Long training runs, in the build up to a half marathon, marathon or ultra, can be daunting. But a long run is as much about what’s going on inside your head as about the physical effort. So what mental strategies can be helpful?
Sometimes thinking about the entire distance of a long run can be overwhelming and cause a lot of anxiety. This can make the body tense up, and the mind can get into a negative feedback loop. It’s important to avoid this – either by breaking down the whole challenge into smaller tasks that feel more achievable, or through focus or distraction. Here are some specific suggestions for how to do it…
1. Break it down: Mentally divide the overall distance into 3 or 4 shorter runs, which each seem less intimidating. Have an identifiable start and finish point for each of those shorter runs that you visualise as you run that section.
This works particularly well if you include regular routes you’re very familiar with. For example, a 20 mile run can be formed from one 8-mile run route you run frequently, then a varied 6-mile route, plus a final different 6-mile route to finish (again on a familiar route, but different from the first 8-miles)
If you’re marathon training, the idea of running eight miles will feel manageable and comfortable, so mentally telling yourself you’re on an eight mile course is much easier to get your head around.
2. Use mini goals: If I’m struggling on a run (of any distance), I’ll make myself stop thinking about how many miles it is until I finish, and instead focus on a not-too-distant point that feels very achievable. For me, this is usually a landmark – the next cross-roads, a large tree, a gateway perhaps – that is less than half a mile away. If I ask myself “Can I just get to there?” the answer is always “Yes”. This stops me thinking about the enormity of running the full distance, and keeps me focused but relaxed and calm.
3. Find your rhythm: Perhaps the ultimate mental strategy is to avoid thinking too much at all. Many endurance runners find that there are whole sections of training runs or races where the mind switches off and the body moves in rhythmic repetition. When this goes hand-in-hand with smooth, fast running, it’s called “flow”.
The simplicity of rhythmic running can be encouraged by using tricks like counting or repeating mantras. Mental repetition of a set of positive words, such as “Form – Flow – Relax – Drive”, in a steady rhythm, can be a very helpful device for focusing the mind and body.
When things start feeling tough, some runners also find it helpful to use counting, for example counting every 2nd or 4th step up to 100. Paula Radcliffe famously used this technique in her marathon races. The tactic helps switch off the nagging voice telling you to stop running.
4. Distraction – make it sociable: For a lot of people, the answer to getting through long runs is to do them with friends. Of course, the company and conversation can help the miles fly by, and with friendly encouragement runners can support each other through tough patches.
However, it is important to ensure running partners are positive people who will keep the mood upbeat, and who are running at a similar enough pace to you for the run to feel comfortable for everyone. The longer the run, the more important this becomes.
5. Beware of data: Keeping a close eye on your watch might not always be helpful. For example, monitoring your mileage as it increases can give your brain the message that your body must be getting tired. “Ouch I’ve just run 14 miles, and I’ve still got another six to go!” is not necessarily a reminder you need to give yourself.
Similarly, if you keep looking at your pace and see it slowing, it can give your brain the message that your body must be getting more fatigued. Consciously or subconsciously, you feel a little worse for it.
6. Secret trick for a better finish: I like to play a little trick on myself when I’m about two miles from the end of a long run: I imagine that I still have further to go than my actual finish point, say four miles left instead of two, and I visualise the remaining route to the end of the four miles.
It might sound daft, but it’s remarkably effective. Instead of feeling my body tire and tighten as it normally would at the end of a long run, I stay loose and relaxed, ensuring enough energy and effort is left to get me that extra (imaginary) bit further. Invariably, I reach my actual end point feeling a little bit better than I would have done without the mental trickery, and I’m not completely spent.
It’s amazing and bizarre what the brain can do!