Even if you've only been running for a little while you've probably already discovered it: in order to get fitter and faster, taming the mind is just as important as training the body. Negative thoughts, doubts, fears, and anxieties "keep us cloudy in our heads, and slow us down," says Barbara Walker, a Cincinnati-based sports psychologist. "It creates a heaviness and doesn't allow us to perform well." Walker, a certified consultant of the American Association for Applied Sport Psychology, offers these tips to nip negative thinking in the bud.
Thoughts like "I'm too slow," can literally slow your body down. "When you have a negative or anxious thought, you're contracting muscle fibers in your body and you may not even be aware of it," she says. "And when you're tightening and tensing, you're not operating as efficiently as you could be." That's why a thought like "I'm so slow" can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For most people, the tension starts in the scalp, then goes down into the neck, back, and hands. All of that is zapping valuable energy and strength that you need to run. "It's amazing how much it can slow you down," Walker says. "It wastes time and energy that you could preserve for the race." When the effort starts to feel though, do a body scan and release tension any where you feel it, head to toe. That can get you refocused.
It can be easy to get deflated when someone - or a tidal wave of people - passes you in a workout or a race. "There's always this little drop in energy that happens," says Walker. Don't let that derail you. Just remember: you don't know whether the person who passed you is running the race of his life, or is on the verge of a major bonk. In a race of any distance, in the final stretch of the race, you're likely to pass many of the people who passed you in the early stages. So focus on your own pace and your own goals.
A flood of negative thoughts are inevitable for most people - they're part of most runner's mental weather systems. And while you can't prevent those storms, you can prepare yourself how to get through them in tact. Have a positive vision, memory, or phrase that you can repeat to talk back to the negative thoughts. Compile a mental highlight reel of triumphant moments in your life when you've overcome formidable obstacles. Or have something at hand that reminds you that thoughts are merely that - just words in your head, not reality. Practice observing the thoughts - as if they're just passing clouds in the sky - without reacting to them.
When a flood of negative thoughts starts to wash over you, catch it as quickly as possible, throttle back, and focus on What's Important Now - which makes a neat little acronym called WIN, Walker advises. "If you don't catch yourself quickly, and let yourself get carried far away, it's really tough to pull yourself back," she says.
Running with a group of people, or connecting with them virtually through an online program can help you stay positive, and maintain perspective, says Walker. Linking up with other people who are working just as hard, can help motivate you to stay focused. Others can give you a boost when you're feeling low, and supporting others will help you stay in a positive frame of mind.
Keep it short, positive, and just one to two syllables, advises Walker. That makes it easier to remember. You might try something like "powerful and strong," or "light and fast." Use whatever works for you. "Think about how you want to feel during your race," she says. And be sure to keep it in the present tense. Phrases like "I am a powerful runner," "I am determined," or "I am capable of achieving my goals," send your psyche the message that this is happening now. It's not just some hope for the future. "This helps you own it," Walker says. Walker has athletes write out their mantras multiple times on a daily basis, and reflect on the thoughts and emotions that the mantras bring up. "It acts as a sort of self-hypnosis," she says.
In the weeks before a race, spend 20 minutes before bedtime or before your workouts visualizing yourself running your best. Go through each detail of the day, picturing how you want to feel. Envision how you will show up to the starting line feeling calm, and run with your head up, your shoulders down, racing relaxed.and mentally rehearse passing each mile marker and water stop, and crossing the finish line feeling strong. Try to summon as many sensory cues as possible. Imagine what you will see, hear, feel, smell, and even taste. "Visualization works really well," she says.
For more free information, check out the web site for the American Association for Applied Sports Pscyhology at www.appliedsportpsych.org