This week – a look at the Mental Side of Running
A few years back I came across this article titled Mind and Body Work Together
You lying down? Find a couch, we’ve got a theory: So keen was Freud’s understanding of the mind and how it relates to the body, that if the Father of Psychoanalysis had laced up a pair of Asics, he could have run forever. Just a hunch–but no doubt one you’ve heard expressed in less extravagant forms a thousand times before. From a coach. Or your dad. Or even Bill Moyers. The gist: When it comes to physical performance of any sort, your mind and body work in tandem. Like runners on a relay, they produce as one. Sure, your legs will tend to snatch all the credit. But it’s your brain that allows you to make it to the tape. How? Your mind interprets and shapes into strategy the messages your body sends it. When you’re tired, it decides whether you slow down, stop or speed up. When you’re competing, it decides whether you falter at the finish or pull off the win. Given this interaction, coaches and scientists alike now believe your mind determines, to a large degree, how far and how fast you can run.
“We’re not talking hocus-pocus here,” says David Yukelson, Ph.D. “We’re talking discipline, strategy.”
Tricks – You see, improving your performance by exercising your mind isn’t really about being smart (Freud-smart, anyway); it’s about developing smarts–tricks, if you will–for buoying up your body. To run 10 miles instead of your usual 8? You don’t have to go to med school. Or dive headlong into psychotherapy. All you really have to do is fully engage your brain at the same time you engage your body. Here are seven mental strategies to help you run longer and stronger.
Trick #1- Map out the run–in your mind.
Couch talk. In other words, visualize success. Create a mental map of a course that’s always beaten you. Picture every uphill, every downhill, every shady stretch, every turn. Then run it, step by step, mile by mile, in your mind. This is your dress rehearsal. “The idea behind visualization is to program your mind to respond a certain way in certain situations,” says Andy Palmer, Ph.D. “By creating a mental picture of a difficult run, you’re also creating a space for it in your brain–an awareness of it before you do it. By having this picture in place, your mind will have better control over your emotions as you run. And you’ll have better control over your performance.” A physical plus: When it comes to the central nervous system, perception is reality. “All you have to do is imagine you’re munching on a lemon, and your body chemistry actually changes,” says Palmer. “So by visualizing your run, you’re creating neuro-pathways that will someday allow your body to perform that run without conscious thought.” Or pain.
Road action. A few minutes before you head out for a long run, lie down and visualize your performance–every facet of it. Watch yourself stretch your hamstrings, each Achilles, your calves. See yourself grab a quick drink. Feel the water hit your lips, your tongue, your throat, then follow yourself out the door. Watch yourself take your first step, cross the street, round the corner and stride down the alley. Feel a bead of sweat trickle down your forehead. Pass the oak, the school, the five-bedroom monstrosity. Feel your legs push powerfully as you climb steadily up the hill and the physical tension lift as you hit the crest. Use as much stimuli as possible, recruiting all five senses. Pull in all the negatives and positives, the possible triumphs and defeats. Fully develop the picture (for the neuro-pathways). Finish with your final step. Then do it again.
Trick #2 – Stretch your mind as well as your body.
Couch talk. “The more relaxed you are, the more open your mind can be,” says Palmer–and the more focused you can be on your goal (to get in a run despite your body’s reluctance). The key to mental and physical relaxation? Proper breathing. Proper breathing? That’s right–deep, belly-raising breaths that calm your body, relax your mind and enhance your performance by filling your blood with oxygen and energizing your brain and body. Short, shallow breaths from your upper chest tense your chest muscles, making you tire earlier than you otherwise would. Deep breaths, on the other hand, force your diaphragm to move down slightly, which causes your abdomen to move out and allows your lungs to expand from the bottom, not the top. Complicated though it sounds, this action is quite efficient–and relaxing.
Road action. Set aside 5 minutes before your next long run to focus on deep breathing. Lie down (or sit, if you tend to fall asleep when you’re horizontal) and take in a deep breath. Feel your abs rise as you inhale. Then exhale hard. “Really focus on the feelings of relief and relaxation that come with a pronounced exhale,” says Palmer. Repeat until you feel relaxed, about 5 minutes. Then hit the road. You can also use belly breathing when you’re moving. In the middle of a long run, for instance, when you feel like hanging it up, take a deep breath and blow out hard and loud. This mind-clearing technique, called the “explosive exhale,” allows you to blow out all your demons, relax and refocus on the task at hand.
