Mental Training for Trail Running: Getting Out of Your Own Way
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Have you ever signed up for a race, only to find yourself struggling to stick with your training plan? That’s the situation in which I found myself several years ago after registering for a notoriously tough 50-mile trail race in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Halfway through my five-month training plan, my motivation for five-hour trail runs every Saturday and Sunday took a nosedive.
The importance I’d placed on finishing in less than 13 hours—an ambitious goal given its high altitude and rough terrain—created pressure that soon wore me down and deflated my enthusiasm for training. As self doubt and fear derailed my confidence, I was barely running at all.
My problem was relying on a lofty race goal for motivation.
Be Careful About Eye on the Prize
Sports psychologists have long understood that being overly goal oriented, as I was, can be de-motivating because of the performance pressure it creates. This is exacerbated by the lack of control you can feel over your ability to achieve your goal.
Shifting your attention from a goal to the process of working toward a goal transforms the experience of preparing for something like an important race. The reason process is so powerful is that it requires focus on daily, incremental actions that take you closer to your desired outcome. Being process oriented does not mean continuous improvement. Expect ups and downs. But know that days when running feels hard or crappy are still steps along your journey to mastering the process, rather than a benchmark of your degree of improvement (or lack thereof).
You’ll know you’re truly engaged in the process if you find the experience of training fun. That’s right: joy is a key indicator of efficacy. A study published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in 2012 revealed that enjoyment largely accounted for why process-oriented subjects exercised on average 32-percent longer than the goal-oriented exercisers. They kept at it longer because they found the workouts fun.
Practice Being Process Oriented
What specific training practices and behaviors are necessary for achieving your goals? Make a list of the workout types, frequency, mileage and terrain, days off, etc. you feel you should be doing to reach your goal.
Then scrutinize that list and ask yourself if doing all these things is sustainable and enjoyable. Does it feel realistic, given your lifestyle, available time, energy level and other factors?
If it doesn’t, determine what would be more realistic. Tweak the frequency, duration or intensity of your runs to better align with everything else in your life. Zero in on the one or two aspects of your running that are most vital to achieving your goal.
In hindsight, in preparing for my Colorado 50-miler, I would have found it more sustainable to do one long, slow run with lots of uphill hiking combined with shorter runs on weekdays, rather than what I thought I needed to do, which was several tough and long workouts each week.
Being process-oriented also gives you an internal locus of control that you don’t have if you’re always thinking about some lofty goal, which means relying on your inner resources such as strength, experience and motivation to keep you on track even when challenges or setbacks arise.
Solidify Your Commitment to Process
To reinforce your commitment to process, set an intention for each run that reminds you of its deeper purpose. How do you want this run to feel? What kind of running experience would make it rewarding today? Given how you feel today (charged up or tired?), what kind of run would serve you best?
With a clear idea of how you want the run to feel, your intention can be a simple declaration such as: Today, I run _______ so that I feel _______.
Elinor Fish is creator of the Mindful Running Training System and leads women’s mindful running retreats around the world through her Colorado-based company, Run Wild Retreats + Wellness.