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Mental Training

Harness The Power Of Cognitive Associations For Better Trail Running

When is that a super power and when is it standing in the way of your goals?

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One of the human skills that allows us to effectively and efficiently move through the world is making associations. Associations are the mental connections we make between events, scenarios, concepts, experiences, and mental states.

This is how we learn and make memories and most of the time, it’s a very valuable skill. If we didn’t have the ability to make quick associations, interacting with the world around us would take a lot more time and cognitive energy. For example, when you’re out cruising along a trail you know that more technical and steep terrain is associated a higher risk of injury from a fall than smooth and buffed out singletrack. Naturally, we take a little more caution, pay closer attention to foot placement, and slow down the pace to account for the increased risk. That’s an example of an association productively serving its purpose by appropriately impacting your behavior in a certain context. 

As humans, we remember that specific situations bring certain experiences and, depending on how pleasant or unpleasant, we can seek or avoid them. We can learn how to interact and engage with others based on previous experience with similar relationship contexts. You’re most likely not going to have the same dynamic with your boss as you do with your best friend. Associations are all around us and you are subconsciously making connections all day long as a guide for behaviors and decisions. 

Associations are important and incredibly useful. However, they can quickly become detrimental when the are faulty or your brain has made dysfunctional or false associations between two things. This is a concept that plays out a lot in the realm of mental performance. Consider superstitions or rituals. I’ve heard athletes say things like “I have to eat chicken carbonara the night before a race or I won’t do well.” Or, it can show up as an unpleasant physiological experience in the form of extreme pre-race anxiety if your brain has made an association between competing and having a negative racing experience. 

The trap extends even further when we continue to believe the association resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy scenario where we collect more evidence of the faulty belief, strengthening the association, and repeating the cycle. If you have examined your own life and the challenges you face on the trail, here a few tips for correcting faulty associations and replacing them with new, productive ones. 

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Examine your associations. 

Sometimes correcting unproductive associations is as simple as self-awareness. Think about some of the associations that exist in your running life. Mentally lay them all out and feel empowered knowing that you get to decide which ones get to stay and which ones have to go. Ask yourself questions like – Is this association serving me? Is this association actually a logical one? Can I find evidence to suggest that this association isn’t accurate? This process will help you identify some of the personal barriers that might be showing up for you. Once you’re aware of the unproductive associations, next time the stimulus pops up you can decide to implement a new behavior. Over time, a new, productive association will be made. 


Association  Validity of Association New Desired Association Implementation Plan
What is the association you want to change? What is the behavior that accompanies the association that you want to change? Is the association valid? Is it serving you?  What new association do you want to make? What is the desired behavior that accompanies that association? What are tangible ways that you can implement this new association?
Ex. When my legs don’t feel great or my nutrition turns, I associate that with my race being over. I don’t even consider the possibility that things could turn around and I feel defeated and throw in the towel.  Ex. How I’m feeling and how successfully I am fuelling does have an impact on performance. But, just because I hit a low doesn’t mean I can’t come out of it. My current thought process results in a very negative and pessimistic mindset which ultimately does lead to a poor performance.   Ex. I want to associate those uncomfortable physical sensations as actionable feedback rather than evidence of a bad race. I want to use the information to problem-solve and maintain the optimism and confidence that things could get better.  Ex. I will write out “if,then” statements for the different scenarios that could happen. “If my food and fluids aren’t going down well, then I’ll take a few extra minutes at the next aid station to sit down and sip and nimble and let my stomach settle.” In the week or so before the race I will incorporate those statements into an imagery script to make my desired response more familiar. 


Create intentional associations. 


Another strategy is to find the stimulus that you currently have an unproductive association with, and create a new association. For example, if in the past it may have been triggering if a local rival showed up at a race because your thought process could have been “Great, she’s here. She always beats me.” Instead, you can create the new association of “Great, my rival is here. I know she’s going to push me to my best performance, today.” With that new approach you have taken something viewed as a threat and turned it into an opportunity. Some athletes experience the physiological sensations of pre-race nerves and attach them to a negative meaning – doubt, worry, anxiety. Instead, you can associate those same physiological symptoms with a positive meaning – excitement, eagerness, anticipation. Remember Christmas Eve when you were a kid? It felt a lot like  pre-race nerves except we labeled it as a positive experience and memory and not a negative one. 

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Rehearse the new associations. 

You don’t have to wait until race day to start utilizing your new associations. You can practice them, making your brain familiar with the stimulus and how it should respond before it is actually confronted with it. Imagery and visualization are great tools for this. Write an imagery script that involves vividly experiencing the context or scenario that involves the unproductive association. Instead, see yourself responding to the stimulus in the desired way. Continuing to rehearse the new association will strengthen it and eventually it will take the place of the previous one. 

Acknowledge how useful and helpful it has that our brains have the ability to make memories, archive experiences, and create associations to help us navigate the world. But, it’s important to simultaneously appreciate the self-awareness that we posses, perhaps the most important super power of all. With that self-awareness you get examine your behaviors and decide whether or not you want to implement new ones. Don’t relinquish the ability to take charge of your mind rather than letting it take charge of you.