Using mental strength to achieve better running results

Mind games for runners

Running is a rewarding activity, but it's true when they say you only get out if you are prepared to put in. Putting in the miles and preparing well physically may help you perform well, but if you want to truly reach peak performance, then mental strength becomes a vital part of your armory.

There are runners who can churn out miles on the road with the almost effortless efficiency. They can flow across the race surface, not appearing to show any signs of fatigue, and yet they are those running at nearly twice the speed as you probably are.

So how do they sustain that sort of pace and concentration, when your body is pouring fatigue into every sinew. Aside from being better prepared physically, some of the answer lies in mental toughness. So how does the struggling runner start to use their own mental skills to improve performance?

Two techniques — association and dissociation — offer some interesting possibilities for the runner:


A technique that requires the endurance runner to concentrate on many aspects of their physical condition. The runner repeatedly runs through a mental checklist of signals from the body ensuring that everything is operating in a range that will allow him or her to complete the race at an optimum rate. For example, runners might ask themselves a number of questions while they are on the move, such as: 'is my breathing relaxed? Is this a pace that I can sustain? Are my muscles tightening or cramping? Could I actually increase my pace?'

The runner looks out for the physical signals, and responds accordingly with a tactical adjustment such as slowing down, speeding up, or focusing on their running form. The purpose of this technique is to keep fatigue at bay as long as is possible. Research suggests that this technique is most effective for elite runners.


A technique that trains the runner to block out thoughts of fatigue. The runner is encouraged to think about anything that will distract them from the fatigue they may be experiencing. This could involve techniques such as thinking of a happy memory or reciting a favourite poem or song — anything to distract you from the fact that you are actually running. Studies have shown that novice runners who use dissociation strategies improve their times much more than those runners (who follow the same physical training program) who primarily use association strategies.

Tests with runners that have been trained to use the dissociation technique have found that their perception of exertion becomes manipulated; essentially the runner learns to ignore their fatigue.

There are potential risks associated with dissociation techniques because a runner may ignore warning signs. There have been cases where runners have suffered serious dehydration because they failed to recognize the body's signals of distress. Dissociation may also reduce the runner’s ability to make rapid decisions in response to race tactics. Runners who 'switch off' by using dissociation may start to lose their sense of pace judgment and find that they have been slowing down without realizing it.

Another study has suggested that dissociation may contribute to a runner 'hitting the wall' on the basis that the he or she ignored the physical signals that indicated they were running too fast.

So which technique is best?

A combination of both techniques is probably the most effective. Try this strategy next time you race, 'tune in' to your physical signals by monitoring your breathing; learn to relax when tense; relieve muscle tension by adjusting your pace; read your energy levels — and be honest in your assessment ... can you really keep this up? If all is well then 'tune out'.

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