Compared to the physical side of training, mental training is often overlooked. However, this training aspect is just as important to improving your performances at competitions and being the best runner you can be. Unfortunately, there can be a negative stigma surrounding mental training. Many runners think they only need to work on mental training if they suffer from conditions such as pre-race anxiety or uncontrollable nerves. Runners may even hide the fact that they are working with sports psychologists for fear that others might think there’s something wrong with them.
This is NOT the case! Working on the mental component of training is one of the best ways to gain an edge over competitors, achieve your racing goals, and overall make running a happier and more enjoyable activity. Some of the world’s best runners, including Roger Bannister, Eliud Kipchoge, Deana Kastor and Des Linden endorse mental training as a key element to their success. Even if you feel you already have a solid mental headspace at competitions, there is always room to improve. Think of it like your physical training. Will you stop trying to improve your times in workouts because they’re already going well? There’s always more to work on!
My Mental Training for the Pikes Peak Marathon
In the final two weeks before racing the 2020 Pikes Peak Marathon, I made it one of my goals to sharpen the mental side of my training. I reached out to Terry Chiplin (pictured below with the author), running coach and founder of ActivAcuity, an app designed to help runners improve their mental training through guided imagery sessions, and we developed a formal strategy for achieving my goals. In this article, I share key elements to mental training plans and detail the specifics of my mental training for the Pikes Peak Marathon.
Just like with physical training, setting goals and intentions for your mental training will help you have clear objectives to work towards. For my buildup to the Pikes Peak Marathon, I set the following goals/intentions:
- Not get distracted from my training
- Make the race a fun and stress-free experience
- Don’t worry about time during the race
- Get “in the zone”
- Run my own race and don’t get caught up in the competition
In particular, I knew the last goal was going to be extremely important because this was my first big race against some of the top trail runners in the country since coming back from injury. I wanted my race at Pikes Peak to feel similar to my workouts this summer where I ran high in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. In these workouts, I pushed myself while still having fun, enjoying beautiful scenery and not being concerned about how I stacked up against others on the same routes. By setting these goals, Chiplin was able to develop two audio recordings with specific mental training techniques, such as guided imagery and meditation, that helped me take steps towards my goals.
Training works best when it’s consistent. I listened everyday to Chiplin’s two recordings. This consistency allowed me to engrain the techniques in my mind through repetition. Similar to how your muscles adapt to the stresses of running after consistent training, so too will your mind develop new thinking patterns that align with your mental training goals. To help make sure I listened to these recordings each day, I’d allot specific times for this training before bed.
Try Different Mental Training Styles
There are many types of mental training and certain styles may resonate better with you than others. For me, I found that listening to short 10 to 15 minute audio recordings was effective for training my mind for racing. Others might prefer mantras, or repeated words or phrases that help the speaker get into a specific state of mind. Activities such as drawing or music also work well for some athletes. Be open to trying different types of mental training and find what works best for you and what you could imagine yourself doing most consistently.
Use a Coach/Guide
Any training plan can be improved with the guidance of well-experienced and knowledgeable coaches. I partnered with Chipin and ActivActuity because I had used his training methodologies before and already had success. I listened to many of the guided imagery sessions on the ActivAcuity app while I worked to overcome my achilles tendon rupture in 2018.
These sessions helped me find meaning in my training — even when I wasn’t running — and to maintain a brighter outlook on life while recovering from a serious injury. I highly recommend working with Chiplin and his methods have worked well for other top athletes including Melody Fairchild, Joseph Gray and Sage Canaday. Also consider working with a sports psychologist, life coach or other professional who will devote his/her time to keep you accountable towards your mental training goals, and provide helpful feedback.