Overcome Mental Hurdles: 9 Tips for New Runners

Overcome Mental Hurdles: 9 Tips for New Runners

Mark Kennedy
Founder of None to Run
September 29, 2023

This is a guest post by Julie Blackwood. Julie is a Loughborough University Graduate Intern in Sport Psychology and Trainee Sport & Exercise Psychologist. Follow her on twitter (@JB_sportpsych) and check out her work on her website.

Take it away Julie!

Psychology is about knowing yourself and how to get the best out of you.

The tips below aim to increase how tuned in you are to your thoughts, feelings and behaviours, what factors are affect you, what state of mind you perform your best in, and provide ways that you can help yourself to get out there, enjoy running, run further and run faster.

1. Goals, goals, goals

So you want to run faster. But has reducing your time become a stressor that makes you anxious during your run or threatens to take precedence over the health, social and psychological benefits of running? If so, there are a number of things you can do, other than starting your watch and leaving it at home.

Firstly, strip your motivations back to why you are running in the first place to get perspective.

Set a couple of process goals, which could include sleep routine or nutrition, or miles per week per performance goal, that are fully in your control and essentially stepping stones to reaching the outcome of increasing your pace and running faster times.

These targets not only give you direction, but allow you to reference your success more internally as you are fully in control of reaching those goals. In this sense, you can be less worried about the outcome because you know that you are doing the things that are in your control to give you the best opportunity to reach your outcome goal.

Make your goals as specific as possible by adding time frames.

Good planning can be the difference between trying to find versus making time to run. After a run or a week, you can review your progress:

  • What was good about it?
  • What could you have done better?
  • What are your action points for next time?

By making time to do this after your run, you can bypass overanalysing while you run.

This article in Runner’s World expands on the process and importance of goal setting: http://www.runnersworld.com/race-training/effective-goal-setting

2. A trick of time scales

Thinking about upcoming goals or events in days, not months or years can help to motivate you to act upon them 4 times sooner.

4 different studies with over a thousand participants found that people express that they will begin action towards their goals 4 times earlier if they thought about them in days.

Seemingly, the smaller the time scale, the close you feel to your future self. So what about looking at taking 30 seconds off your time over the next 31 days?

3. Social support

Arrange to run with a friend if you are struggling for motivation. This way you actively, rather than passively, have to cancel, and you get the social benefits too, which can help you to see running more favourably.

Even sharing with your other half your intention to run 3 times a week and when (the more specific the better) can increase accountability and affirm your goals, thus helping to keep you on track.

4. Music yourself into action

It is well known that music can narrow attentional focus so that you perceive giving less effort during exercise, as well as it’s potential to positively influence your emotions, mood, thoughts and behaviour.

Interestingly for motivation, listening to music in the run up to training (e.g. in the car, getting ready) can put you in the right mindset and encourage you to get out there after a long day.

If you are creating a running playlist of your favourite tunes, select tracks with tempos that align with your running pace (or a slightly faster tempo if you’re looking to increase your pace) and have positive lyrics or uplifting melodies.

Building the tempo on your playlist can also be really effective for pacing a run in or interval training.

5. Bored?

Playing games in your mind can help to distract your thoughts from pain or worry and keep boredom at bay. Fix your eyes on an object or point in the distance and guess how many steps it will take you to get there. See how close you can get to the actual number (this game is a little like ‘Guess the number of sweets in the jar’).

Or try to make your way through the alphabet naming famous people whose names start and end with the same letter, or have forenames and surnames that begin with the same letter. One run it could be sportspeople, the next actors, and so on.

6. Combating negative thoughts

Thoughts can be considered in a similar vein to nutrition.

They are in your control and what you fuel your brain with affects the output.

So if you are constantly feeding the brain negative thoughts like “I can’t do this” “I’m not a runner” or “I look stupid”, you can only expect to be feeling negative and focusing on how miserable or boring or uncomfortable you are.

But here’s the good bit.

You don’t have to.

Thoughts are in your control, you just have to get good at managing them.

Sometimes it can help to write down negative thoughts and challenge them.

For example, asking questions like:

  • Is that really rational?
  • Is there evidence to prove it?
  • Would you say that to a friend?
  • Or what would you say to a friend in a similar situation?

And then focus on creating a more balanced statement that could help you to leave the negative emotion behind and refocus.

Avoid language such as “I must”, “have to” or “should”, as this can be quite demanding and negative.

7. Indulge your strengths

We often talk about depression as a narrowing of the mind. On the contrary, positivity can be described as broadening of mental capacities. Essentially, if we are more positive, we are often better able to manage problems.

This extends to your strengths.

Consider what your strengths are in the different domains of your life, as a parent, an employee…

What qualities do you possess in these roles that you could employ as a runner to help better your running performance?

8. Present moment focus

Focusing your attention on specific areas such as the colours in your field of vision, the feel of the air against your face or the sounds of your surroundings are effective ways to bring your focus back to the present moment.

This can also help you to connect with your environment, keep perspective and appreciate the small things – something Amby Burfoot was excellent at doing.

I’d recommend his book, The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life, for an inspiring read.

And smile at other runners you jog past. Activating the smiling muscles reduces tension and even a forced smile is enough to improve mood slightly.

Moreover, 50% of people you smile at tend to reciprocate: everyone wins!

9. Getting into a positive frame of mind

Often reading the news before a run can play down the importance of achieving a faster time in the moment, with the same reward and sense of achievement at the end. This can also help you to leave all your worries and doubts at the door so you can enjoy your running.

Using breathing techniques to relax your body before you run, and repeating key words or phrases that have positive associations such as ‘strong’ and ‘steady’ to rhythmical breathing while you run, can serve to increase your self-belief and sense of control.

Imagining a strong and composed image of yourself running can be an effective extension of this mental technique. Take time to focus on the positive feelings that you normally experience after your run, such as the sense of achievement and confidence. Then, when the voice that makes you stop comes along, you can call on that image and use it to help you power through.

You can also use these powerful images to maintain composure with increased speed. Build up pace and settle into it before you take it another level.

If you’re running on a treadmill, don’t think that you have to go a whole km per hour up the scale, go up in 0.2 km/ hour instead.

Another way to do this is intervals, as running faster for shorter periods can build up your confidence and get your body accustomed to running at the new pace.

Can you settle into your breathing pattern at the higher pace even for a short stint?

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