Updated: Jul 27
Feature Blog by Stu McLay - Run2PB Athlete
Runners are a funny lot, not “funny haha” as my dear old dad would say, but rather funny in strange, different, interesting and complex ways. Our idiosyncrasies, neuroses, obsessiveness and individuality drive us to train harder and race faster but they also mean we will regularly fail and very often question ourselves. To be better runners we need to explore the light and shade, good and bad, and to find out what makes us succeed or otherwise.
I’m going to revisit the topics and some of the ideas (and some new ones) presented in the recent Run2PB livestream discussion Training Your Mind – The Mental Side of Running. My thoughts will be drawn from my own running but also from many years of mixing with and talking to runners and athletes of all levels. I will tend towards using the “Royal we” (of course with a liberal use of “I”) as I wind my way through the discussion because, as runners, we are a community or a collective, whether you’re a weekend warrior or an elite competitor. The complexities of success and failure, and the fine line that often divides them, are familiar to all of us.
We are very good at giving kudos to our fellow runners for their P.Bs or training efforts but we don’t often indulge ourselves with self-praise. We question whether we prepared to the level required, pushed hard enough through a tough part of a race or spent everything we had at training. Why do we think like this? Can we eliminate this kind of mindset by becoming mentally tougher athletes?
Who Do I Run For?
If the answer to this question isn’t “myself” then think again. Selfish? Not at all. When you run with friends at Parkrun on a Saturday morning, with your mates at the athletics club or your family on a Sunday afternoon, you are running for yourself, you just happen to be doing it with others. Your mental and physical health benefits regardless of who you run with, how often you run or at what level you compete. In this respect you are running for yourself. But all the same, let’s not forget what this will do for others, and doesn’t that too enhance your life?
Why Do I Run?
For me, my running is my mindfulness, it’s therapeutic in a way that I never understood it could be at other stages in my life. For many of us running is our escape from all the other stuff that consumes our lives; it can get us back on the road to physical health or it can help to ease that burden for those struggling with mental illness.
I worked in a job for a number of years where everyone wanted and needed a piece of me just about every minute of every day I was there, but I knew that was going to be the case when I signed up. I felt I lacked choice or control. Running gives me (us) that choice and that control. We can choose when we run, how far we run, how often we run, who coaches us, when we race, how often we race, what shiny new shoes to buy, what colourful gear to wear. We control our running, we have choices, we have a say.
Running and Resilience
Perspective is incredibly important and you’re going to hear this a lot from me. Using every success and every failure in both training and racing will make us more resilient runners, and that strength can be used to enhance other aspects of our lives. It’s a reciprocal relationship; linking running lessons to real life, or transferring life experiences to running, can be very powerful.
Stu McLay represented Australia twice internationally
in competitions for athletes with a disability (T/F12 vision impaired).
If we fall short at training or in a race there will always be another race, another training session. When things don’t go right or don’t feel right, we know it will get better, we will feel better. On the tough days simply getting it done is a big achievement and builds mental strength. Too often the focus is on our physical preparation at the expense of our psychological preparation. We should harness all of this kind of thinking in order to build and maximise our resilience.
Dealing With Injuries, Stress and Life
Here’s that thing called perspective again and it’s crucial. Unless an injury is catastrophic, you will run again. You may miss a big race or some training sessions, it could be painful, your rehab could be time consuming, but you’re a runner and you will run again.
Life does get in the way of running and so too the opposite applies, but don’t think for one second this is a bad thing because it’s not. Never lose sight of that reciprocal relationship I mentioned earlier when dealing with the challenges that running and life throw at you. I surround myself with people who care about me and can understand why I’m running and what it means to me, they also understand my life.
It’s important that we appreciate and acknowledge what running has done and continues to do for our lives, this is especially helpful when things get tough or when we are injured.
Use the people in your world to help you gain that perspective that’s needed in order to deal with injuries, stress and life events. Your mental health and wellbeing are important and the people who care for you know that as well.
Training and Racing
I’m not a natural racer, never have been, probably never will be, but I can honestly say I’m mentally and physically tough when I train. I’d then pose the questions: Why should it be different? Doesn’t it hurt just the same? If I (we) have trained and prepared well, why should racing be an issue? I’m no psychologist so I’m not going to delve too deeply into a performance anxiety discussion but I will try to answer as best I can.
I think the reality for many of us is that we find it easier to deal with a training fail than a race fail therefore can push harder, physically and mentally. We also train more than we race so perhaps we feel the hours on the training track, the oval, the trail or the paths are well within our comfort zone.
There is too the perceived pressure of the clock, the finishing line, that final position or ourselves relative to other runners. For many elite competitors this is what they thrive on, it’s what makes them the very best. That’s not to say that the everyday runner can’t deal with such things, they most certainly can, but for me, and many others, it can be quite limiting.
I’m going to try to answer the questions I’ve posed by throwing out another couple of questions for us all to think about: Why should it matter if I/we fail in a race? Didn’t I say earlier that it’s about perspective and that there will always be another race? It’s a complex issue indeed and one that psychologists, coaches and athletes have long pondered and may never have the answers to.
I’m going to qualify what follows here by saying that I don’t always follow my own advice. So, what about race day? How do we respond when it gets tough? What are some of the things we can do to get the best out of ourselves, or just simply get to the finish line?
Distraction is a wonderful tool. Thinking about anything but running, contemplating other aspects of your life or simply watching the world go by as you search for that rhythm that’s going to get you through. For example, you can become a maths whiz by playing with the numbers in your head; average kilometre paces, percentages of race completed and amount to go, speed, elapsed times and even counting the numbers of runners you’ve passed or who have passed you. This is a strategy I find myself using quite often.
Try chunking your race. Tick off blocks of different sizes in your mind; the 5, 10 and 15 kilometre marks in a marathon, 3k blocks in a half, time points in a 10k, landmarks along the road or around the track in a 5k or shorter. Of course it will get harder, and those chunks will become smaller as we get deeper in the race and more is demanded from us physically and mentally. Chunks of 200m as the 40k mark looms are still valuable.
Pick up a group of similar paced runners and circulate with them. Share some of the workload in the group by taking the lead, communicate with each other, support each other mentally and physically. You’ll find that most other runners will be receptive to this. Many big races have pace groups, set up a plan with your coach or in your own mind prerace as to how best these pacers can be used to assist you. However, do be careful of the extremes, don’t overreach and tack onto a group that will demand too much of you and your ability, but likewise don’t attach yourself to runners who will limit you which may lead to you taking the easy way out. In short, be realistic, know your limitations but also challenge yourself adequately.
Be philosophical, it’s that thing of perspective once again. What’s the worst that can happen if I get it wrong or blow up on race day? There will be another race. Put your race in context by saying to yourself…I will be OK when...I’ve done this race before and I know how it feels…I’ve felt like this before and I got through… Success or failure, what will it feel like at the end?
Some Final Thoughts
Regardless of where you are in your running life you should never lose sight of why you’re doing it. Who do I run for? Why do I run?
Every runner needs a support network; family, friends, other runners, non-runners, coaches, medical professionals. It’s not just a one-way street though, don’t underestimate what your running and your mental strength does for others. In what is essentially an individual sport the concept of a team is extremely important.
We all bring our stuff, our differences, our toughness, our vulnerabilities, our individuality to the starting line, but when we cross that finish line we’ve all achieved the same thing and that is incredibly empowering.
Stu McLay is a guest blog writer for Run2PB and is coached online with Run2PB,
You can read his profile on a previous blog here.
He has also been featured on the Better with Running Podcast
Training the Mind - Mental Side of Running Live Event:
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