This week Fast Running’s Hannah Irwin talks to athletes about the mental side of training and racing

We all play mind games at times. Whether we are trying to break down our Sunday long run, get through a tough session, or push ourselves in a race. There are plenty of different methods athletes employ. These help us to keep pushing when it hurts most, or when our mind isn’t quite feeling it.

Different tactics work for different people and they can vary significantly depending on the distance you are training for. Undoubtedly, a 24-hour track runner is likely to have a lot more mind games up their sleeve than a 1500m runner!

When it all just flows.

On the easy days, it’s simple. We just run and absolutely nothing goes through our heads. We are able to lock onto the session or race we are in and become completely consumed by it. Our heads don’t seem to get distracted by the pain or what else we have to do in the day.

We are completely fixated on getting the job done to the best of our ability. On days like this, motivation is sky high and it feels as though you are flying. Unfortunately, these days don’t come very often, and you can’t always choose when they do arrive.

Other days, it isn’t quite so simple, and your mind struggles to shut off. Before you have even started the session, you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by what needs to be done. If we all caved in and accepted defeat every time our mind told us it was difficult and hurts or we weren’t feeling intensely motivated we wouldn’t get much running banked at all.

For me, for shorter sessions and races there is sometimes less need for mind games, you are too busy thinking about race tactics and giving your all. The distance is over before you have had time to register what you are doing. This isn’t necessarily the same for the longer distances. For marathon and ultra-runners there is a lot more time available for your mind to acknowledge what is going on, so you may need to employ more mind tricks to get through those extra miles.

Enjoyment is key.

For some, the trick is simply enjoyment. The best way to trick your mind on those longer runs, tough sessions or important races, is to enjoy what you are doing and remember all the hard work you have put in thus far. If you remind yourself that you are doing this because you love the sport, it won’t seem such a chore on the days you feel demotivated. Think of all the countless times your love for the sport has been your driving force to keep going and, push on.

GB Marathoner, Charlotte Purdue, says this is exactly how she targets training and racing. It is the pure enjoyment that carries her through.

“Usually I just think of all the hard training I’ve done to get me to the race and that helps me push through the harder patches. In training I don’t really do anything specific, I just enjoy pushing myself mostly!”

Bargain with yourself.

Marathon expert and 50k world record holder, Aly Dixon, knows all about mind games. She has plenty of tried and tested methods that work for her. Dixon resorts to bargaining with herself and preparing mantras for the unavoidable tough patches to come in a race.

“In training I often find myself making deals with myself. I’ll say run another lap at X pace and you can stop or one more rep at X pace. I rarely do stop because I’m stubborn and unless I’m really struggling to hit pace or if there is someone there to tell me to stop, I will keep on going.

It happens more in long runs, especially ones over 20 miles. I normally start these already tired so can feel rubbish from early doors. It becomes a fight of head over legs. Again, my go to strategy for coping is to make deals – just get 18 done then we’ll call it a day and go and get my favourite brunch. I’ll also run routes where I’ve got no choice but to carry on like an out and back so once I’ve bargained my way to 12 miles I’ve got to cover another 12 to get home and then it’s just a case of knowing that every step you take is one step closer to home.

Competitive stimulus.

Because the shorter stuff hurts way more than the longer marathon focussed sessions – give me a 15-mile tempo over 5 x 1k any day!! On faster stuff I’ll imagine my rivals are either chasing me or are just up ahead. I’ll have to get away or chase them down. I’ll even do the commentary in my head and before I know it I’m powering through and making the break or catching someone with 5 meters to go. I’ve even been known to throw my hands in the air celebrating, I’ve been so caught up in my imaginary race!!

Fore marathons I have a mantra prepared for the tough spots. There will be at least one tough section in every marathon so going in prepared with something I can chant to myself helps to overcome that.

The mantra can change from race to race and can be anything from left foot, right foot to get this sh*t done. It takes my mind off the pain elsewhere and gets me back into the rhythm I need. Another trick is to just focus on the mile you are currently running. Get through that, it’s just 5m30s of running. Then the next one 5m40s and so on. It’s amazing how quickly the miles can pass like that.

