If you’re running, you’re training your mind as well as your body. Remember that.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
Your mind, not your body, gets the final say in determining how fast you run in races. After all, you set your pace mainly by feel (perhaps with a little help from time splits), and that sense of feel—those cues of comfort and discomfort—come from your brain. Obviously, the mind and the body are linked in such a way that you start to feel awful—that is, you start to feel the need to slow down—as your body nears its physical limits. But the mind is always a step ahead of the body, as has been shown in numerous studies finding that when athletes quit an exercise test in exhaustion, their muscles remain physically capable of continuing. It’s an intolerable level of suffering that precipitates the bonk.
Because the mind is always working with the body during running, the mind (which is to say, the brain) is also always being trained along with the body during running. It is while you run that you develop and refine the sense of feel you use to find your maximal sustainable pace. The brain changes physically in response to training every bit as much as the muscles do.
Mental training in endurance sports, as in most other sports, is typically treated as something separate from physical training. You do your run in the morning and/or afternoon—that’s your physical training. Then, in the evening, you lie down and close your eyes and envision yourself running prettier than you real do—that’s your mental training.
There’s nothing wrong with mental rehearsal, but all the visualization and talking to yourself in the mirror in the world won’t improve your running performance as much as taking full advantage of the mental training that occurs during your training runs. Your race performance is ultimately determined by how fast your mind/brain feels your body can go, and that, in turn, is determined primarily by how fast you have proved to your mind/brain that you can go in training. It’s all about confidence, and confidence comes from hard evidence of what you can do. You can’t talk yourself into having the confidence that you can run a sub-four-hour marathon or whatever your goal may be. The only way to build real confidence in your ability to achieve any race goal is to effectively prove it in training.
Therefore I encourage all runners to approach training firstly as a means of building confidence in their ability to achieve their race goals. On a practical level, this means you should create and execute training plans that are overtly designed to maximize your confidence. Don’t worry about which workout you need to do to boost your VO2max, and so forth. Those details don’t matter. Just think about the sorts of specific training experiences you need to have behind you going into a race in order to arrive on the start line confident in your ability to achieve your goal.
You also need to think in terms of setting yourself up for success in your training. Do everything you can to minimize the number of failures you experience in your training. For example, if you’ve planned a critical “peak” workout intended to put the finishing touches on your race fitness and prove your ability to achieve your race goal, be sure to rest up for a few days before that workout so you can crush it.
I’m not suggesting that the body is not important to running. Of course it is. What I’m suggesting is that you don’t really need to think about your body in training. That approach is unnecessarily complicated. The point of training is to get ready to achieve race goals, and the single best indicator of relative readiness to achieve race goals is confidence. This is something that all of the best athletes understand, but that all-too-many age-group runners miss.
Six-time Ironman champion Dave Scott said it well in an article for Active.com:
I knew going into each race that my confidence would help to support a fast day and a successful outcome. After transitioning from coaching myself to coaching others, I knew the best place to start was to establish and build upon an athlete’s confidence level. The technical stuff is secondary if you don’t have the inner-drive, mental edge and physical foundation to take the leap.