5 Mental Strategies to Make Running Feel Easier

5 Mental Strategies to Make Running Feel Easier

Noel Brick , PhD
Lecturer and Researcher in Sport and Exercise Psychology
November 14, 2023

Written by Dr. Noel Brick (co-author of The Genius of Athletes)

I’ve been researching what runners think about since I started my PhD 10 years ago. For the most part, my research with runners – ranging in experience from beginners to Olympians – asks them what they think about when running, and how their thoughts impact on their running experience.

My interest is much more than academic. I’m also a long-distance runner and I spend a lot of my time experimenting with the strategies I’ve learned from the runners I interview.

Mostly, I have two main goals in mind.

First, what makes running feel easier? Dealing with the effort we feel during running is often one of the biggest challenges to overcome.

Second, what will help me run faster?

These two goals often go hand in hand; if a run feels easier, we feel capable of pushing harder. But sometimes we simply want to enjoy a run for it’s own sake, and worry less about how fast we go.

So, with that in mind, here are 5 of my top tips for beginner runners.

1. Take Time to Tune Out

For many pro runners, distraction is something to actively avoid when racing. Getting distracted during a run often means that we’ve lost concentration and slow down as a result. But for beginners – and even for pros on some training runs – distraction can be a powerful tool in your mental toolkit. Our research has shown that distraction during a run helps to lower the effort and discomfort we feel and prevent boredom during longer runs. We also recently found that pleasant distractions can help runners enter a flow state – an optimal experience where running feels pleasant, easier, and enjoyable.

There are many ways that you can distract yourself, and tune out, during longer runs. If it’s possible, you might run in a scenic park or nature trail and take in your surroundings. Not only are the views a positive distraction, exercising in nature can also help to reduce stress and lift our mood.

If you run with a buddy or with a running group, the conversation you have along the way can also help to take your mind of any physical discomfort you experience. The benefits of running with a partner, versus alone, were summed up by a runner who took part in one of our recent studies with beginners:

Running on your own, you tend to think more when you’re running on your own. When you’re running with other people, if you’re chatting, you’re not thinking…the mental thing going on in your head isn’t happening, because you’re chatting to somebody…you tend not to think of the run as much as you would if you were running on your own…where you’ve a constant battle in your head about the run.

If running in nature or with a partner are not options, listening to music or to a podcast can also help to make running feel easier. Research has shown that music helps make running feel more pleasant, enjoyable, and less effortful. When developing your playlist, pick songs that you find motivating and select a genre that you enjoy. Tunes that match your steps-per-minute cadence also help your running rhythm – but remember to stay safe and ensure you can safely the sounds of any nearby traffic.

2. Make Time to Tune In

Although tuning out can help take your mind off the discomfort you feel, I also recommend periodically tuning in to how you feel when you run.

For many, our breathing sensations can be overwhelming when we first start to run. But breathing can also be an extremely useful source of information. One of the biggest mistakes that beginners often make is going too fast at the start of a run or race. This inevitably leads to further pain and discomfort as the run progresses.

To avoid this scenario, use your breathing as a source of information. Ask yourself, “Is my breathing too hard – especially if I want to run non-stop for a longer period of time?” If so, ease back to a more comfortable pace. In this way, tuning in every now and then can give you some useful information to get your pacing right. Over time, you will learn how to pace your runs and avoid a scenario when going too hard at the start means you pay the consequences for your exuberance later in the run.

Learning to pace in his way makes longer distance running a more enjoyable experience. Learning to listen to, and understand, body sensations like breathing and the effort your feel will also build your confidence as you progress through longer and more challenging training runs.

3. Break it Down

One of the most useful strategies I’ve learned about in my research is chunking. Chunking is a strategy designed to mentally break a longer-distance run into smaller, shorter, and more manageable segments. So, instead of thinking, “I’ve got to run for 5 minutes without stopping” – which can feel challenging the very first time you do it – mentally break the run into smaller segments. So, you might focus on the first 30 seconds, then the next, and so on. Or maybe pick out some landmarks on your running route, like getting to the next gatepost, or street sign, or tree. Make each one an imaginary finish line. Once you get there, pick another landmark ahead and focus on getting to it.

