Running: More Mental Than I First Thought

>> Thursday, October 22, 2009

When I started getting into triathlons, my wife Pharmie was in her 6th year of running marathons. She would talk about little “mental games” she would play with herself on longer runs: always do “out-and-backs” with a longer “out” first; tell herself “just get to the turn-around” and then worry about the rest; etc.

Frankly, I thought SHE was a little “mental.” I didn’t get it.

I was doing my 4-6 mile runs while training for my first sprint and olympic triathlons. “Mental games?.... My wife’s weird!” is what I thought. I wouldn’t need any “mental games” to get through my runs, and I thought Pharmie was a little strange for running like that.

Now that I’m consistently running slightly longer distances (trained for 2 half marathons, 2 10 milers, and a half Ironman this year - nothing SUPER long), I see her point. One thing I do all the time is to see how many homes I can run past before the next car passes me. I’ve also learned that there’s a huge mental aspect in the way I approach my runs. And I think I’ve proved her point over my last 4 long runs. Let me explain.

About a month ago (before the TC 10 Mile), I ran an OK 9 mile training run. Then I ran a rough 9.5 mile run, and a horrible 10 mile training run. But over the last 10 days, I ran a great 11 mile run, and a great 10 mile run.

What made those last 2 runs better/faster/stronger? It was all mentality. It had to do with what was running through my head as I started those runs.

Below are the maps for the rough 9.5 mile and the rough 10 miler. (They are just the “out” of the run - I hit the end of the route and turned around to come back the way I came to finish the run.) What do these 2 routes have in common?

What do they have in common? They both are nearly straight out-and-back, which makes them seem FAR. Because they SEEM far, I run slower. Stupid mental issues.

Below are the maps for my recent great runs: an 11 miler and a 10 miler. (They are mapped the same as the others: they just show the “out,” and then I turned around to finish the run the same way I came.) See how these are different from the routes above?


Those runs don’t go as far away from home as the “bad” runs. I’ve found that REALLY makes a difference for me. On that 11 miler, I hit mile 8 and was running on a route that usually means I’m close to home. So I was running hard. But instead of turning towards home, I turned away from home and tacked on a few more miles before finishing. The same was true regarding mile 6 of my 10 miler.

So I’ve found the route I run on my long runs really affects my mental approach to the run. If I feel like I’m running to a completely different time zone before turning around, I’ll start off slower. Way too slow. But if I’m running near home in the middle of the run, I’ll be picking up the pace throughout, and then I’ll be HOLDING onto that pace until the run is complete. That’s my new secret for a faster long run.

So what mental games do you play? Or is this all foreign and crazy to you?

FYI: if you need to see the numbers on those 4 runs, here they are:

- Bad 9.5 miler: 59:32 (6:16 pace). Not a bad time, but that time does NOT include the 2 walk breaks I had to take (that’s the only time I’ve had to walk in a training run this year!).
- Bad 10 miler: 1:06:50 (6:41 pace). Slowest pace I’ve ran in a while.

- Good 11 miler: 1:08:54 (6:16 pace). Felt strong.
- Good 10 miler: 1:02:29 (6:15 pace). Strong throughout. Felt “right.” And I did that run while I had this current head cold! Nice.


Coach Liz 7:54 AM, October 22, 2009  

Mental games are good to use in training and can be beneficial. Having a positive outlook goes a long way as well.

I am blown away that your slowest pace is faster than anything I have ever run in a track workout when I am supposed to be pushing it. Good on ya!

Jen Feeny 8:37 AM, October 22, 2009  

Running is very mental... in so many different aspects! LOL!

I play games to help pass the time constantly...

Great job on the runs... wish I could be as speedy on your bad days on one of my good days! :)

Unknown 8:49 AM, October 22, 2009  

I try to stay focussed and happy in the moment. If my mind wanders off to how much is left or what pace or whatever...I'm doomed!

