Breaking Mental Barriers: How to Run Dramatically Faster

Running is an intensely mental sport.  Often the barriers in our training and racing are not physical, but are mental road blocks.  Overcoming them and believing that we can run faster or longer is a crucial component of reaching our full running potential.

Stop. Do Not Run Faster.

Countless times I have finished a race and thought, “I could have run faster” or “My head wasn’t in that race.”  What happened?  Those races were failures of the mind, not the body. I was ready to run fast physically, but mentally there was something missing.

The excuses during my 12 years of racing have been endless: I heard my first mile split and decided to bag the race…I fell asleep on the third lap…I got bored after the 5th mile and lost contact with the pack…I forgot how to hurt…

These excuses reflect an inability of the mind to push past small obstacles (because they are small) and force the body to be as competitive as possible.  Looking back on my running career, I have had so many opportunities to race fast but often I wasn’t mentally ready.

What happens when mental barriers are knocked down?  What happens when the seemingly impossible – or supposedly difficult – enters the realm of possibility?

Breaking Records – The Cascade Effect

In the professional running circuit, world and American records aren’t broken very frequently in the distance events.  Not only is it incredibly physically demanding, but the mental stress of trying for a record is intense.  Certain events however have interesting stigmas attached to them.

The American 5k record was held by Bob Kennedy until recently.  He ran 12:58.21 in 1996 to break his own American record of 12:58.75.  He also became the first American to break the elusive 13 minute barrier for 5,000 meters.  After he set his record, it stood for 13 long years.

Last year, Dathan Ritzenhein smashed the record by nearly two seconds and ran 12:56.27.  Only a week later Matt Tegenkamp ran 12:58.56.  The American record fell again on June 4, 2010 as Bernard Lagat ran 12:54.12.  Chris Solinsky ran 12:56.66 in the same race, taking 16 seconds off his personal best time and making this the first time in history that two Americans broke 13 minutes in the same race.

In less than a year, four Americans dipped under 13 minutes for 5k and the record fell twice. Quite the year!

Chris Solinsky broke the American 10k record in May, 2010 running 26:59 – becoming the first American to run under 27 minutes for 10,000 meters.  How long do you think it will take for a slew of Americans to dip under 27 minutes?

The same progression played out for the “mythical” 4 minute mile when Roger Bannister ran 3:59 in 1954.  Just 46 days

Breaking 4 Minutes Was Once Thought Impossible

later, John Landy ran 3:58.  Deemed a feat no human could perform, running under 4 minutes for a mile has since been done by thousands of athletes.  The world record is now a stunning 3:43.13 by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj.

Overcoming Mental Blocks for Huge PR’s

Believing you can do something can help you achieve lofty goals that you once thought were almost unachievable.  Set your sights on seemingly impossible personal records and then mercilessly work toward them.  There are people who think they can and people who think they can’t.  Both are right.

During my senior year in college I raced significantly faster simply because I set “almost unachievable” goals.  During indoor track, I ran 4 seconds faster for 800 meters than my previous PR because I set a goal that was ten seconds faster than my best.  Sure, I failed because I didn’t run ten seconds faster.  But I set an enormous PR for such a short race.  Ultimately, I knew that I wouldn’t run ten seconds faster.  But I knew that goal would help me run faster overall.

Similarly, I took 24 seconds off my 3,000m PR by setting an “unrealistic” goal of sub-9 minutes.  A decade ago, I never thought I could run under 5 minutes for the mile.  At that point in my career, I didn’t think I could run under 5 minutes for the first mile in a 3,000 meter race.  After three races, I had run 9:04 with a 4:50 first mile – 24 seconds faster than the season before.

Every example here shows that you’re faster than you think – you just need to start racing like it.  I have since stopped trying to make small improvements when I’m attempting a personal record.  Why try to run 2-3 seconds faster when I can try to run 20-30 seconds faster?  I might fail, but I will race faster than if I attempted a smaller goal.

Believing you can’t race faster is an enormous limiting factor for many people.  The next time you lace up your racing shoes, break through those mental barriers that make you think you can’t PR by a large margin.  You absolutely can.  You just need to believe it.

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Stop Sign photo credit: Hoyasmeg
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