Grimace! Running Mantras That Help You Get Tough When Races Hurt

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. I talk about a few in this new video about running mantras:

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 Oldest Running Mantra: Grimace!

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.Grimace

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 (and you can get more of them here).

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.

More Running Mantras!

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.

Now it’s your turn: download our newest Running Mantra Cheat Sheet and get a bank of 10 personal affirmations (mantras) that will help you stay tough when running gets difficult!

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  1. In the middle of a race I like to use “Light, Easy, Smooth” said slowly on the same foot fall. It helps me to relax physically and focus mentally.
    When things began to get tough (about mile 38 of my last ultra) I used “Earn this.” from the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’. And Randy’s 3 Rules by DJ Ol’ Youngin’ that I probably shouldn’t repeat in a public forum. You can see those on youtube (*not for the easily offended).
    I already have two new ones picked out for my next race: “Rise Up” and “Throw down”.

  2. It’s surprisingly efficient repeating a sentence over and over again to “steal the attention away” from the fact that I am very tired. I have used it a lot while racing during the last couple of years.

    I have two that I very between, the fist one is similar to James’ mantra above, it’s simply repeating the words “Fast, strong, light” in a way synchronised with my foot strikes. (although it sound better in Swedish 🙂 “Snabb, Stark, Lätt”.

    The other one is “Work your way, through the pain” that I also repeat in sync with my foot strikes. Both works equally good!

  3. I always liked to look around the starting line before a race and mentally say “Men today we die a little.” Emil is my hero and it helps me channel him a little.

  4. I stole mine from Finding Nemo: “Just keep running.”

  5. Graham Dethmers says:

    There is a quote in Scott Jurek’s book that resonated with me when I read it and is something I find just forcing itself to the forefront of my thoughts when my runs get tough:
    “Not all pain is significant.”
    More often than not, it comes when I’m facing a hill that looks like a wall. And, for reasons that are somewhat inexplicable, it also makes me laugh at myself for getting too serious in the moments before the mantra comes to mind.
    Another mantra that I have embedded in my head is what comes at the beginning and end of races/training runs:
    “What are you here for, if not to run?” Same results: steeling of resolve and laughter directed at my doubting-self. The laughter also helps make the physical suffering more, I’ll say, fun.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hey I always liked that quote, too, (Not all pain is significant.) I read it in Born To Run. Turns out that chronic shin splints was significant, but I have worked strength training into my workouts and can once again embrace the mantra;).

  6. This was more of a workout song than a mantra, but when I used to do a lot of strength training I would always do my short cardio warmup to GNR’s “Get in the Ring”. The end of the song they just keep repeating “get in the ring, get in the ring” and I always felt the repetition of that helped me out. Even if I had other music for the rest of my workout, “get in the ring” would be somewhere in the back of my mind.

  7. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for sharing this mantra. I usually listen to Rocky theme songs during the race. It works really well for me when I feel like giving up throughout a race.


  8. I am a big fan of “fast and relaxed.”
    This post is worth bookmarking as a warehouse where others leave their tips for getting touch when your brain starts playing tricks on you.

  9. “Just to the next curve/turn/hill” Repeat until you get there, then find your next target. Also, my track coach in HS taught me to concentrate on relaxing my face and jaw which I have a tendency to tense up when under stress. This not only helps bring my focus away from what may be hurting-legs, stomach, etc,. but also prevents me from needlessly burning energy tightening those muscles.

  10. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

    “Almost there, just a little bit longer.”

    “It is just a 5k now”

  11. “Be Great, Today. ” I stole this from another blogger but really like that it implies being great is possible, a choice, and measured by what you are doing at that moment. .

  12. Here is a LOAD of great quotes here:
    I actually have like a 10 page printout of “Pre” quotes next to my computer that is filled with some gems.

  13. “My brain is the engine; my body is a machine.”

    As my intensity increases, this reduces to “Brain : engine :: body : machine.” This is my favorite mantra because it reminds me that my brain provides the power and my body will do whatever I tell it to.

  14. Nice post, i use to count my breath when i had tough time running kinda like meditation.

  15. Elizabeth says:

    “Dig deep” is what usually comes to mind the last stretch.

  16. “The more I put in to this, the more I get out of it.” Always seems to do the trick to get my legs going again.

  17. My mantra is “it’s not about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward!” it’s keeps me going all the time!! 🙂