The psychology of running

A closer look at the mentality behind running

The weeks after a first marathon are always interesting. After the euphoria of finishing, the race is now a distant memory, the ache in your legs has dispersed, you've celebrated or commiserated over your performance, and you might have planned your next race...

Perhaps it’s a shorter distance or maybe even a half marathon so you can take advantage of the strength you built up from the marathon training. But whatever you decide to do, the chances are you’re going to have to start running again, train hard again and get ready for a race. However, that can be easier said than done because as is so often said, running is 90 per cent mental and 10 per cent physical, which is certainly how it seems at mile 23 (37km) of a marathon.

The psychology of running is something that has been debated for years and most runners will certainly have a view. Whether you’ve enjoyed the experience of having a stellar performance in front of family and friends, or the disappointment of limping over the finish line, psychology will have played a part. As long as your body is physically capable of performing to a certain level, the key to success is in remembering that mentally you can always push yourself further than you think.

In many ways the biggest mental debate you'll ever have is whether you should go for a run or not. Half of the battle is actually getting off the sofa and out of the door. It is not the fact you're not capable of going for a run, it is whether you can be mentally tough enough tomake yourself go. But the mental battle doesn’t stop there. When you start racing and start getting tired that's also when you have to push yourself mentally. More often than not you will be capable of continuing or even running a little bit faster, but you just have to make yourself do it. Of course it is very easy to say, but it is quite another thing to execute.

Setting performance goals such as a top 50 finish or a certain time can help push you to achieve those goals. Every part of training then becomes another step towards achieving that ultimate goal, which means that skipping those runs becomes more difficult. If you miss training you risk not achieving your goal. Remember, to stick to your training plan and achieve your goals you have to be smart when you set your target, and to do that successfully, there is a well known and easy-to-remember formula, which is called SMART.

Specific. Your goal needs to be specific, which means you have to identify EXACTLY what it is you need to improve or work on to make sure the ultimate goal is reached. That could be something as simple as making sure you warm up and cool down for at least 2 miles (3.2km) when doing your workouts, or it could mean running non-stop for half an hour. Whatever it is, know it and stick to it.

Measurable. Make sure you can measure your success. This can be anything from running a certain number of times a week, or hitting a certain time target. It’s an easy way to chart your progress and monitor your success.

Adjustable. Your goal needs to be adjustable so that if something happens during your training like an injury, you can adapt. Obviously you‘re not going to be able to run seven days a week if you are injured, but if you’re sensible, you can definitely adapt, improvise and overcome any problems you might meet.

Realistic. So many runners can point to disappointments in their running careers because they set unrealistic targets. No one can run a marathon in under two hours yet, so don’t imagine you will be the first. You won’t. Instead pick something that is achievable. Having said that, don’t make the challenge too easy either. You need to test yourself, even stretch yourself, but don’t pick something so easy you don’t take it seriously, or so hard it will break you.

Time. You need to have a target time in terms of your race distance, but also a time frame to achieve it. So if you want to run a specific marathon, make sure you allow plenty of time to complete the training programme in a sensible and practical way. 

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