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Training for the mental side of running

By Henry Howard

Download a training plan for a 5K, half or full marathon, or an ultra and you will get an impersonalized roadmap on how to prepare your body physically to meet the goal.

Those training plans work for some people, which is awesome. But there often is a key component missing.

To paraphrase the great baseball philosopher Yogi Berra, running also “is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical."

There are mental challenges to push through a barrier to reach a goal, which can be daunting. For runners that takes on different forms like breaking a goal time, achieving a new distance or overcoming tough race day conditions.

So how do we prepare ourselves to meet these mental quests? Downloadable training plans don’t address them.

It’s up to us (and our coaches for runners who have them). And that’s where the training comes in.

Just get started

Sometimes the hardest part is just getting started. Warm bed or cold outside? It’s tempting to hit the snooze button and stay put. However that won’t get us where we want to be on race day. Here are five good tips on just getting out the door.

Getting the prescribed runs in each week helps build consistency. (But don’t push through injury to do so.) For me, a lifelong night owl, my commitment and running improved when I converted to a morning runner. It took some time to transition but I feel so much better after completing my morning workout and have energy to address the work and life challenges of the day. Here are some ideas on how to become a morning runner.

Completing workouts translates to building mental toughness. Whether it’s a tempo run at zero dark thirty, long run in single-digit temperatures or an interval workout in the midday heat, runners build mental tenacity. Similar to the physical aspect, we develop the confidence to push through.

I remember one race in particular when this mental toughness was critical.

Several years ago at the Chattanooga 50-miler the forecast called for nonstop rain, strong winds and a real-feel temperature in the 30s. After the shuttle bus dropped the runners off at the starting area of the point-to-point course, the reality sunk in quickly for us.

We braced against the side of a building, somewhat sheltering from the storm.

Thankfully the volunteers herded us quickly to the start and we took off down the trail, which resembled a swollen creek. While the trail was a mess and the rain pelted us for several miles, it relented and was not as dire as predicted. Still, the conditions were challenging.

I had a decent performance that day. But it could have been better.

Embrace the suck

During that time in my training, I opted for the treadmill when conditions looked bleak or manipulated my runs. And those are fine options, especially when it comes to safety.

Now, I embrace the suck.

As I tell my runners, we can’t control what the weather is like on race day, so training in tough conditions will set us up to succeed. That does not mean running or training in dangerous conditions like lightning, icy conditions or bone-chilling temperatures.

But what I preach is to face Mother Nature head on, push through and reap the rewards of a challenging training run.

This winter, I have not used my treadmill. It has been mentally challenging on some days to get outside. There have been plenty of mornings in the single-digit temperatures, or even lower. (Make sure you are running safely in winter by following these tips.)

And just the other day, I faced a choice: run my six miles first thing in the morning during a driving rain when the temperature would drop from 50 to the low 40s, or wait until later in the day when the forecast called for the temps to be in the 20s with the precipitation changing to snow.

I picked the driving rain, which turned out to be a wise choice since there was more freezing rain than snow when I would have been running later. The rain was definitely a challenge but as I’ve told others, “Once you’re wet, you’re wet.”

That training run was an easy 6-miler, a way to keep the momentum going. But it did much more than that for me. The rain and wind posed a challenge, which did bolster my mental muscle.

There may be a race in my future where I’ll face a similar weather-related challenge. But thanks to that run and others in my training, I know I’ll have the mental fortitude to embrace the suck, stare down the challenge and perform to the best of my ability.


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