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Emotional Control And Running: How To Build Mental Toughness To Run Farther And Faster

You are halfway through your long run, and you are out of steam. Your legs feel wobbly, and your breathing feels shallow. The sun is glaring. Somewhere in the distance, you hear a dog bark.

“I hate this,” you think. “Why does it feel so freakin hard today.” “Maybe I should just stop and postpone the long run to another day.” You feel spent and also rather grumpy.

But you trudge on. You slog forward, minute by minute, mile by mile, until you reach your final destination. Until you’ve completed the task. You were in control. Not your emotions.

If you want to improve as a runner and perform your best on race day, you need to develop mental toughness and manage your emotions.

This is especially true for ultra-marathon races, where you will be on your feet for 24 h or more, often with little to no sleep. As your body and mind become increasingly tired, your emotions will run wild.

But emotional control is a skill that comes in handy for any race, no matter the distance. Whether you need to dig deep on those last miles of your first marathon or keep a challenging pace for your local 10 k race – use the strategies outlined below to learn to keep a level head when the going gets tough.

3 Strategies To Improve Emotional Control For Better Running

1. Visualization And Mental Rehearsal

Visualization and mental rehearsal are a form of meditative practice. Both involve actively imagining a situation and seeing yourself acting.

As opposed to other forms of meditation, you don’t simply observe your thoughts. Instead, you actively try to direct them to a specific situation. You create a movie in your mind.

Science has shown that you can develop a heightened sense of awareness and boost self-esteem before an event by using mental imagery.

How to do it

There are many ways to meditate, and there are several ways to use visualization and mental rehearsal. I love the technique I learned from Dr. Maxwell Malz’s book “Psychocybernetics”: Theatre of the mind. Here are the steps:

  1. Set aside 20-30 minutes per day, where you are uninterrupted and can relax
  2. Close your eyes and imagine you are in a cinema. Try to make it as vivid as possible. See the chairs, the color of the curtains, and try to smell popcorn and peanuts.
  3. Start the film and put yourself on the screen.
  4. See yourself in the movie, performing your actions with intention and focus. See yourself acting the way your ideal running self would – finding solutions to problems with ease, keeping a cool head when issues arise, running relaxed and with confidence. 

If you can not see anything on your first few attempts, don’t fret. In my experience – the more often you practice, the better you will become. You can also use writing to get you started. For example, when I am working on an aspect of my running that I want to improve, I first write out a script for a mental movie, record it and then listen to it while I try to play the scene in the theater of my mind. 

Using this technique, you can imagine yourself going through a rough patch in a race and overcoming it. Feel the mental exhaustion, how your legs, back, and feet hurt, how you have difficulty concentrating on the task at hand. Really get into it. Use your mental movie to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. Once you experience this feeling of discomfort in a training run or race, you will be better prepared to handle it. 

2. Regularly Leave Your Comfort Zone

The catchphrase “leave your comfort zone” became trendy in the 1990s.

Judy Bardwick described it in her book “Danger In The Comfort Zone” as follows:

The comfort zone is a behavioral state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviors to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk.” 

When you are in your comfort zone, you go about your day in your well-known routines. You live comfortably and risk-free. When running, you always run at a “comfortable” pace. Not hard, but not super easy either. You prefer to run a selection of your favorite routes, never venturing too far from home. You enter races that scare you a little, but you are pretty sure you can finish. This pattern might keep you fit, but it won’t help you reach your potential as an athlete.

How to do it

So how do you leave your comfort zone as a runner?

While many “no-pain-no-gain,” “stay-hard,” and “push yourself” fanatics may disagree, getting out of your comfort zone doesn’t mean that you need to fight through every workout and be completely wiped out at the end of the day.

You shouldn’t. Instead, try the following:

  1. Run around 80% of your runs at a leisurely pace, so easy in fact that you hardly get out of breath
  2. Have at least one high intensity running session per week, think hill sprints, intervals, and stair-running
  3. Sign up for a race where you are 80% sure you will not finish. Scare yourself.
  4. Run at a time of the day where you don’t like to run.
  5. Once in a while, run with someone who is a lot faster than you.

3. Control The Controllable

As a runner, you need to deal with many uncertainties and things beyond your control. Be it in training or competition; external circumstances hardly are perfect. How often is the weather not “perfect”? How often do you need to get your training runs in despite a hectic work schedule and family obligations?

When you complain about the weather or how your boss makes you do all the work, you give your control away. Anxiety rises, as do anger, resentment, and frustration.

On the other hand, you empower yourself, minimize anxiety, and improve self-confidence when you aim to control what you can.

How to do it

For many of us, focusing only on the things we can control does not come naturally.

Just think about how often you complain about the weather, the economy, what your boss did or didn’t do, or how that idiot cut you off in traffic this morning.

However, you can practice your ability to stay focused on the things you have control over. Here are a few tips:

  1. Write down a list of pre-race anxieties or worries you have, and then determine if you have any control over the issue for each point. 
  2. List any possible problems that might arise during your training run or race. Then determine what actions are within your control to avoid it from happening or what actions you can take once this seemingly unfortunate situation arises.
  3. Take a training inventory. I want you to write down a list of the things you feel in control of when it comes to your training and of the things you have no control over. For example, your controllable list might include how much time you dedicate to running, how much attention you pay to your nutrition, how often you skip on your warm-up and cool-down routine. Your uncontrollable might include the weather or getting distracting notifications from your boss during your lunch break run. Then decide to focus your energy on the controllable and to work on your mindset and response to the things you can not control

Final Tips

Running is hard. Both physically and mentally. If you want to achieve peak performance, you need to learn how to tame your mind. Only when you can keep a cool head when difficulties arise will you be able to bring out the best runner in you.

Try to practice the skills described in this article regularly. Just like you won’t become a faster, stronger runner by simply running a race once or twice a year, you won’t become mentally tough by practicing these skills only on race day.

You need to view mental training as an integral part of your training. Make space for it alongside running, nutrition and rest, and recovery.

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