This strategy helps to break down the challenge of a longer run. Research has even shown that when we chunk a walk or a run in this way, we tend to walk faster because we perceive the imaginary finish line to be closer than it actually is. But, despite walking more quickly, each walk actually felt easier in that study. In this way, chunking can be an excellent strategy to help you through your longer runs.

4. Are You Talking to Me?

Lots of research has focused on the effects of self-talk – those things we say silently, or out loud to ourselves – on tasks like running. When running gets hard our thoughts often become negative. Take this example from one of the beginner runners I interviewed for a 2020 study. Does it sound familiar?

I couldn’t get my breathing right at the start. My total attention was on breathing…And… it took me weeks to regulate it! And it was only once I had that, I was able to focus on anything else. It was totally just on being able to do my breathing, and, ‘Why am I doing this, why am I putting myself through it? I hate this, I hate running! Why am I doing it?’

We all sometimes feel and think this way. But experienced runners have learned to talk back to this voice, and to repeat motivational and encouraging things to themselves to help them through these challenging moments. Take the following three examples:

  • A 2007 study found that marathon runners trained to use motivational statements, like “Stay on, Don’t give up”, performed better over the final miles than runners who did not receive this training. This was despite the self-talk trained runners experiencing similar doubts and discomfort as runners who did not receive the training.
  • A 2019 study found that repeating motivational statements in the third person (“You can do this”) can be more powerful than repeating them in the first person (“I can do this”). In that study, cyclists went faster during a 10km cycle when talking in the third person (“You…”) than in the first person. Yet, despite going faster, it did not feel any harder.
  • A 2021 study found that when cyclists acknowledged their negative thoughts, but followed up with something more motivational, such as, “This is tough right now, but I can push through it”, they were able to cycle faster in the last 5 minutes of a 20-minute cycle than those that simply repeated negative statements. As with some previous studies I’ve mentioned, this faster pace did not feel any harder.

This shows that what we say to ourselves matters, and developing your own motivational statements can help you get through even the most challenging of runs.

My personal mantra is “Strong and Powerful”.

I repeat these words rhythmically with every 4 steps I take when running gets tough. It helps me stay focused and get through those difficult moments one step at a time – literally!

Take time to practice your own self-talk when you run and develop a list of personalised statements that you find most helpful for you.

5. Make a Plan

A final strategy is to plan how you will deal with some of the difficult mental moments you experience when running. Creating plans to cope with challenges will also help you respond better and deal with obstacles you might encounter when running. We call this if-then planning. The if is the difficult challenge you experience when running, and the then is what you plan to do in response.

So, for example, if I find myself thinking negatively during a run, then I’ll repeat a motivational mantra to help me through it. Or, if I am finding a longer run challenging, then I will mentally break it down by focusing on the next landmark ahead. In this way, you are more likely to respond in a better way and remember to use your newly-learned strategies when running.

Each of these tips can help you to progress on your running journey. Together, they help to make running feel easier, more pleasant, and enjoyable – feelings that are essential to staying the course longer-term. So be curious; experiment with each of these strategies and see what works best for you.

Dr. Noel Brick

About the Author:

Dr Noel Brick, PhD is a lecturer and researcher in Ulster University, Ireland. He is co-author of The Genius of Athletes, alongside the prolific running writer, Scott Douglas


A Running App for Real People

In order to become a runner, you don't need much in order to become successful: a plan, an encouraging community and consistency. With N2R, you can have them all.

App App Store Icon and Crest

4.8 out of 5 Stars

5,000 + Ratings in the Apple App Store

Woman and daughter after run

Works Around your Schedule

Time is hard to come by. Kids, work, and other commitments can get in the way. You need a plan that's easy to follow and can work around you, not the other way around.

Break down the lies you tell yourself

You look "weird" when you run. You’re “not” a runner. You’re too “slow” or too "Old." We're here to tell you right here, right now, that you’re wrong. You only *think* these things because it's new and you feel uncomfortable. That'll change with consistency and time. You are a runner!

Exercise Smarter, not harder

It may have been hard previously, but it doesn't have to be – now, you'll be given the tools and the knowledge to succeed. We’re doing things differently in order to see different results.

N2R Eases you in

Running when you aren't ready or without the proper training can hurt, leaving you with nagging injuries that never seem to clear up. We ease you in, giving you the strength and conditioning you need to make sure your running doesn't come with pain.