Can You Train Your Brain for Distance Running?

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Think of the last run that you accomplished. How soon did your mind start to say things like, “This is boring,” or “I can’t do this,” or “I should stop?” For many runners, negative thinking happens all the time, because long distance running is both physically taxing and mentally challenging. Even if your legs feel strong during a run, your mind might be subject to fatigue, boredom, and burnout—all of which derail performance. Researchers continue to explore whether the difficulty level of a run is just in your head. However, more evidence suggests that it may be possible to train your brain for distance running. Check out these seven tried-and-true expert tips for how to mentally prep your mind before a run.

Visualize running your best.

“Visualization is one of the best strategies for racing and training and the best way to train your brain for success,” says Meghan Kennihan, personal trainer and running coach. “When you visualize yourself running, you activate the same parts of the brain’s motor centers that become active when you actually run. But, the advantage of mental rehearsal is that you can change these brain patterns for the better by seeing yourself running more efficiently and powerfully than you really do.”

More importantly, use imagery to imagine doing what it takes to get to the finish line, whatever that means for you. Aaptiv Trainer Rochelle Moncourtois says that even though it may seem corny, based on her experience, it does work. “Try to imagine yourself accomplishing your goal,” she adds. “I used to picture myself on the podium before a race. It always helped me keep that positive mindset and push myself.”

Shut down negative self-talk ASAP.

According to a study published in 2014, exhaustion only occurs when you decide to quit—not when your muscles hit peak fatigue. When you start thinking that you can’t work any harder, that inner voice sets the tone. Either you’ll listen to negative language, which impacts your distance running or race day, or you’ll need to reset your attitude in a positive way.

“Negative self-talk and self-doubt are probably the worst mistakes,” says Kennihan. “You start to think [that] you can’t complete the distance. You are not trained enough. Your legs are cramping, etc. But, this can be turned around with a mantra to break up the ‘bad’ thought. I personally tell myself, ‘The body achieves what the mind believes.’”

Make sure that you’re setting realistic goals in order to set yourself up for success, and find quotes that motivate you and build up your confidence, adds Moncourtois. “For example, I wouldn’t set a goal to make it into the Olympics for a triathlon. I know my body is not built for that type of speed and distance,” she says. “If you set a goal that is attainable, then you are more likely to build up the mental toughness you need to perform well.”

Stick to a pre-run routine.

Another thing that can help reduce mental stress before long distance running? Rituals and routines, especially ones that help you feel centered and organized because they help keep you focused on the task at hand, in a consistent way.

“For extraordinarily long runs and harder workouts, I have found that practicing a pre-run routine is beneficial,” says Running Coach Kyle Kranz. “This helps reduce any potential hesitation and makes going from not-running to running as smooth as possible. There are no speed bumps when you have laid everything out the night before. You don’t have to decide which shoes, shorts, or water bottle to use. The mental activation energy to get running is as minimal as possible because the pre-run preparation is done already.”

Switch up your runs, whenever possible.

“When I find myself dreading a planned run, I find [that] I can overcome this dread by playing a few mind games,” states Kennihan. “Some of my recommendations are to change your route to something unfamiliar. Buy new running shoes or clothes for your run. Find a friend to run with. Tell yourself you’ll just run for fifteen minutes (you always end up running longer!). Or drive somewhere cool to run, like the beach, a trail, or [the] hills.”

Don’t compare long runs to short ones.

Kranz says that one of the most common mental roadblocks people experience in respect to long distance running is not separating their shorter run expectations from their long-run ones.

“Especially for new distance runners, it takes some self-awareness and control to be okay with slowing down and running easier for longer runs,” he continues. “You simply cannot run as fast for a two-plus hour run as you can for a 45-minute one. That’s just how it works! And, just because a run is easier or slower does not mean [that] it’s not beneficial.”

Remind yourself of what you’ve already accomplished.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed before distance running, Kennihan suggests making a mental list of all the challenging workouts and races that you have already made it through. This will remind you of how strong and capable you already are. Or, talk to friends, family members, and other runners about your concerns and doubts. You’ll likely discover that you’re not alone. You may also receive some encouragement to move past any negative thoughts that are holding you back.

Stay in the present moment.

“In meditation, it’s common to be told to not fight distracted thoughts, but recognize them and move on,” says Kranz. “The same suggestion can be made for pre-run anxiety. Instead of fighting the feelings of anxiety, which can simply make it worse, change your point of view on how you feel from anxiety to excitement. View your enhanced emotions in a positive light. What you feel is what you are. And if you feel excited and energized, you may enhance your mindset for the run.”

Kranz notes that mindfulness has become more popular over the last decade, and some researchers are exploring whether or not it can be a helpful complementary training tool for athletes. Meaning, a regular meditation practice could potentially be the secret to improving your feelings of control and lowering anxiety. It could help to direct your thoughts toward your goals or specific exercises.

“During a run, people often think too far ahead, instead of staying in the present,” says Kennihan. “Breaking your race or training run into pieces helps you to stay in that moment. When you start to tire, look up the road and focus on getting to the next runner or stop sign, or tell yourself [that] you will run for five more minutes, then six more minutes. It is like reaching little satisfactory goals along the way. Another mental roadblock comes after your run or race. Many runners always find something that went wrong, no matter how well they ran. Remember that running is something you do. It is not who you are. If you can untie yourself from your performance, you can put that mental energy into your running.”

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