Trick #3 – Replace the pain.
Couch talk. Time to try a psych experiment: Visualize a bright yellow daffodil; get a clear, strong picture of it in your mind. Next, try to block it out. Can’t do it, can you? Now try to replace that daffodil with three red roses. Voil-! Three red roses. The point: “If all you do is hope the pain or fatigue you experience when you’re running will just go away, it probably won’t,” says Yukelson. “But if you have a strategy ready to replace the pain, you can often mask it enough so you don’t end up dwelling on it.”
Road action. Next time you head out for an especially tough long run, slip in a fartlek session on your way back, when you’re most likely to be mentally and physically fatigued. Fartlek is Swedish for “speed play” and describes a series of pickups and rests. Explains Roy Benson, Ph.D., a running coach in Atlanta and owner of Coach Benson’s Nike Running Camps: “Set your watch to beep at intervals signifying pickups and rest. For instance, you might do 15-second strides and 45-second jogs for the final 3 miles of a 10-mile run. The fartlek session will occupy your mind, replacing any thoughts of how fatigued you’re feeling.”
Trick #4 – Remove all mental traps.
Couch talk. Every time you run a familiar route, you mark your progress with landmarks. That statue at 5 miles and the old oak at 8 can act as mileposts, even cheering sections–if you’re running well. But what happens when you blow up right in front of the barn at 10 miles? “You mark it,” says Steven Ungerleider, Ph.D., author of Mental Training for Peak Performance (Rodale Press, 1996), “with a mental block. You subconsciously set yourself up to fall apart at that spot every time you run that route.” Unless, that is, you get rid of the reminder. Bomb the barn? Nah. Just avoid it. “Environmental cues can be limiting,” explains Ungerleider. “These cues trigger muscle memory and mental memory, recalling how you felt the last time you ran this course. But if you remove the cues, you can get involved in the new scenery, completely lose track of the time and extend your run.”
Road action. Hop in your car and map out a new route, point-to-point from your home. Then call in a favor and ask a pal to follow you Friday after work while you drop off your car at the run’s end point (you can catch a ride back home with him). This is your new Saturday route. Why point to point? Because it’s different. Because it’s fun (you actually get to run to a destination, instead of in circles). And because a point-to-point course will allow you to venture into uncharted territory–a landscape without landmarks–where you can’t set yourself up to fail.
Trick #5 – Reframe the run.
Couch talk. You can’t block out adversity–we know that now. But you can distract yourself mentally as well as physically. “Any athletic event or endeavor is highly emotional,” says Yukelson. “It’s all about how you handle tough situations, how you keep your perspective.” Here’s how one mega-miler keeps hers: “The first 100-miler I ever tried, I didn’t finish, because I tried to fit 100 miles in my head and couldn’t,” says Ann Trason, 45, who subsequently went on to win the women’s division of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run a whopping eight times. “It was just too much. So now, I never let myself think of the total distance. I really push it aside and play games with the miles instead. “For instance, when I run Western States, I think of the distance as a lifetime,” Trason continues. “During the first few miles, I pretend I’m an infant just learning how to walk. During the next stage, I imagine I’m an adolescent, running wild. When I hit the canyons, which are incredibly tough, at mile 45, I think, I’m having a midlife crisis. But that’s okay, because I’m 45 and should be having a midlife crisis! And when I hit 90 miles, I think, why am I feeling so bad? It’s because I’m 90! Even at that point, I don’t think about the race being 100 miles. It’s still too early. I only let the final distance enter my mind around mile 93, when I’m less than a decade away.”
