11 Tips to Run a Strong Mental Race

A couple of weekends ago I ran a (small) 5K. I pushed myself really hard and broke my personal record. It was a hard-fought PR, in which I thought several times about giving up. I wondered if I actually could make it to the finish line. Just over halfway through I told my husband, who was pacing me and cheering me on, that I was struggling and then spent the last half of the race moaning as I tried to override the discomfort of pushing through burning legs and lungs. After I crossed the finish line, I felt the same degree of gratitude at having completed those 3 miles as I do when I finish a marathon. It was one of those things that I needed some time to process before I had the desire to do again.

Except that I’d already signed up for a 10K the very next weekend. And while I was physically recovered from that intense 5K, I was still processing it mentally. My brain wasn’t ready to fully commit to pushing through that same kind of discomfort. I was happy with the result of the 10K, but it was a good reminder to me that training your body to run up hills, push through pain, or to stay on your feet for a certain number of miles is just half of the training that needs to happen. Race day success is as dependent on your mental preparation as it is on your physical preparation.

So, how do you that? You fill your bag with mental tricks so that when you get to the start line you really believe in yourself and your ability to push your body as far and as fast as it is capable of. Here are some mental tips for runners to help you prep your brain for your next race.


  • 11 Tips To Keep You Running 1 of 12
    Light At The End Of The Tunnel

    While repeating to yourself, "I think I can! I think I can! I think I can!" will certainly help, it's good to have a couple of other tricks in mind. 

  • Learn to Relax 2 of 12

    Physically letting go of tension while running is one thing (breathe through your body, gently rub your thumbs against your index fingers, and drop your shoulders), but mentally letting go of stress and anxiety is another. Remind yourself that it's just another run if you find yourself getting anxious about it, and that now that training is over, it's time to go out and have a good time. 

  • Visualize Powering Through 3 of 12
    Portrait of Beautiful Woman ready to start running.

    Having a vision of the future is an important step in actually making that future happen. Picture yourself powering up hills, crossing the finish line, or even smiling as you run can help you succeed at achieving your goal and make it easier to do so. Research shows that by imagining yourself toughing it out through the hard parts of the race a hilly section, or the final miles you'll be better able to overcome them. 

  • Keep Your Inner Voice Positive 4 of 12

    Looking for the positive side of things makes them more manageable. You may be gasping for breath, but instead of looking at it as evidence of weakness, remind yourself that you really are working hard and look how well you are doing! Always look for a way to turn a negative thought that it hurts so much, or that you aren't feeling great, or that the weather isn't what you hoped for into an asset. Practicing that can help you build confidence to power through anxiety, stress, and a tough race. 

  • Set Short Term Goals 5 of 12

    And I mean really short term. When you are struggling during a race it's encouraging to notice any progress or sign of success. So set a goal just to maintain your pace until you get past a particular milestone, or to keep running to the top of the hill. Achieving those little goals can give you confidence and energy to get through to the next portion of the race. Every success counts!

  • Define Success 6 of 12
    Road runner success

    Going into a race with the only goal of setting a new personal record can put too much pressure on you and cause you to choke. Instead, have a couple of goals in mind that allow for a little wiggle room for a bad day or an emergency. The first goal is your perfect day scenario, the second is something you would feel happy with even if it isn't what you really want, and the last is what you can live with if everything goes south.

    Maybe your number 1, perfect scenario, most important goal is to PR, but you'd also be really happy just to finish in a certain time, and if worse came to worse, you'd be happy with another, more conservative time, or even just to finish at all. Those goals can take some of the pressure off and make it easier to keep at it if something goes wrong. 

  • Make A Plan 7 of 12
    Woman Running in City

    Start by doing your research so that you know the course. Maybe you know the race starts going slightly down hill, but that there are hills later on that you want to save your energy for. Plan to start a little slower and pound it once you get to the hills. Or maybe you plan to run a consistent pace, but allow yourself to walk through the aid stations. Putting the plan into practice allows you to focus on one aspect of it at a time before moving on to the next portion so that you are not overwhelmed by trying to do the whole thing at once.

  • But Be Flexible With It 8 of 12

    Yes, you have a plan, but maybe you got a little excited and went out too fast, and now you are dragging. Or maybe that knee injury you thought was firmly behind you flared up again and you need to slow down. Or maybe you had to take a bathroom break and now you are behind schedule. You may need to make adjustments throughout the race to accommodate those unpredictable circumstances. And maybe, halfway through the race you'll realize you were much better prepared than you thought you were and you can adjust your plan to include an even faster finish time! (Stranger things have happened!)

  • Play Games 9 of 12

    One of my favorite games is to "race" a runner ahead of me. They have no idea that they are playing, of course, but it helps me focus and to feel like I'm achieving something, even if it is something small. Another game might be to hold your pace to the end of whatever song you may be listening to, or to run this mile faster than the last. Switching things up throughout the race can keep things interesting and keep you motivated, so have a few "games" to deploy throughout the race

  • Focus On Others 10 of 12
    Two Female Friends Jogging On Street

    Being so attuned to your own body and goal can be overwhelming, and if you find yourself too much in your head, psyching yourself out or unable to think of anything but how hard it is, look around. Pay attention to other runners. It may be as simple as noticing their stride or admiring their calves, but giving them a good word ("Nice shorts!" or "You're killing it!") will inevitably perk both of you up. And every now and then it's nice to run stride for stride with someone for a while ask them how they're doing, find out their story. Before you know it you may have forgotten your own struggles and be feeling much more confident. 

  • Be Present 11 of 12

    In the middle of the race, it's so easy to zone out or to mentally "run ahead," calculating how many more miles or how much more time or how we might feel when we get to a certain point. This can, again, be overwhelming and discouraging. If you find yourself thinking of how much farther you have to go and doubtful that you'll make it, stop thinking about the future and what it may bring. Instead, reign your mind back in and look around you. Notice the scenery, the sound of shoes on the pavement, the way the sun is streaming through the clouds. Pay attention to your body: are you tense? breathing heavily? working hard? Focus on where you are right now. 

  • Smile! 12 of 12

    The simple act of smiling can make you happier. And that's true wherever you are or whatever you are doing. If things are feeling really tough, put on a happy face and the work will seem easier and you will feel more able to do it!


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Article Posted 3 years Ago

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