Are you mentally tough during a race, or do you always wimp out when you start to get tired?
Most runners have heard the quote, “Running is 90% mental.” Indeed, the mental toughness that my track coach used to talk about is just as valuable as your fitness level on race day.
But how do you develop that skill? How do you use it to your advantage during a race?
There are several valuable ways to hone your mental toughness – or the ability to push past your comfort zone to finally get that big PR. Today, let’s dive into the idea of running mantras.
A running mantra is simply a word or phrase that you repeat to yourself during a race. Ideally, it has a significant meaning to you so that when the times get tough, it will inspire you to push forward.
After almost 15 years of running, I’ve used many running mantras to help myself race faster. Some are funny, some are serious. These are the ones that have worked for me – feel free to steal them for yourself. Or better yet, create your own that has a personal meaning.
My first few months of running was an introduction to cross country at the high school level. Being a total n00b, I thought I could high jump. Clearly, I had a lot to learn.
The varsity squad was pretty fast so as a JV runner at the time, I was able to learn a lot from the older runners.
But they weren’t only fast – the upperclassmen were also hilarious. Few runs would go by where I wouldn’t have to slow down because I was laughing so hard. Maybe the extra aerobic stress was good for me.
And of course, funny people do funny things. During one of our team dinners the night before a meet, they hatched a plot to steal a cardboard cutout of Grimace from McDonald’s. The theft was successful and it lived in our locker room for the rest of the season, becoming a mascot and a pre-race chant.
Naturally, it had a double meaning: it was hilarious because it was a stupid (awesome?) purple monster that we stole from McDonald’s. But it also emphasized that races hurt and we should grimace through the fatigue. Grimace! became my running mantra that helped me improve dramatically throughout the year.
And it worked: this silly mantra helped boost our team morale and we went undefeated in regular meets and won the conference. We would repeat this undefeated, conference-winning double two of the next three years.
How bad do you want it?
I love running mantras that force you to decide between wimping out and pushing yourself to new levels of performance.
These “decision mantras” are incredibly effective – in fact, my favorite is outlined in the (free) ebook The Power of a Running Mantra.
The question, how bad do you want it? works because it reframes your race related fatigue as just an obstacle in front of your goal. Of course running fast hurts a little bit. If it was easy, everyone would do it! But it’s not permanent – you’ll live.
As University of Colorado cross country coach Mark Wetmore so eloquently said in Running with the Buffaloes:
“In football, you might get your bell rung, but you go in with the expectation that you might get hurt, and you hope to win and come out unscathed. As a distance runner, you know you’re going to get your bell rung. Distance runners are experts at pain, discomfort, and fear. You’re not coming away feeling good. It’s a matter of how much pain you can deal with on those days. It’s not a strategy. It’s just a callusing of the mind and body to deal with discomfort. Any serious runner bounces back. That’s the nature of their game. Taking pain.”
“Taking pain” seems dramatic. But it’s what we do when racing at a very elemental level. The better you are at conditioning yourself to race fatigue, the faster you’ll run.
The next time you’re racing and start to feel the familiar burn of acidic muscles, think about all of the miles, workouts, early mornings, and strength sessions you’ve done to prepare for this one race. Are you going to let a little discomfort derail your entire race?
How bad do you want it?
You’ve done pool workouts harder than this!
It was January, 2006. I was a senior at Connecticut College and was starting the indoor track season. As typically happened before I broke my own injury cycle, I hurt my foot and had to take nearly two weeks off from running.
Instead of doing nothing, I spent every day in the pool busting my ass with 90 minute pool running workouts (and sometimes twice a day). Thankfully, one of my best friends spent most days in the pool with me because of his own injury.
Missing almost two weeks of training is usually the kiss of death for a season that’s sometimes only 5-6 weeks long. Consistency is critical and I thought my indoor track season was doomed. But I started running again and in just a few days, was entered into a 3,000m race.
The shock of racing 3k (it’s a short and fast race) threw me and I was uncomfortable within just a minute or two of the race. But my pool running partner came to the rescue, yelling that I’ve done pool workouts harder than this race.
And you know what? He was right. I wasn’t staying in the race mentally even when I had done intense pool workouts lasting close to two hours. I was fit, I just needed to have more confidence.
His taunting reframed my experience of the race and I was able to run a personal best by 8 seconds and finish in 9:20. In just a few weeks, I would go on to run a season best time of 9:04 – or the equivalent of about a 9:45 2-mile.
Think about your training during your next race. If you’ve done the work, trust your workouts. The race is just an extension of your training – even if you’ve only been pool running.
Mantras can help you get through the tough moments of a race when you need a boost. They even work during fast workouts or long runs – anytime that you’re feeling compelled to quit or slow down.
I want to thank Doug Hay from Rock Creek Runner for the inspiration for this post. He’s the editor of the ebook The Power of a Running Mantra, which I was fortunate to have contributed.
Other writers who helped make this book a great read include Matt Frazier, Meaghan Stakelin, and Susan Lacke (among many others!).
Now it’s your turn: what running mantra do you use when racing? Leave a comment below and let the SR team know about it!
Get the Strength Running PR Guide ebook and tips to run faster (without the injuries).