Running is much more than the physical act of moving your legs and swinging your arms. The mental component is what can take you to where you want to be. Your mind is the ultimate decider in how far you can push yourself. I’m going to explain how to mentally handle running while in the act of running.
I chose this headline because it was the theme of my freshman cross country season at Los Altos High School in 1992. My coach, Wade Watkins, who is now the head cross country and track coach at the new Ottawa University in Arizona, would ask us this question. He would tell us running is 90% mental. I knew running longer distances was hard and you had to tough it out but I didn’t really fully comprehend the message until I started running again as an adult. As a 14-year-old, I figured I couldn’t will myself to run 15 or 16 minutes for three miles because I got too tired and slowed down. No matter how much I wanted to run faster, my body wouldn’t let me. I then thought the mental thing was overblown a bit because physically I couldn’t run as fast as I truly wanted. When you’re young, you think like this. As an adult, I realized I had the most important mental aspect down as a youngster, which was to tough it out and get the most out of my body. Had I realized that, I would’ve been a bit faster, smarter and even more confident during races because I would’ve overcame the anxiety of high expectations I, and I alone, put on myself.
I think experience and maturity has allowed me to approach running from a slightly different viewpoint mentally. I know now that I can only go so fast. Because of genetics, there’s a maximum for me. There’s a maximum for you too. Yours is different from mine. Perhaps, it’s faster. Perhaps, it’s not. It doesn’t matter because you want to do the best you’re capable of doing at that moment in time.
Let’s start slow though. Running is hard sometimes. It’s uncomfortable and it can be unpleasant for many reasons. Mostly, it’s unpleasant because your body likes to stay relaxed. Heavy breathing and sweating is not the funnest thing in the world. How can you tolerate the heavy breathing, faster heart rate and achy muscles? First, you start slow. Know your limits at the moment. If it’s your first week off the couch and you’ve never run before, run/walk just one mile. When you do the run part, take it slow and easy. Think to yourself–“I can do this right now. This is happening.” You have to believe you can do it before you do it and while you’re doing it. This belief goes a long way. Focus on the present task. Don’t overwhelm yourself by thinking–“I’m tired after only running a half-mile. How could I ever finish 3.1 miles?” You’re not running 3.1 miles right now. You’re only doing a 1-mile run/walk. Baby steps. Have faith that you will improve. You will. It’s the way physiology works. Your body will adapt to the new stress of running and will handle it accordingly. The human body is resilient. It can deal with a lot of stuff thrown at it. I don’t care how tired you are after a 1-mile run/walk, you will improve in time if you keep going. That’s not my opinion. That’s science. Now that you know that, don’t worry if it was hard and exhausting.
When I run, I really don’t think about much other than what I am currently doing. My focus is on breathing, pace, stride, arm movement and foot strike. Am I running fast enough for today? Is my breathing consistent? Are my arms too high or too low? Basically, I’m my own NASCAR pit crew, monitoring the car to make sure everything is working properly. From my experience, I know I can finish the run. If I can’t I know it’s a bad day and tomorrow will be different.
If you find yourself getting tired in the middle of the run, slow it down. Again, don’t overwhelm yourself by thinking you suck or you can’t handle running. It’s ok to slow down. Tell yourself it’s ok. Go with the flow. No one is judging you. Stay in the moment, slow down and think about making it to the next light or telephone pole. Then, repeat until your run is done. How do you do that? Here’s where toughing it out comes in. You have to deal with the discomfort of the act of running. There’s no two ways about it. You have to just accept it and deal with it. Just remember that it ends and you’ll survive. Trust me, you’ll survive. Trust me. If it’s get to be too uncomfortable then slow down or walk until you feel better. You just have to tell yourself you’re going to handle it but you’ll handle it the way you see fit. After all, it’s your run. You control everything about it. It’s all you. If that means slowing down, stopping or speeding up then that’s what it is. There’s no magic thought or saying that can help you, unfortunately.
If you stay in the present, you’ll realize you’re suddenly at the end of the run. If you worry about finishing from the moment you start the run will seem very, very, very long and you’ll find yourself getting tired quickly. If you just worry about the moment, there’ll be a moment when you finish. That’s a good moment.
Always remember, you run at your own pace on your own terms. Don’t let the future or past get in the way of what you can do in the present. Accept the present for what it is and work hard to achieve goals because it’ll push you into the future.
Running With You,