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Mental Strategies To Help You Persevere On Your Run

Running. Is. Hard. There’s no way around it: Putting one foot in front of the other, and quickly at that, is not as easy as it sounds. First, there’s the struggle of “getting out the door.” Many people claim that this is the hardest part, but there are ways to trick yourself, like committing to run with a friend (you can’t let them down!) or adopting a dog who needs a lot of exercise (you want Fido to be happy!)

But then there’s the struggle of the run itself. Unless you’re among the fittest runners out there, and even then, it’s going to start hurting at some point. Your legs are going to burn, your lungs are going to squeeze, and your brain is going to demand that you STOP. IMMEDIATELY. 

99.9% of the time, this mental sucker-punch will happen before you complete whatever distance you initially set out for yourself. Maybe you planned to run three miles and you’re only a mile in, or maybe you planned to run twenty-two, and you’re at mile fifteen. How do you tell your lungs, and muscles, and most importantly, brain: “Nope, you don’t get to decide. I’m going to finish this d*** run”?

Motivation Methods

There are essentially two overarching ways you can convince your brain—and, therefore, body—to shut up and keep going: motivation or distraction. Neither method of persuasion (some might call it “trickery”) is better than the other, so let’s start with motivational methods to get your brain in line and keep your legs moving.

Envision the goal. If you’re out there pounding the pavement, you’re doing it for a reason. However, when your brain starts panicking because your body is hurting, that reason can seem “stupid.” That race you signed up for? Stupid. Those pounds you wanted to lose? Stupid. That bet you wanted to win? Really, really stupid.

To get back that feeling of motivation, i.e., why you started this run in the first place, imagine achieving your goal, and then picture putting every pretty Instagram filter you can on it. What will it look like when you cross the finish line at your 5k? Who will be there to hug you at the end of your marathon? How will you look in those awesome jeans you’ve been eyeballing? The more clearly you can envision your goal, and the more specifics you can imagine, the more effective this method will be.

Chunk the run. This method is all about creating little “wins” within a run. Let’s imagine you’re going out to run three miles, and the farthest you’ve ever run is two and a half. Three miles seems really far! However, if you chop that run up into segments and just focus on each segment, the distance won’t seem so overwhelming. Chunking the run helps you recognize what you’ve already accomplished, instead of focusing on how much you have left, and guess what? That feeling of accomplishment will help motivate you to keep going. If you use half-mile segments in this example, you get to arrive at a mental “finish line” six times!

Distraction Methods

The other way to get your brain to cooperate is to try and distract it from the breathless, my-legs-are-going-to-fall-off feeling that makes you want to stop. There are all sorts of ways to do this. Here are just a few:

Put on some tunes. Listening to music while you run can actually be both motivational and distracting. As sports psychologist Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., argued in Runner’s World’s Running With Music debate, “Music elevates positive aspects of mood such as excitement and happiness.” What is motivation if not excitement and happiness? 

At the same time, Karageorghis suggests that music can also serve as a distraction. “An external stimulus such as music can actually block some of the internal stimuli trying to reach the brain—such as fatigue-related messages from muscles and organs. When these messages are blocked, this reduces a runner’s perception of effort, so you feel like you can run farther, faster.”

Repeat a mantra. Repeating a mantra—or taking a “mental bottle,” as professional runner and podcast host Tina Muir suggests—can serve two purposes, and possibly even three. First, it interrupts and eventually drowns out the negative self-talk that can happen when we get tired on a run. (Distraction!) 

It can also serve as a source of motivation if you choose something like, “I am strong,” or “You can do this.” (Interestingly, talking to yourself in the second person—saying “you” instead of “I”—has been shown to be more effective.) Alternatively, if you choose a mantra like, “Relax” or “Run tall,” it can serve as a bodily cue that can help your running form.

Count. American marathon record holder Deena Kastor wrote about this method in her memoir Let Your Mind Run: She would count to 100 over and over again to distract herself from the pain she was feeling during her race. That’s one method of counting, but if you prefer more external cues, look around you. If you’re in a wooded area, count how many birds you see. If you’re around a lot of other runners, count the number of blue hats, or green shirts—whatever you like. The method works with cars, strollers, dogs . . . whatever you might see on your run. Just keep that mind occupied, and you’ll find you can keep going a lot longer than you might have thought.

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