Ask anyone who has run long distance or done a lengthy athletic pursuit and they’ll tell you that at some point it is all mental and comes down to you fighting your mind and your thoughts more than fighting your physical ability or inability. And then ask anybody who hates running, and they’ll probably tell you it’s because it’s too boring and they can’t get into it in their head to be able to sustain it. Some even claim (and with scientific studies to back it up), that running is 90% mental and 10% physical. THat’s a lot of brain and mental fitness that is required to reach success.
And if that’s the case, wouldn’t it make sense for us to train our brain as well as our body? SHouldn’t we be preparing for the mental aspect of the run as much as we do the physical aspect? The truth is, that if you’re out there running and putting in your long runs and doing your training, you’re probably simultaneously training your brain, even if you may not realize it. For those of us who already run, that’s good news. But the other good news is, that if you aren’t a runner, but want to be and just need to overcome the mental struggles, there are lots of ways you can train your brain and improve the mental side of running to help you reach your running goals.
//Eat Brain Foods – Just like you fuel your body to optimize your muscle and joint performance so you are able to run well, you should also be eating foods to fuel a healthy brain. This means you need to keep two things in mind:
- The main source of fuel for the brain is glucose – If you are fuelling properly for your running, you are likely consuming ample carbohydrates, which will break down into glucose and be available for fuel for the brain. Focus on whole grain sources of carbohydrates, and complex sugars that will break down slowly to give your brain a steady energy supply.
- The brain is made of a lot of fat – Fat is the insulator for our nerve cells, helps transmit messages, helps build hormones (hello endorphins and feel good serotonin!), functions in pain receptors, and plays several other roles in the brain and healthy mental functioning. Given this, it’s important to obtain adequate levels of healthy fats from the diet, including Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, saturated fat and poly/monounsaturated fats. I talked about the role of Essential Fatty Acids in running, and just as they are needed to offset inflammation (a physical component of running), they are also key in aiding in the mental component of running. Some good plant sources of foods for healthy mental functioning include:
- Flaxseed – ground, or oil
- Hemp Hearts
- Coconut/coconut oil
- Organic (non-GMO) tempeh/tofu
To maximize your brain food benefits, it’s important to also consume these fats with sources of magnesium, zinc and B6, as these are some of the other more essential minerals/vitamins which are required for building of brain components such as hormones and proteins. Good sources of these include:
- Magnesium – dark green leafy vegetables, seaweed, baobab powder/fruit, raw cacao
- Zinc – pumpkin seeds, oysters, raw cacao, wheat germ
- B6 (pyridoxine) – sweet potato (skin on), bananas, chickpeas
//Find a mantra – You’ll often hear of runners having mantras that they call upon regularly during training and racing. This is a word, or a few words, or a quote that you repeat over and over to yourself when you’re struggling. It acts to occupy your mind and to elicit the power of positive thinking to bring you to success. Here’s a few that I use in my running:
- Faster, harder, stronger, sooner
- You’ve got this
- You’re stronger than that
- Run your run
//Use affirmations – Different from a mantra, these aren’t things you would say to yourself during your run (although you can if you want to!), as much as leading up to your run, or post-run to put your brain in the right mental state for you to reap success from your run. It’s things like “you’ve trained for this, now just give it your all and you will be fine.”
//Develop mental tactics – These are the things you can practice in your running to help you get through a race or a training run when things get tough. It’s important to have these practiced and at the ready for when you need them, because your first inclination may be to want to give up so you need to put these into place ASAP when you feel that way. Here’s a few that I use:
- Just put one foot in front of the other – It’s simple: just put one foot in front of the other over and over again, and eventually you will get to where you are going. Focus on things one step at a time – literally!
- Just get to that . . . (sign, mile marker, mailbox etc.) – This is one I employ regularly, where I look ahead just a short way and see something in the distance, like a sign or telephone pole, and tell myself I just have to get to that. When I reach it, I pick something else up ahead and do it again. This is what I was doing in the 37th-40th kilometer of Boston before I was running on crowd energy to the end!
- You can do anything for a kilometer – Yes you can! No matter what you say, or how bad it seems, you can do it for one more kilometer. Because as soon as you start that kilometer, you have less than a kilometer to go!
- You’ve already done this once, you can do it again – When you are nearing the end of your race or long run, and you feel like you have a long way to go, remind yourself that you already did that distance and you can do it again. For example, if you’re struggling to get through the last 10 km, remind yourself that you’ve already run 10 km three times! What’s one more?
- Think of the rewards – And this is where you let your mind drift to the hot shower, the post-race beer, all the food you are excited to eat, the cheers from your loved one at the finish line, the much deserved post-race nap etc. etc. Whatever it takes, just let it occupy your mind! For me, I was picturing the huge hug from my boy at the end of Boston and then getting to wear the race shirt and medal!
I want to hear from you! What are some of the things you use for mental training for running or some of your favourite mantras and mental tactics?