhile I'm healthy and whole so I should move my ass. Then it goes on to the cheeseburger with bacon I'm promising myself. Then finally it gets to "hurry up and get back to the f*cking car! -- if you go faster you'll get to quit this damn run sooner!" Something like that ;)

  28. Oh ya! That quote is from Lance Armstrong! Don't want to plagiarize! ;-)

  29. Right now, since I am building up miles on my long runs, and putting all focus on this upcoming half marathon, I am just focusing on keeping my head in check and not letting myself go too fast at the start. After my big mental breakdown a month ago during my long run I've been determined to just keep a relaxed head so that it doesn't play tricks on me again. I've been downloading podcasts either on running topics or Adam Carolla. I like having something playing that I feel like I have to concentrate on because it distracts me from telling myself that maybe my legs are tired, or something hurts, or I want to go home, or yada yada yada. Sometimes I do zone out though and I don't really listen. Those are the times I am paying attention to my body and trying to make sure I am doing the best job running I can.

    But I'm still very early in the process of figuring out what to do with my head. I hope some day I can be like you where I can just run for fun. I DO have fun running, obviously or I wouldn't do it all the time. However, right now it is all for the purpose of all of the races I have. I do it to be prepared. I want to do it just because!

  30. I love mantras and motivating quotes! I have post-it's all over my bathroom mirror with some of my favorites. Other than the one on my sticker, I also like "go big or go home"

  31. Mental food. I like it. I have yet to have a mantra. I really focus on form when running; all types - speed, tempos, longs, etc

  32. This is good stuff. I have been known to talk to my legs during races! ;) --- "You've got this. 3 more miles. That's nothin'. Come on legs, don't give up on me. Push harder. You know you can push harder."