There are approximately 640 muscles in the human body, and running uses most of them. We train each and every one of those muscles pretty darn hard to make sure they’re up to the task, subjecting ourselves to endless squats, lunges, and crunches, not to mention all those hill repeats and interval workouts! But there’s one muscle that’s routinely overlooked in most runners’ training, and I would even argue that it’s the most important one of all: your MIND. Sure, it’s not the most glamorous muscle (and I guess, technically, it’s not actually a muscle at all), but, without proper training, you might end up sitting on the couch every weekend, binge-watching Orange is the New Black instead of running your best race. Why? Because your mind makes the decision of whether to sleep in or get up early for your run, whether to run faster or slow down, whether to add an extra mile or quit early. Without a strong running mind, your quads are useless. Don’t believe me? Here’s what a properly trained brain can do for your running performance:
- Build neuromuscular pathways Your brain controls your muscles, and it becomes more efficient with repetition. This means that practicing an activity makes you better at it. You can leverage this power by running drills (high knees, skipping, sprints, etc.) to build strong neuromuscular connections that will, eventually, become automatic when you run.
- Tell the difference between discomfort and pain. New exercisers often confuse these two terms, making them more likely to quit early for fear of hurting themselves. On the other hand, the old adage, “no pain, no gain”, has led too many people to push through the pain straight to injury . Knowing the difference between the two – I mean really understanding how these different sensations feel in your body – can help you decide whether you should respond to uncomfortable bodily sensations by stopping, slowing down, or pushing on through.
- Get you up and running when you’d rather stay in bed. Your mind always wants to take the path of least resistance. When the alarm goes off at 5am, it will rifle quickly through a rolodex of excuses, giving you a long list of valid reasons to stay in bed. Treat your morning brain like a toddler – gently but firmly say, “no”. Give it one small, easy, task (just get dressed) and then move on to the next (just put your shoes on) and then the next (just walk out the door) – you’ll be running before you even know it.
- Recover from a bad run. Make no mistake, you will have days when running doesn’t feel great. It doesn’t mean that anything’s wrong with you, it just happens. Sometimes you’ll be able to figure out why, other times you’ll never know. When you realize and accept this fact, you can put your mind to work on things that are more productive (and less painful) than self-criticism.
- Learn from your mistakes (and successes!) and adapt. Sometimes a bad run can actually teach you a thing or two. When you’re able to get over feeling upset that a run didn’t go as planned, you can objectively assess the situation and see whether there’s something you could do differently in the future. Conversely, an awesome run can teach you a few things too! After you’re done basking in how amazing you are, take some time to think about why this run was so great. Was it a different pre-run snack? A longer warm up than usual? Understanding the factors that impact your performance, both positive and negative, will help you becoming a stronger, happier, more consistent runner. And isn’t that what we all want?
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