Mind over Matter

Header image - woman in exercise clothes looking over some hills with the ordinary runner logo on top

Brain Power

Running isn’t a physical activity. It’s a mental activity that you do physically.

Sure, other parts of your body are involved, but your brain does the hard work.

As often quoted: “Running is nothing more than a series of arguments between the part of your brain that wants to stop and the part that wants to keep going.” (Apologies for the lack of inspirational image.)

No mention of legs, heart or lungs – it’s all about your brain.

Think back to the final hundred meters of your parkrun PB. Everything ached. Your legs screamed with fatigue while your lungs cried for oxygen. Your heart felt like it might burst out of your chest.

But somewhere within, you found the strength to push on. It was primal. Instinctive. Possibly even an evolutionary throw back.

When you crossed the line, achieving that shiny new time, your brain surged with endorphins, showering you with its reward.

Of course, you needed physical fitness to reach the finish. But it was your mind that got you there.

Mental Strength

The above scenario, where you fought through the pain on your way to a PB – that’s the exception.

That’s not to say you don’t often try hard. But it’s not every week you push all the way to a new personal best.

When you start running (or start racing), PBs are easier to come by. As your fitness improves, so do your times.

It’s a great feeling. One you should embrace.

But, eventually, you plateau. Sooner or later you reach the point where a PB calls for a deliberate effort.

You need a day when everything feels right. The conditions are good. You’re physically fit. And, crucially, your mind is in the right place.

By this stage your times are already better than you’d ever considered.

That doesn’t count for much, though. You want more. Faster. Longer. Better.

You’ve mastered the 5k; time for 10. How about a half? Why not sign up for a marathon? Hey, isn’t there a thing called an “ultra”?

Runners show mental strength as they pass the York Minster
Image credit – Andy Falconer Photography – Unsplash

We keep pushing ourselves. And the more we push, the more mental strength we need.

But how do we get that strength?

The truth is, if you’re a runner, you already have it. Some of it, at least.

Remember when you started and could barely manage five minutes? You probably felt like giving up, but you didn’t. You kept going. Each run an improvement. Your distance slowly building. Until you managed a mile, then 5k, then… you get the idea.

Yes, your physical fitness improved, which allowed your body to go further. But, much like they did to your body, those runs also trained your brain and improved your mental fitness.

The next stage is learning how to tap into that strength when you need it most.

Tips and tricks

Whether you’re naturally brimming with positivity or beset by self-doubt, there are days when you feel mentally strong and days when you don’t.

If a “don’t” day coincides with a race, it can feel like the end of the world. All that training, only to line up weighed down by negativity. You think, what’s the point? You might as well give up and go home.

But don’t go just yet. There are techniques to access the mental fitness that you gained throughout your training.

After all, no one lines up for a 50 mile race believing their physical training is enough on its own. It takes some impressive mental gymnastics to prepare for those distances. And probably even more mental agility to push through the pain.

Okay, ultra runners aren’t exactly ordinary runners. But we can borrow techniques from the elites, as well as using a few of our own, to push us through those challenging runs.

You better smile

Eliud Kipchoge shows his mental strength, running with his trademark smile
Eliud Kipchoge’s trademark smile

I keep coming back to this, yet rarely use it myself. However, if it’s good enough for Eliud Kipchoge, it’s good enough for the rest of us: smile!

It’s a physical trick with mental benefits. According to science, we use less oxygen when running with a smile, which makes us more efficient. Plus, our perceived effort decreases when smiling, compared with frowning.

What’s more, “When we make a facial expression, we may experience the emotional state we associate with the expression.” Smiling makes us feel happier by association. If we feel happier when we run, we’ll relax into the run and enjoy it more.

Relaxed running takes less effort and improves our efficiency. It also helps us recover and avoid injury.

All that, from a simple smile.

Start on the right foot

“I never stand on the start line thinking: am I going to do this?”

Susie Chan
Sprinter bursting out of the blocks on a running track
Credit – Nicolas Hoizey – Unsplash

If you haven’t listened to the Running Commentary podcast, I strongly recommend it. There’s no better place to start than this episode, staring ultra runner, Susie Chan.

She talks about her “arsenal of positive thoughts” and about approaching a race with the right attitude.

Importantly, they discuss the need to believe you can reach the end – even if you doubt yourself.

Key to that is to trust your training.

If you’ve put the miles in before the race, you can persuade your legs that they have what it takes.

Having that knowledge in your arsenal is powerful and can help you start on the right foot.

But sometimes you need a little extra boost, which can be found in some simple visualisation techniques.


The three parts to this video offer some useful visualisation tips.

The methods in the video above sound great. But they might be out of reach for some of us Ordinary Runners. Instead, there are simpler techniques to help lift our performance.

As you stand at the start, nervous, excited, uncertain, close your eyes and imagine crossing the finish line. Not just visually – try to “feel” the experience. The elation, the emotion, the celebration.

Let your heart rate rise a little. Feel the anticipation build in your chest. Embrace the butterflies tickling your insides.

You haven’t taken a step yet, but your brain is rewarding you with endorphins. Breathe deep. Enjoy the sensation. And smile.

If things get tough during the race, you can always come back to that feeling (maybe don’t close your eyes, though).

Break it down

A little in-race visualisation can be helpful, but if things get really tough, the end may seem way out of reach.

It can be overwhelming. Whether you’re straining for a 5k PB or dragging exhausted legs through the second half of a marathon.

In this case, you can trick your brain into giving mini rewards by breaking the run into smaller sections.

Let’s take the half marathon distance as an example.

A half marathon is a short warmup followed by four parkruns. To break it down even more – a parkrun is just three individual miles.

You’ve run a mile before. In fact, if you’re running a half marathon, even three miles doesn’t seem too bad. And once you’ve run three miles, that’s your first parkrun done.

Each smaller distance is a milestone and every milestone deserves its reward.

If you’ve trained well, you’ll be a couple of parkruns into your race before you even need a mental boost. By then, you’ve only got two (and a bit) parkruns to go.

The same basic principle can be applied to any run.

When I first started, I would spot objects in the distance and convince myself to continue until I reached them.

Each tree, lamppost, or parked car was another reward for my determination. And each time I pushed further, my body and brain were trained to run that extra distance.

From humble beginnings I developed the mental strength to run further than I’d ever imagined.

If I ever take on the marathon distance, I expect that same technique will come in very handy again.

Anything else?

I’m sure there are many other mental tricks to help us run further and faster.

Do you have any others that work for you? Or do you use any of the ones I’ve spoken about here?

Share your thoughts in the comments – we can all benefit from a little running inspiration.

Header image – Morgan Inspired on Unsplash