Running – Racing and the Mental Game


The Mental Game

Since launching this Blog and Tweeting, Updating, Tagging, Pinning and Posting about my running adventures, I’ve received a ton of e-mails.  Some readers want to give me untold millions if I simply provide some personal information. Others want to sell me the latest gadget to turn water into gasoline.  There are a few who care enough to want to help me become a better version of me for the paltry sum of $19.95.  Within that cornucopia of digital media a few are honest running questions or advice.  It was for these select e-mails that I started blogging about my running.  I don’t claim to be an elite runner, and I acknowledge I’m not a coach.  But over the last 14 years and approaching 15,000 miles I’ve learned a few lessons I’m willing to share.

Brain-Games

One question I’m asked often is how do I go into races of extreme distances, 50k, 100k 100 miles and 24 hour runs with a positive outlook and the mental ability to get to the finish-line.  I’ll be honest it, I wasn’t always built this way.  At one point in my life I was looking for the easiest way out, a short cut or I simply would avoid any challenge that truly taxed me.

Over the years my outlook, my mental toughness has changed.  I no longer look for the easy way out, I don’t take the easy road, now I thrive on the hard, difficult and the road less traveled.  How did this change come about?  I’ve used visualization techniques, and self-talk, to rearrange my thought patterns about my life in general and my running performance in particular.  I picked up on this “reprogramming” of the brain, almost by chance.  After changing the way I viewed myself I became a believer in positive thinking.  I was unaware of this at the time but this overall technique is what brain doctors call Neuroplasticity.

To run 100 miles, you can’t simply show up and run.  Many a fit athlete has failed to finish a 100 mile race not because their body gave out but because their mental fortitude was not up to the challenge. To successfully finish a 100 mile race you have to believe you can do it.

Visualization techniques:  Visualizing the outcome you want to achieve. I first heard of this technique in the late 1980s when Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar discussed his pre-game preparation.  Berine told reporters that he visualized how every play in the game plan would develop and be successfully executed.  These mental reps. allowed him to see success and increased his confidence in his skills and that of his team mates.  Kosar claimed he went into every game believing that the designed plays would work if everyone did their job.

According to http://sportsmedicine.about.com “Visualization has also been called guided imagery, mental rehearsal, mediation, and a variety of other things — no matter the term, the basic techniques and concepts are the same. Generally speaking, visualization is the process of creating a mental image or intention of what you want to happen or feel.

When I began my running/racing career I often stared at the starting line wondering if I could finish.  After a few races where I stood on the starting line, nervous, lacking self-confidence and just pain scared I would embarrass myself.  After one such race I remembered the technique Kosar had talked about.  From that point forward I began to visualize a successful race in training and the night before.  Instead of fearing failure, I began seeing myself successfully running and finishing.

As I progressed in my running career this self-fulfilling prophecy increased my confidence.  As my confidence increased I ventured onto longer races distances, marathons, ultras and then the Grand Daddy of them all the 100 miler.  Many Nights after being granted entry into the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Race I laid awake envisioned how this race would play out.  I ran the race over and over again in my mind.  I pictured the start of the race, the refueling stops, and most importantly I saw in my minds eye the finish.  I watched this highlight video over and over again to the point that I could almost sense the intensity of crossing the finishing line.  I got to the point that I could feel the overwhelming  joy of being handed that shinny 100 miler finishers belt buckle.

I’m not implying that by simply daydreaming about a event that your going to be successful.  You still have to put in the hard work.  But by seeing the finish of this race in my mind, I stood in the cold on a Saturday morning in April staring into the darkness of Umstead State Park knowing I could finish this race.  After-all, I had seen the finish, I had lived the finish, I had enough confidence to trust my training and take that first step.

To complete an extreme distance race take more then seeing the finish.

negativelabels

Self-talk:  Self talk is the internal dialogue we use to view the world, explain situations and communicate to ourselves.  The type of self talk you use–negative self talk or positive self talk is a powerful force, one that can and often does define your life.  To be completely transparent…I have to confess I did not always have a positive self-imagine.  For much of my childhood/teenage years I would de-value my own self-worth with negative self talk.  I was hard on myself believing I would fail at many things that I tried to accomplish.  I can’t tell you when that negative talk changed but at some point in my life I got tired of feeling down.  I finally began to believe in…ME.  I told myself that if other people could achieve greats things, then I could too.  It wasn’t easy and I still had doubt but over time I began to believe I could achieve ANYTHING I set out to accomplish.

An article published by http://examinedexistence.com/ stated: “Most of the time, negative self-talk can hinder you from performing at your fullest. This gives you second thoughts about your ability to carry out the task. With positive self-talk, you can put your doubts on the wayside – so you can focus on accomplishing your feat with flying colors”.  

I really can’t place the event or the time that my attitude about myself changed.  It was some time after high school around the time I went into the military.  I was 24 years old and I knew things had to change.   At that crossroad in my life I vowed that I would no longer engaged in negative self-talk.  I choose instead to communicate in positive ways that I could accomplish my goals, whether in education, within my career, and or my running.

After gaining entry and the months leading up to Umstead, my first 100 mile race, when I  spoke to anyone or to myself about running 100 mile I never used the words “try, attempt, or make an effort” to run 100 miles. When I talked openly or in private I always used the terms, “when I run, when I complete and when I finish the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Race.”  Whenever Umstead came up in conversation I only spoke in terms of finishing the race, accomplishing my goal and being successful in my endeavor.  I simply refused to speak a negative word about finishing this race.  My mind was in training mode just the physical ability of my legs, and lungs.

As I trained my body for Umstead and other challenging races, I knew I had to train my mental state.  I have to be mentally tough, resilient and capable just like my physical state would be.  Little did I know at the time, these techniques were part of a bigger mental restructure called Neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity – Neuroplasticity according to: www.medicinenet.com is also called brain plasticity or brain malleability.  “This plasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.”

This plasticity (“rewiring”) of the brain or the thought patterns within the brain allowed me to transform the mental image I had of myself.  Where before I may have given up on a tough run or a challenging feat, because the mental image I had of myself was that of someone who was not skilled, not a finisher, and not talented.  Today I go into races knowing I’ll finish, knowing I’ll run hard and knowing I’ll run distances that many only dream of.

What has changed? The mental image I have of myself has evolved into someone who finishes, who takes on the difficult and of a person who does not give up.  I communicate with myself in a way that lifts me up, provides confidence in my ability and in my training.

Umstead100collection

Life has taught me that you can accomplish all of your goals if you develop an image of yourself succeeding.  If you believe and tell yourself you can do it, if you allow your brain to adapt to this new reality you can do anything.


  • Sports psych is one of my most favorite areas of athletics and Kinesiology! This was an awesome post, for real. I’m going to end up citing it sometime this week.:)