Road action. Build a mental construct surrounding your run to reframe the run–and the pain. For instance, divide your 12-miler into three 4-mile segments. During the first segment, design and build your dream home. During the second, move in and decorate it. And during the third? Landscape your estate. (This is your dream home, remember.) The engineer within should be so busy with the wiring, he won’t even notice the whining without. Another idea: Take it in segments. Explains mega-mega-marathoner Norm Frank (as we went to press, Frank had completed a mind-boggling 617 marathons), “Sometimes I get mentally drained around mile 20 or so in a marathon. And to get through, I break the race into segments. At 20, I think, I’ve only got 6 miles to go, and that’s just 24 laps of a quarter-mile track. At 23, I think, I’ve only got 12 laps left. Anytime I’m tired, I tend to do that–take it in segments. Laps are a lot easier to swallow than miles–especially at the end.”
Trick #6 – Look inward.
Couch talk. Ready for a smidgen of Zen? Fasten your seat belt, this could get a little airy. The topic: detached awareness. As Palmer describes it, “Detached awareness describes a state of utter inner calm. When you’ve achieved it, you’re wholly relaxed about the circumstances around you [the weather, the course, your competition], but you’re positively focused on your ability to perform.” So you’re detached from your surroundings, but you’re well aware of what your body’s doing–much like the marathoning followers of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian spiritual leader who spreads his message of inner peace through meditation and extreme physical challenges–like marathon running. “Some of Sri Chinmoy’s students use meditation to keep them in the races we sponsor,” explains Sahishnu Szczefiul, an ultrarunner and race director on the New York Sri Chinmoy Marathon team. “The idea is to learn to go within yourself, to keep your mind as calm and quiet as possible while you run–to use meditation to enhance your mental strength so your mind can then discipline your body.”
Road action. Need a little help staying tuned in to the internal? Make up a mind picture. Followers of Sri Chinmoy might focus on a candle, flower or natural scene. But we prefer Olympic Marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter’s strategy of imagining his legs as bike wheels. The result? A smooth, steady pace and championship-caliber form–and focus.
Trick #7 – Live in the moment.
Couch talk. A positive attitude is, in self-help parlance, nurturing. Everyone knows that. However, few people realize that a positive attitude can also help you stay, as psychologists might say, “in the moment” when you’re running. That is, completely focused on the task at hand, not indulging in worries about whether you’ll beat Suzy or memories of flubbed runs from the past.
Example: “I saw something on a Bill Moyers special about a doctor who starts his session with cardiac rehab patients by pulling out a handful of raisins,” says Palmer. “Each patient puts one in his mouth and concentrates on what the raisin tastes like and feels like as they’re chewing it. These patients were being taught to live “in the moment”–to feel what they were doing instead of thinking of what they had to do after the appointment or how much they hate raisins. “If an athlete is “in the moment,” she’s highly focused on what she’s doing, which is the most efficient way to accomplish anything. Instead of wasting energy worrying about whether she’ll bonk at 11 miles as she did last time, she’s “in the present,” building confidence and correcting technique with affirmations and self-talk.
Road action. Let your body do what it does best. In other words, don’t muck up your performance by worrying yourself silly. Instead, work on living “in the moment”–on the road and off. Focus on how your body feels at the moment–not how it suffered three weeks ago when you got a side stitch at 7 miles and cut the run short. Really work on being present in the present. Concentrate on your form. Example: Next time you head up the hill that always kills you at mile 12, turn your mind to your mechanics instead of the monster incline. Think hard about pumping your arms and lifting your knees–really concentrate–and drive any doubt and fears from your mind. Of course, by working on living in the moment, you’ll siphon off valuable mental energy that would otherwise have gone toward completing the run (or reframing your negative thoughts). But if you conscientiously practice being in the present, it’ll soon become second nature, automatic. And you’ll no longer expend any energy trying to be in the here and now, because you’ll be there already.
Thurs 6:45pm GROUP RUN (same meeting spot – Engineer’s Gate at 90th and 5th ave on the dirt bridal path under the BIG TREE).
Two options this week – up and overs or west side rollers
- MARATHON QUIK TIP #11 – Train on the type of terrain you are going to see in your marathon!
- Got a hilly marathon ahead of you, then better find some hills to run on? A flat marathon like Berlin? Then some harder efforts on flat terrain is on tap! NYC? Not really hilly or flat, but with lots of rollers especially going over those many over-passes bwtn boroughs you better be prepared for those not so slight changes in elevation! The rolling loop around Central Park is ideal preparation for NYC and a good trick… run the loop in different directions!