I try not to think crap I’ve still got X amount if miles to go or I’ve only done X amount as that can draw negative thoughts. I always try my best to remain as positive as possible and if I can, smile! A lot of people comment on me always smiling and being jolly when I race – that’s my way of combatting the pain – the human brain cant compute the two conflicting emotions of happiness and pain at once so if you can genuinely smile it overrides the pain you are feeling.”

Photo: Virgin Money London Marathon

Play the game.

Sometimes the best way to prevent your mind from drifting off into a place of overthinking is to distract it with little mind games. If you are training with others you can work with them to test different race tactics, giving each rep a focus, so your mind doesn’t home in on the discomfort. You can also employ this tactic if you are training alone. You may say to yourself, every 200m (depending on your rep length) you are going to put in a surge as if you are overtaking or  try picking up a gear slightly earlier than usual. This can help take the focus away from the number of reps still to go.

British 800m runner, Kyle Langford, treats both sessions and races as a game.

“Whether it’s racing or training I like to treat everything as a game. When training with other athletes I like to put myself in bad situations similar to racing or try different tactics each rep, I enjoy the challenge of figuring out the puzzle of racing.”


For Ali Young, GB 24-hour runner, it is a bit of a different story compared to the shorter distances. Young says it is intrigue, visualisation and sheer determination that get her through those tough patches in racing and training. Ali told us about how she tackles ‘speed’ (endurance for a lot of us!) work compared to ultra-distances.

“If I reflect on the 10km time trials I picked to do on Wednesday, as it is a ‘weak link’ distance for me, I’ll ask myself, what got me through? I’ve done all of my speed work on the treadmill in the last few months so I was a little worried ‘could I actually run fast outside again?’

It might sound silly but the last decent paced run outside was the final parkrun before lockdown. I had a rough idea of the time I ‘wanted’ but had zero idea if it was possible. In a fast pace distance, it is often just sheer determination that gets me through. If it’s parkrun I’m always determined for sub 20 for example and some weeks, it kills me to do so!! A big factor too is visualising how it will feel when I finish if I achieve my goal.


So, on Wednesday, I knew if I could just keep working hard, I would gain so much confidence to move forward into training and future races (whenever they might be!) if I achieved my pace goal. Also, having a coach to be accountable to helps… you want to be able to report success – not of course that they would judge me on failure that’s for sure.

So, it’s all about being in the moment as I sprint the streets, telling myself ‘it is worth it, it will feel so good if I can achieve my goal. It shows all the hard work in training has paid off and I want to avoid disappointment which could turn into low confidence

For ultra-marathons, I have very similar thought patterns. Of course, your mind slips between one emotion and the next every minute over a 24 hour period. I also know when I take up a challenge that ‘I will complete it’ there is no way I would drop out even when I feel s***!!

Of course, I don’t really know how an ultra will unfold, but I have an inner belief to start with. There is also ‘intrigue’ involved – ‘can I do this? how will it feel to go so far?’ etc. But overall what drives me is Inner belief, determination, visualising end result & what that will mean.”

Photo: Ali Young

Breaking it down.

For Emily Hosker-Thornhill, the 2019 English National XC winner with multiple GB vests to her name, it is all about breaking sessions and races into manageable chunks. This approach is definitely one that a lot of us rely on to make potentially daunting runs less overwhelming. Hosker-Thornhill says,

“When it comes to tough grass sessions, I try to zone out until the last like 60 seconds or 30 seconds of the rep and then I count backwards! It always helps. But for races, I just try and get through each chunk of the race. Whether it’s track or xc, aim for X amount of laps, or X place on the course.

And then at the back of my mind I always think, well sometimes I feel rubbish at the start and get a second wind. It has happened a lot in sessions and races, so I always keep that in my mind, that I could feel better soon, and you don’t know how the race will finish or what will happen so it’s always worth keeping going!”

There are plenty of other tactics athletes employ to get each day of training ticked off, no matter what their mood or state of motivation. You never know, some of these might work for you.

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