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How to become a Mentally Stronger Runner.

A blog by Sammy Mclean

I should start by saying I have no formal qualifications around the area of Sports Psychology or for that matter, Philosophy, depending on how you might interpret this blog. I am however very fascinated with the mental psyche when it comes to training and racing and how by having a deeper understanding around this vital area, I can assist with runners that I coach.

"What makes you Tick as a Runner?"

My interest in Sports Psychology really started by some self-enquiry around me as an athlete – basically ‘what made me tick?’. Why did some races go so well and others I feel I didn’t perform at my best? What role did my mental approach have on these outcomes?

Why was it that if my physical fitness was the same, did I sometimes have very different and polarising race results?

It’s ok to be Vulnerable.

For most of my twenties whilst racing Marathons and Ironman events,

I pushed these questions aside.

I convinced myself that if I could be 100% physically prepared, race hard for 9hrs, block out the pain, then this must make me mentally tough, right?

But then I started to experience some really disappointing race results and it was uncomfortable to acknowledge the role my mental approach may have been having on these particular results. Basically, I was forced to delve into my vulnerabilities as an athlete and what these were.

"What’s your Relationship with Pain?"

I realised my relationship with pain and discomfort had to change and that it was necessary to be ok with the possibility of races not going to plan. That is, I needed to be ok with failing and feeling vulnerable. Pretty confronting hey?

So what steps did I take and what changes did I implement to address some of the above.
The first was to become much more accepting of the discomfort associated with training hard and racing. I had labelled pain as a negative aspect to being a runner, rather than just a normal emotion to training and racing. Even though I thrived on pushing myself deep and hard in races, for the most part I was resisting the pain and basically at war with myself when racing.
How can you beat yourself at something?

Mentally Practise in Training for Racing.

So in training, I started to develop much more of an awareness around my thoughts, particularly in harder sessions. By being more aware I was also being more accepting about the situation. My ‘labelling’ around pain, and judgement of it, started to change, and it changed for the better.
There was much more ‘flow’ within my sessions and if anything the thoughts became more spaced out and quieter in my head. I’m sure everyone’s had this experience, when a session or race just felt like a blur and you were in your own bubble, with an almost effortless feel and flow to it. That’s what we want more of during training, that quietness in our mind, with less judgement, because after all, what we practice in training plays out on race day.

"How can I become Mentally Stronger during Training?"

Now with my coaching, when I’m in a practical setting such as trackside with a group of runners, I really encourage athletes to apply some of what’s been discussed here. Before the session I get runners to have a clear idea mentally about what they’re trying to achieve.

Below are some practical tips on how you can start implementing some mental strategies into your training sessions;

  • Prior to the session, have some clear mental outcomes you want to achieve from it – e.g. “my aim this session is to limit any negative words” or ”I’m completely fine with the discomfort that I will experience during this session”

  • See if you can catch your thoughts early if you feel like they’re becoming self sabotaging to the session at hand – e.g., bring more ‘awareness’ into the current situation. Have some key words / phrases to say to yourself – ‘nice flow’ ‘stay controlled’ ‘this is where I want to be’.

  • Limit the amount of self judgment and analysis that might be taking place during the session. Rely more on ‘feel’ and ‘subjective’ aspects to your sessions, rather than too much data and metric analysis.

  • Practise things like counting to 10, listening to yourself breathing, paying attention to how your feet feel when they hit the ground – anything that can help make you more present and less focused about the future.

The more you can practise these mental aspects to your training (especially on key sessions) the more likely you will be able to rely on this psyche, come race day, in a positive manner. Eventually through enough practise, your natural training and race day state will reflect each other and the nice flow we are seeking will come more naturally and with less attention needed.

So I encourage everyone to start approaching their training not just as an opportunity to physically get stronger, but to also build that mental strength. Essentially, to develop more mental strength, we are actually becoming much more accepting of the circumstances within our training sessions and races.

All the best!

Sammy McLean

Run2PB Coach

About Sammy Mclean - Run2PB Coach.

Sam was a successful junior distance runner competing at a national level at both track and cross country events. In his late teens, he fell in love with Multi-Sport events, particularly  Triathlon and Duathlon. Fast forward a few years and by his mid Twenties Sam had represented Australia twice at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, and raced numerous Ironman events around the world. He held a professional Triathlon licence from 1999-2001 achieving considerable success and gaining valuable experience as he moved into coaching full time. His racing experience spans close to 30 years. For the past two decades Sam has been a passionate running and triathlon coach utilising his academic study, personal experiences and learnings from previous coaches and mentors. Sam takes a very integrated approach with his coaching philosophy to ensure his athletes maximise their training and racing performances. He believes all athletes, regardless of ability, should have access to a high level of coaching support to assist in their athletic journey. He loves sharing his knowledge with everyone he coaches and has the unique skill set of combining both triathlon and running coaching

Sam also offers online tri-specific run coaching details can be found here.:

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