Have you ever used mantras for running? A mantra is a personal affirmation that helps you focus and stay mentally tough. And they work!
This year, we’re celebrating the Year of Mastering our Mindset.
Yogi Berra said this about baseball, but it might have been about running, too!
Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.
Ignoring the most important organ in our body – the brain – is done at the peril of our running.
Just consider how often the brain decides how successful you are:
- Deciding to get up with your alarm, rather than snoozing
- Staying mentally tough during a hard workout, helping you finish strong
- Maintaining high levels of motivation to complete training cycle after training cycle
- Giving you the drive to complete strength training, injury rehab, or cross-training
- Building the confidence to believe in your training, register for races, and take healthy risks
Ultimately, any success that you might have with running has more to do with your thought patterns, mental fitness, and psychology than your physical skills.
And when I look back on my four years of running cross country and track at the high school level (and even more so when I ran XC and track for Connecticut College), I recognize that my coach did a lot more than help us with workouts.
In fact, the mental coaching I got was far more powerful than the physical coaching!
Having more than 10 different coaches over my career helped me think differently about running, to reimagine what was possible, and reframe adversity into opportunity.
And in this article, I want to introduce you to the idea of running mantras – simple words or phrases that help you become a more mentally fit runner.
Why Mantras for Running Are So Powerful
Running is a uniquely demanding sport. Athletes in team sports or individual sports like wrestling, golf, figure skating, or rock climbing compete in their sport with the express desire to avoid pain. There’s no purpose to pain in these sports and it’s to be avoided.
But running (and other endurance sports) are very different. In these sports, you’re rewarded for actively seeking out more and more discomfort! The more race-related pain that you can endure, the better you’ll perform.
And that differentiating factor is what makes our mental fitness so important. Without preparing our psychology for the demands of increasing running-related pain and discomfort, we’ll never reach our potential.
So prepare we must.
Yes, we must prepare for the distance and speed of races. But just as importantly, we must prepare for the mental difficulties of racing.
And like our physical preparation, we must begin our mental preparation well before race day.
Planning ahead allows us to confront the inevitable realities of hard running so they won’t be a surprise anymore. Then, we can create a plan for how we’ll mentally cope in the moment.
Running mantras (get our best here) help you prepare so you know how you’ll talk to yourself when running gets challenging.
And I want to share the three personal affirmations that have worked well for me in the past.
My Favorite Running Mantras
I’ve been running competitively since 1998 and in more than 20 years, I’ve used countless mantras to help myself stay sane through grueling workouts and races.
I want to share three of my favorites that have personal meaning to me. Each has its own story, is used best during certain situations, and address my own shortcomings.
Running Mantra #1: Grimace!
In September, 1998 I had only been running for about a month when our cross country met for a team dinner at a pizza place. After we ate, the upperclassmen hatched a plot to steal a life-sized cardboard cutout of Grimace (the big purple monster) from the local McDonald’s.
The theft was a success and for the rest of the season, we had a new mascot in our locker room.
Besides being hilarious (sorry McDonald’s), we used the word “grimace” as our team cheer before races. This irreverent cheer served two important purposes:
- It made us smile and put us in a good mood, easing the pre-race anxiety we all felt
- It reminded us that running is hard and we were to “grimace” through the discomfort of racing
And it worked!
This running mantra helped improve team morale and we went on to having an undefeated, conference-winning season.
Running Mantra #2: Relax…
View this post on Instagram
#throwback to the 2011 Philadelphia Marathon, where I ran 2:39:32. A lot of things clicked that day and in the months prior to make that PR possible: training, race pacing, fueling, race selection, weather, and mindset. Marathons are tricky, but when you pop off a good one you’ll remember it forever. #marathon #tbt
This is a very different mantra. Flash forward to 2011 and I was about to run my second marathon, the Philadelphia Marathon. I hadn’t run a marathon since 2008 when I had a poor showing at the New York City Marathon.
During NYC I hit the wall, didn’t come close to my goal, and ended up injured for six months after the race. Afterward, I was admittedly scared of the marathon distance. It had reduced me to a cripple and I wasn’t excited to run another one…
But three years later, I knew that I needed to make a marathon comeback. I took my training more seriously, fueled better, and addressed my anxiety over the 26.2-mile distance with a simple mantra.
That mantra was, “relax.”
See, the first 20 miles were so stressful for me that I knew I needed to stay calm, not get lost in negative thoughts, and lose myself to anxiety. So the mantra “relax” helped me chill out and focus on running my own pace.
Thankfully, the mantra allowed me to reign in my anxiety, put myself into a great position by the 20-mile mark, and score a 5+ minute PR with a finish time of 2:39:32.
Running Mantra #3: What are you going to do?
View this post on Instagram
When I ran cross country in high school, my coach would stand about a half mile from the finish line and yell:
You have a decision to make! What are you going to do?
That simple question changed everything. It changed how I thought about racing and fatigue. And it made the decision to give the race my all much easier.
Because if we’re honest, we love to make excuses. We say things like…
- “My team doesn’t need me to run 12 seconds faster in this race…”
- “I’m not going to run a PR anyway so why bother…”
- “I’ll just hang on and get to the finish…”
- “Well if my heart rate was under control, I’d be able to kick…”
Making excuses is what the runner’s brain excels at!
But my coach asking us, “What are you going to do?” made things simpler. It cleared my brain of excuses and put the decision into binary terms: either run hard or don’t.
By creating an either/or, binary, black and white decision for us, my coach helped us clear our mental clutter and focus on giving more to the race.
Running Mantras Must be Personal
To be most effective, running mantras must be personal in some way. They must serve as reminders of your hard work, have some type of important back story, or otherwise mean something unique to you.
A personal affirmation should be personal, after all (If you’re not sure, we have ideas for you here!)
This helps the mantra mean more to you. If you’re just repeating a meaningless word to yourself because that guy Jason at Strength Running told you to, then it’s not going to work. You have to find what works for YOU.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean all of your mantras must have a quirky story behind them. You don’t need to have stolen a mascot from a fast food company or had a coach yell something specific to you over and over again…
But they should resonate with you. Any mantra that you’re relying on during times of high stress must be reliable.
If it doesn’t light you up inside, help you push harder, and inspire you to give more effort, then it simply won’t do the job.
Use Our Bank of Mantras for Running
If you’re new to the world of performance psychology, you might have a lot of questions about using mantras the right way to benefit your running.
Thankfully, we can get started in a very simple way that doesn’t require a PhD or several meetings with a sports psychologist:
- Step 1: Make a list of mantras for running that you can use before or during long runs, workouts, and races. Doing this work upfront is necessary so you aren’t left mantra-less when you need one!
- Step 2: Experiment during training. You’ll never know if an affirmation works for you if you don’t try it.
This step can feel frustrating because there are no right answers. But that’s ok! Keep putting yourself in difficult situations like workouts, long runs, and races. And keep practicing and experimenting with a variety of mantras for running.
During the experimental phase, be sure to try a lot of mantras. You can use this list to get started.
Notice that each mantra is best used in a specific scenario (i.e., some work best before running while some work best during running) so don’t experiment with them all the time!
Within weeks, you’ll better understand what your mind instinctively respond best to.
It just takes some upfront work in admitting that running is difficult and making a plan ahead of time for how you’ll mentally respond to stress.
And it all starts with a good running mantra!