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Mental Training

5 Science-Backed Mental Tricks For Getting Through The Toughest Races

In his new book, Chatter, Dr. Ethan Kross highlights new takes on psychological techniques for boosting mental toughness and positivity.

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We’ve all been there. That moment in a race where you want nothing more than to quit, or have second thoughts about why you signed up in the first place, wondering whether you can finish. As much as we can prepare physically for races, if we don’t bring our mental A-game, things can go south quickly. 

Luckily, there are some tried-and-true techniques we can incorporate into our daily training to build mental strength. In his latest book, Chatter, award-winning author, psychologist and neuroscientist Dr. Ethan Kross highlights new takes on known approaches to unlocking our mindset and regulating our emotions – on and off the trails.

Technique 1: Self-talk (in the third person.) 

Say whaaaat? Talking to yourself? That’s right! For those of us who have been doing this all our lives, perhaps we aren’t so out-there. Some studies estimate our internal dialogue throughout a given day amounts to approximately 150-300 words per minute, while others suggest it falls in the thousands. 96% of us admit to inner dialogue on a daily basis, while only 25% say they speak out loud to themselves, according to a study cited in WebMD. Whether we admit it or not, there is a significant amount of chatter going on inside of the majority of our minds and much of it is spent evaluating, judging, or criticizing.

Many elite runners are open about their use of self-talk during races: Shalane Flanagan has said that she often talks to herself in the third person during tough moments of a marathon. Imagine a professional, Olympian athlete rooting for herself: “Shalane, you got this. Don’t give up. Let’s go, Shalane!” Little did Shalane know, another Flanagan was using this same strategy from a young age. (For those of you wondering, we are not related, but one can dream that we have some shared lineage in there somewhere).

RELATED: Here’s How To Build Mental Toughness

As Kross shares in his book, using the pronoun “I” often leads us to ruminate over our tough moments, whereas speaking in third person is similar to cheering on a friend – only it’s yourself and you can say whatever you need to hear in that moment. You’d never say negative things to a friend who was struggling in a race; you’d encourage them! And you can do the same for yourself. 

trail running mental training
(Photo: Hendrik Morkel/Unsplash)

Technique 2: Zoom out. 

Getting stuck in our heads typically involves being focused on the problem we are facing or the mid-race pain we’re experiencing. You’re making your way up a steep ascent when you notice your calves are burning and your lungs are tight. Rather than stay caught up on your calves and chest, focus on the bigger picture, zooming out to your race and even the scenery around you.

Remind yourself that this too shall pass. Consider how others may respond to the situation, such as those you admire or care about. (This employs the same type of third person shift as the self-talk above, and can trick your mind into putting some distance and objectivity between you and your discomfort. Seeing the bigger picture – the entire race weekend, your training leading up to the event, and the feelings of satisfaction you’ll have post-race – can make the tough present moment feel more bearable.

Technique 3: Reframe your goal as a challenge, not a threat. 

When you are considering an unexplored trail for your next long run, a new race on the horizon, or maybe the thought of your first ultramarathon, do you view it as a challenge or a threat? “Reframing” could be the secret sauce.

This common concept in psychology occurs when we re-evaluate a situation, often viewing it in a positive light, rather than a negative frame of mind. Next time you experience a problem during a run (your watch battery dies, you run out of water, or you get off-trail), try to see it as a challenge you can rise to and learn from, rather than a threat you’re up against. Whether encountered in a race, training, or everyday life, this technique can help you overcome obstacles with greater ease and confidence.

RELATED: How To Connect Long-Term Goals To Your Daily Runs

Technique 4: Perform a ritual.

While a ritual is standardly defined as a fixed set of behaviors infused with meaning, Kross refers to it as “a chatter-reducing cocktail that influences us through several avenues.” As Kross notes, the power of a ritual lies in its ability to direct our attention away from what’s bothering us. By placing a higher demand on our working memory to carry out the tasks of the ritual, we leave little room for anxiety and negative manifestations of the inner voice. Your race-day ritual could take many forms, and you probably already have one – practicing a pre-race warmup routine, repeating a mantra as you pass each mile marker, or perhaps a method of hydration and fueling. The more you can create some semblance of order (whether it be in your brain, physically, or both), the better chance you have of maintaining a clear mind and negating the unproductive chatter that may arise. 

One technique I have used is running for 1-2 minutes, followed by hiking for 1-2 minutes when going up a steep incline. One of my athletes dedicates each mile of her races to a friend or family member, often with a mantra or special meaning to accompany them. While not necessarily traditional mental techniques, these help break up the run and focus on something else, other than the swirling thoughts in our minds.

(Photo: Cam Adams/Unsplash)

Technique 5: Build your chatter board. 

Have you ever been sucked into a spiral of negative thoughts during a race, only to have your next crew member or running buddy help you out? A major reason we have crew, coaches, pacers, and training partners isn’t just for shoving snacks into our faces when we refuse to eat, watching us puke, or slapping on anti-chafe cream (as nice as that is). Beyond these important roles, they cheer us on and help maintain our mental game. 

Research suggests that the more people you can recruit from different domains (think: running and strength coach, training partners, nutritionist, physical therapist, chiropractor, mental health professional) to provide unique insight into your situation, the stronger support network you have to improve your mental game, as your needs are more fully taken care of. Consulting experts in each of these areas gives you the information and knowledge to shut down that internal chatter that says you can’t do it. Let these people know they’re a part of your “chatter board” and see where it takes you.

RELATED: The Science Behind How Elite Runners Train

Putting together our chatterbox

Now that we’ve normalized pep talking yourself through each mile, performing pre-race rituals (no matter how odd they might be), and calling that gnarly, soul-sucking 24-hour race a “challenge,” remember that no amount of physical training can replace mental prep. Next time you hit a rough patch, remember Kross’s words: “our inner voice can be both a liability and an asset. The words streaming through our heads can unravel us, but they can also drive us toward meaningful accomplishments…if we know how to control them.” Make it a point to share some kinder words with yourself and channel your inner chatter into a superpower. 

For more on these tips and tools, check out Ethan Kross’s latest book, Chatter, as well as his “Chatter Toolbox ” PDF on www.ethankross.com.

Megan Flanagan is a UESCA certified running coach, strength coach, and ACE certified personal trainer with her Master’s of Public Health. She founded Strong Runner Chicks, a running community and online platform dedicated to educate, empower, and connect women. As an avid trail runner and coach, she is part of the Trail Runner Coach Concierge Team and loves connecting with athletes from all over the world. You can connect with her at www.meginspire.com or www.strongrunnerchicks.com