It’s crazy to think that I’m already on week 10 of my half marathon training program! The time has gone by slow and fast…it was a long time ago when I was only running 3 miles for my workout and I still had so much energy after! But it has also been so fast, considering that the New Year when I started feels like just yesterday.
In my first half marathon running update I talked all about what to wear and what to listen to while you get your workouts in. Now I want to talk about something a little different: mental strategies to get you through these longer runs.
I remember running my first half marathon back when I was in high school with no specific training other than being a general runner. Do you want to know the feeling that I remember? Not knowing what to think about as I ran my race!
I mean, what is there to think about during HOURS of running?
At the time I didn’t really know. And not knowing what to think about can really do a number on your performance. Instead of having a focused mental strategy, I was getting caught up in other things. Like how much longer I had left to finish. How my legs were starting to feel heavy and sore. Wondering if I really drank enough water or if I was starting to get dehydrated. Without a plan, my mind went crazy and made me doubt my run.
If you’re training too, then you know that the mental aspect of running is just as important, if not more so, than the physical part. Even if you’re physically prepared by being hydrated, fueled, and stretched for your run, being mentally absent can derail your whole workout.
So I’m going to talk about some of the strategies I’ve used to sort of trick my mind into not getting caught up in the doubts. These are the things I do to be mentally strong for running and help me get so much more out of each workout. I’ve gone so much further and faster than I thought I could before by applying these strategies to my runs.
Mental Strategies for Running
Take a look at some of the daily workouts in the plan above. Does running for 5 miles seem daunting to you? How about 45 minutes? Chances are if you tell yourself to just simply run for that long, you’ll feel like you’re 30 minutes in and check your watch to realize it’s only been 10 minutes!
Instead of thinking of the workout as a whole, it’s best to break it down into smaller pieces.
Make a Plan
The first way we break down the workout is by deciding how we’re going to run it. If the scheduled workout is 4 miles, how about we break that workout down into manageable parts with smaller goals? Here are some ideas for planning a 4 mile workout:
- Intervals – alternate between a faster and slower pace for a set time, distance, or incline like in the example above
- Run mile 1 at an easy pace, mile 2 at race pace, and repeat
- Alternate between a casual pace for 5 minutes and a tempo pace for 5 minutes until you hit 4 miles
- Maintain your desired pace, but increase the incline by 1-5% for half a mile, then return back to 0% incline for half a mile, then repeat until you hit 4 miles
- Sprint for .25 miles, then walk for .1 miles until you hit 4 miles
- Pyramids – increase your speed or incline until the midpoint of your workout, and then reverse to the end
- Increase your speed every quarter mile until you reach the 2 mile mark, then decrease your speed in the same increments until you reach 4 miles
- Increase the incline every .5 miles until you reach 2 miles, then decrease your incline in the same increments until you reach 4 miles
- Speed – increase your speed at designated points during your workout, finishing at your maximum
- Increase your speed by .2 mph every 5 minutes until you reach 4 miles
- Increase your pace by 30 seconds every .5 miles until you reach 4 miles
Does it make sense that if you’re thinking about your next mile, 2 minute sprint, or reaching the top of the pyramid in your plan that you’re not thinking about the 4 mile workout as a whole (which can be intimidating)?
You can apply these strategies to any workout, whether it’s measured by time or distance.
Some of these ideas are best for the treadmill, specifically ones that mention incline, but sprints are great around a track and any workout plan that goes by time is great for the open road.
Get to the Halfway Point
You’ve surely heard the phrase ‘it’s all downhill from here’? Meaning that the hard part is over and the rest should be smooth and easy. That’s the way I think about the halfway point of my workout. Mentally, it’s all downhill from there!
Sometimes when I start a workout I get nervous about being able to complete the plan I set for myself. What if I don’t feel that great and I’m only 5 minutes into the workout? How could I possibly finish out the 4 miles, or 40 minutes, or whatever goal there is for the day if I don’t feel good at 5 minutes?!
Instead of thinking of all I have left, I tell myself to just make it to the halfway point and then make a decision on whether I need to scale back or not. It’s a different way for me to break down my workout into manageable pieces.
And guess what? I can’t remember a single time that I made it to the halfway point and decided to take it easy instead of continuing with the plan.
It’s all in your head!
And getting to the halfway point doesn’t have to mean the literal midpoint of your whole workout. Let’s say you just started an interval where you’re at your race pace for 1 mile. Maybe 1 minute in you feel kind of exhausted? Just tell yourself to get to the half mile mark and then decide if you’d like to stop the sprint early.
Even if you do decide to scale it back at the half mile point, you still went further than if you stopped right away.
Focus on Your Breathing
I learned very early on in running that your breathing pattern makes a huge difference in your performance, and not just physically but mentally.
If you’re running along and hear yourself huffing and puffing and struggling, your mind automatically interprets that as distress. And that’s not good. You want a mind focused on your running plan, not how out of control you feel, right?
So as I’m running if I hear my breathing getting sporadic, I control my breathing (like in yoga) with big breaths in and out that are in tune with my steps.
I also control my breathing when trying to get through a particularly difficult section of my workout. If I’m on a sprint or incline interval where I feel like time has slowed down and it’s just too hard, I count as slowly as possibly to 10 with controlled breaths.
To make my count as slow as possible, I count a number with each breath 4 times. So like this:
breathe in (1), breathe out (1), breathe in (1), breathe out (1)
breathe in (2), breathe out (2), breathe in (2), breathe out (2)
Then I check the time or distance left on my interval and it’s more manageable than it was before.
These mental strategies might seem like just tricks, but they have made such a difference to me in running faster for longer. And if using these strategies gets you through a tough workout it becomes such a confidence booster to know you completed it!
You can use these strategies for any kind of running, not necessarily a half marathon. I think they become more important as your mileage and time increases, but you can apply them whether you’re a beginner or seasoned runner.
And I’d love to know how you build mental toughness if you’re a runner, as well!
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