Mental strategies for runners

10 Mental Strategies For A 10K

In any race, your mind will tell you to slow down or stop running long before your body is at its limit. That’s because your brain wants to preserve as much energy as possible – in telling you you’re tired, it is preventing you from running yourself to exhaustion.

But the reality is that most of us never come anywhere close to our physical limits, especially in a shorter distance event like a 10k, so these 10 mental strategies can be used to overcome the voice of self-doubt and push beyond the barriers your brain imposes.

1. Relax

Before the race has even begun, it pays to maintain some perspective. After months of training for this one event, it’s easy to feel like your performance on Race Day is the most important thing in the world – it isn’t. You want to do well, of course, and you may feel a bit disappointed if you don’t run the race you had hoped, but it is just a race. Your training won’t be for nothing if you don’t get the time you had hoped for, and the world will keep turning regardless. Also, remember the fact that you chose to do this – take a few deep breaths and enjoy the occasion.

2. Break it down

If this is your first 10k, even if you’ve covered the distance in training (you should have covered the distance in training), the thought of running for 6.2 miles may well be an intimidating one – that is perfectly normal. To make it seem more achievable, treat it instead as two parkruns, or even three times two miles (with a little bit on the end). You still have to run the full distance, of course, but the act of reaching each milestone – whether it’s the first parkrun or the first two-miler – will provide a psychological boost and make the remaining distance seem more manageable.

3. Make it longer

Just as breaking the race down can make the distance seem shorter, you might find it helps to go the opposite way and convince yourself the race is longer than it actually is. This links back to the self-preservation tactic that your brain employs: if it thinks you are running 10k, it is likely to induce fatigue as you come close to that limit. Tell yourself that the race is longer, however, and you might find you reach the closing kilometres with fuel left to burn.

4. Zone out

Music has been proven to delay fatigue and enhance performance. The science of why is varied, but dissociation – diverting the mind from feelings of fatigue – is one of the main reasons music can help, particularly for beginners who are less used to managing their discomfort. If you’re struggling to keep the pace, an upbeat playlist can also provide the necessary tempo to keep legs turning over quickly. A word of warning, though: take your headphones out for any pre-race briefing, and don’t play music so loudly that it inhibits your awareness.

5. Tune in

On the other hand, you might find playing acute attention to your movements and feelings as you run helps you to perform to the best of your ability. Association, as it’s known, can involve monitoring everything from your breathing patterns, to cadence, to how tired your muscles are feeling. It’s a more common technique among experienced runners, but it’s worth practicing both association and dissociation in training to find what works for you.

6. Count it out

Paula Radcliffe used this technique to distract from the task at hand, and if it’s good enough for the greatest female marathon runner of all time, it’s good enough for the rest of us. Her method involved counting to 100 three times, over and over again, because she knew once she had done that she would have covered one mile. The same distance for you is likely to take a little longer, so practise running one mile at your 10k pace while counting in your head – the figure you get to when the mile is up will give you a rough mile count for Race Day.

7. Imagine a treadmill

When we run, we move over the ground, but wouldn’t it be easier if the ground was moving under us? If you can visualise the ground moving backwards under your feet – as if the world is a giant treadmill – it’s as if the act of running is just keeping you in position. With enough practice, this technique can help to remove some of the effort associated with continual forward movement.

8. Expect discomfort

No matter your ability, at some point in any race you’re going to need to dig deep. With experience, the sensation of discomfort becomes easier to deal with, chiefly because you know that it can be persevered with and even ‘run through’. Until that point, however, try to shift your perception of mid-race discomfort: from something to avoid, to something to embrace. Hurting a little is a sign that you’re performing to the best of your ability, and that should be a source of pride rather than fear.

9. Practise self-praise

In the middle of a race, especially one that’s not going according to plan, it’s easy to become overly self-critical. But negative thoughts are rarely productive; instead of spurring you on, they’re far more likely to make you want to slow down or quit. The alternative, then, is to look on the bright side. Positive mantras are used by many runners as a form of encouragement when the going gets tough: simple phrases like “I can do this,” and “I’m running well” can enforce positive beliefs and help you to convince yourself that you really can make it to the finish.

10. Latch on

A last-gasp tactic, but an effective one nonetheless. If all else fails and the race seems to be getting away from you, ‘latch on’ to a runner in front you by imagining a rope is attached to both your waists. If you visualise them pulling you along, this can be a surprisingly effective fatigue-fighting technique. Only use it in the final few kilometres, however, to avoid trying to keep up with someone travelling at an unsustainable pace. (It’s also important to forget about the imaginary rope once you cross the Finish Line.)