Trail running: Is it all in the mind?

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 09/09/2016
Julia Tregaskis-Allen bossing the trails in Chamonix. Photo: Sarah Stirling
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Performance doesn't just come down to physiology — psychology plays a huge part, too. Mental training can make as big a difference as training physically for trail running. Don't miss these ten tricks for your mental toolkit, which do everything from boosting your mental toughness in races to helping you get the most enjoyment out of a trot on the trails.

1. Wishful thinking really works

Self-efficacy: “The extent or strength of your belief in your own ability to complete tasks and reach goals.”

In 2012, half the cyclists taking part in a research project were told the computer they were cycling against was pedalling at a pace that matched their own PB. The other half were told the computer was pedalling much faster than them. Guess which participants achieved the best times? This is just one study out of many that has found that fatigue in sport is highly subjective, a product of perception more than physiology sometimes. Great news – wishful thinking really can win races!

2. Intrinsic or extrinsic

Consider this: motivation can be intrinsic (enjoying the experience) and/or extrinsic (valuing the outcome). Goals are great, but you're more likely to sustain behaviour if you can find intrinsic motivation.

3. Break it down

If you're feeling daunted by a run, break it down into smaller, digestible pieces in your head. This is a useful skill generally for dealing with anything in life that scares you! If you’re planning your first half marathon, for example, imagine it as two six-mile chunks. You know you can run six miles – so just think about that distance, then think about it again.

If you’re racing, try focusing purely on the mileage to the next aid station, or the steps to the top of the next hill. You could reward yourself with music at tough points.

WATCH: Nicky Spinks run the Bob Graham Round on BMC TV

4. Positive reframing

Worry and doubt can become self-fulfilling prophecies, leading to slowing down, cutting your run short, or dropping out of a race. By the time some runners start a race, they are already mentally exhausted from negative thinking. If you seek out the positive, information becomes useful instead of debilitating.

Instead of beating yourself up, for example, try thinking of low points as useful tools to help you become mentally stronger. What can you learn from a bad run, or poor race result, that will help you do better next time? This is another mental skill that’s useful for life on and off the trails.

5. Remember when...

Looking back on where you came from can be an inspiring distraction when you’re struggling. Remember when you couldn’t run round the block? Remember when you couldn’t run up a hill? Remember the first race you ever entered and you didn’t know what you were doing? You’ve come a long way, and you can certainly go a lot further.

6. Cleansing breath technique

If you’re feeling stressed before a race, or when running, try this: breathe in for six seconds, hold the breath for two seconds, exhale for seven seconds.

7. Mindfulness

Sometimes it's good to give both positive and negative thoughts a break altogether! Try bringing your mind back to the present. Calm your mind and control your inner chatter by focusing on your body instead.

From your toes, work up your body and think about how everything feels right now. If you do this instead of mulling on the past or the future, you'll probably find you need to alter your pace, stride, form or nutrition, and you hadn't noticed!

WATCH: Find your trail on BMC TV

8. Meditation

If you want to go deeper, trail running lends itself well to meditation. Try keeping yourself in the present by noticing physical feelings – any tightness in your muscles, euphoria, cold, wet or heat. Really listen to sounds like your breath going in and out, birds, dogs barking, the sea. Focus on your footfalls and arm swings, listening to your feet and concentrating on swinging smoothly. If your mind wanders, bring it back.

9. Visualisation

Professional athletes of all types use visualisation to encourage the body to follow what the mind believes. If you've got a race coming up, try taking a few minutes each day to visualise yourself running it, adding more detail each time, and replacing any negative thoughts and images that crop up with positive ones. Get to know the course and visualise yourself relaxing on that big climb; flying down that descent.

10. Mantras

A mantra is a short phrase you can repeat in your head or out loud to motivate or inspire you, to replace destructive chatter, and to keep you in the moment. They are usually personal and specific to you and what you want to achieve. Experiment with various words like 'calm' and 'strong'; thrive off your own discomfort by thinking: “I'm tough; I can push through this," or try a short poem, like the following by Trisha Reeves:

Run close to the mountain
Stay a heartbeat away
Cover the low moon with your wings
And walk tomorrow’s miles today

 

A photo posted by Sarah Stirling (@sarah_stirling) on


More articles in this series:

Trail running: 5 things I wish I'd known when starting out

Natural highs: are all runners just organic junkies?

Trail secrets: how to run downhill

10 beginner trail running mistakes



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