RunningLaur 9:10 AM, October 22, 2009  

I do the same thing for long runs on my own. A 10 mile run will have a 2 mile out and back and then a 3 mile out and back - once i start mile 5, I forgot I even did the first 4, like the other direction didn't count toward tiredness.

Glad your long runs feel awesome now!

Tri Mommy 9:16 AM, October 22, 2009  

I always am slower on a course that I've not run before. I can usually negative split a 2 loop course just because I know what's coming next on the 2nd loop. So my game is more about prep work - I study the course and try to drive it the day before the race, or at least memorize the map.

During the run, I also do the "get to x" and then find a new "x" to get to next. I also count stop signs that I run past.

Sun Runner 9:41 AM, October 22, 2009  

My biggest mental game is the "don't look at Garmy" (my Garmin 305) game.

I find that if I constantly check my pace, I fall into the "I can't sustain this! I'm going too fast!" mindset, which is usually BS because I feel great and I'm having no trouble maintaining my pace. I'm trying to train myself to run comfortably hard and pay attention more to how my body feels rather than what Garmy tells me.

Also, constantly checking Garmy only leads to "I've only gone how far? Groan..." It's amazing how many miles can slip away with my barely noticing if I am not glancing at my wrist every five minutes!

Jumper 2.0 10:48 AM, October 22, 2009  

I mostly just break up my run. If I have a 16 or 20 mile run, it's not a 16 mile, it's 4 -4 mile runs. On a 8 mile tempo, the first 4 or 5 miles are easy and then I have to take it 1 mile at a time. For example after 4 miles, if I'm not feeling that great, I give myself permission to take a short break after the next mile. 95% of the time, I then extend it to the next mile. Sometimes I do take a break, but if I do it's because it's really needed.

Carolina John 11:22 AM, October 22, 2009  

wow that's a lot of straight lines on that map. check out a map of NC and you won't find a road that straight. we like to mix things up here i guess.

Unknown 11:31 AM, October 22, 2009  

There is no doubt that the more interesting a running route is, the easier it is mentally. There is nothing worse than running along a straight road for miles and miles. I try to mix up my routes as much as I can to keep it interesting.

Anonymous,  11:52 AM, October 22, 2009  

I tell myself, as soon as I get home, there's maybe a fresh GROSS FOOT PHOTO on Steve's blog, maybe of Steve's own, uniquely gross, FOOT....

Then, I just FLY....

MENTAL ENOUGH? Speaking of which, how about it? "It's been a while...."

Regina 12:54 PM, October 22, 2009  

I promise my body that if it makes it home there is an ice cold beer in the fridge with it's name on it.

X-Country2 10:40 PM, October 22, 2009  

I'm totally with Pharmie on the out and back game. Technically you only have to make yourself get to the turn around point because then you have no choice but to get yourself back home.

Jennifer P 9:17 AM, October 23, 2009  

I dislike out and backs -- to me those are the killers. I pick loops that take me far away from home so that there is no temptation to make shortcuts because there aren't any. Miles 8-10 are my honeymoon miles.

Anonymous,  12:39 PM, October 23, 2009  

I'm with Regina. But seriously.. I have been doing that for years with all exercise. I keep waiting for that natural high some of you fanatics talk about, but so far... it hasn't happened.

T 7:02 PM, October 27, 2009  

i prefer loops to out-and-backs ... probably because they're easier to do around my neighborhood.

as for mental games, i don't really play any ... except i try to keep pushing myself to, say, just the next lightpost before i even think about walking. still, running around my house and the stupid hills i think makes me mentally tough because every run, even the familiar ones, are tough as a result.

T 7:02 PM, October 27, 2009  

i prefer loops to out-and-backs ... probably because they're easier to do around my neighborhood.

as for mental games, i don't really play any ... except i try to keep pushing myself to, say, just the next lightpost before i even think about walking. still, running around my house and the stupid hills i think makes me mentally tough because every run, even the familiar ones, are tough as a result.

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