An Introduction To Mental Training And Mindset For Runners – Part I

Today I start a new series on Mindset and Mental Training For Runners.  This is a very broad and complex area, but mindset is important not only in our running, but in other areas of our lives.

Each episode will cover one or two aspects of mental training and mindset, from why we struggle with things like procrastination, lack of motivation, difficulty establishing or maintaining healthy habits but also why we have a hard time pushing through situations that require mental toughness.

Some of the things we will cover over the next several episodes:

  • Why our brain is the most important muscle we need to train. (Yeah, I know technically the brain isn’t a muscle, but it does need exercise.)
  • Turning intention into actual action. (This is huge, for example, how many times did we intend to eat healthy but failed?)
  • How to climb out of a rut and get your fitness program back on track.
  • How to deal with procrastination so you actually work out when you planned to.
  • Willpower, what it is and how to address periods of low willpower
  • How to break the cycle of fatigue and low energy.
  • How to find time to train or eat healthy.
  • How to deal with anxiety leading up to a race or other competition.
  • How to build mental toughness so you can press on during challenging times.
  • How to build confidence and self-esteem.
  • How to develop successful routines and habits.
  •  How to utilize mental imagery and visualization to improve performance.

Most episodes will have an action item at the end of each one to put what you learn into action. I am fired up to give you a framework that will apply not just to running but to other areas of your life.

If you think mental training is well, not that important, please listen to this episode, I think you will see the scope of its impact on us and how this series can help, but even more so once we get into the individual topics because those will be the ones where we get into the juicy details.

Still don’t think it is important? Consider this.

The United States brought 8 Sport Psychologists to the Sochi Olympics.

Virtually every college, national, professional and Olympic sports team has a sports psychologist on staff, and countless individual college, Olympic and professional athletes work closely with sports psychology consultants.

As you will hear in a minute, mental training and mindset is a differentiator.

Why Runners Should Focus on Mental Training and Mindset

Over the last year, I have immersed myself into mental side of training.

One thing that I have been really struggling with as a coach is observing the habits of many of the people I come across from day to day. You’ll recognize these types of people or you may recognize a little bit of yourself in some of them.

At my office, we have a biannual program called the Healthy Weight Challenge. We use fitbits and track weight loss or muscle gained depending on each individual’s selected goal and then our company sponsors us with prizes, health and wellness training and so on.

When you see the number of people who sign up vs. the people who actually participate or are still participating after a couple of weeks, it is shocking.  Few people make it to the end.

How many times have you heard or even said:

“I wish I could eat better”

“I wish I could be a runner”

“I wish I could stick with my training plan or nutrition plan”

“I wish I could eat healthier but I keep giving in to late-night snacks”

“I wish I could get out of bed in the morning to go for a run”

These are all things we hear, and in many cases, we all struggle with. I know I struggle with many of them.

What about willpower? How does that play into all this? Procrastination? Time Management? Emotions? Fatigue?

Firing a Client for Poor Mental Mindset and Training Habits

A year and a half ago, I coached a guy for about a month, and I need to be careful how much I share, but this athlete had amazing talent. Natural talent because he was relatively new to running (under two years) yet had amazing speed and endurance.  He wasn’t at the elite level, but I think he could have been right up there with those who are just below the elite level if he wanted to be.

He was local and a privately coached athlete. Unfortunately, I had to fire him as a client.

While he had amazing talent, he lacked motivation. He did not do the workouts. He made excuses. He did OK physically, but nowhere near his ability. He didn’t want it. He didn’t want to work for it. He thought he did. He just had poor habits.

He would go out with friends until late hours the night before I was to meet with him. He showed up late and even failed to show once. So I fired him.

I told him that I was not going to waste my time anymore and that he would be better off finding someone else. He was a really nice guy and he did pay my fees. I could have just kept taking his money, but since he would not follow through, I did not want him to be a poster child of my coaching abilities.

If had I realized the importance of the mental training at the time, maybe it would have been different. Maybe I could have helped him more, so I can’t totally blame it 100% on him but the point is natural, physical talent isn’t enough.

The mind makes the body move. Always. There is no other way.


And then we have the other side of the spectrum.

People who get so into something, like running, or exercise, or maybe their diet, that they take things to the extremes. So while being disciplined or self-driven is great, it can be overdone as well, can’t it? These are all things that mental training and mindset can help address.

The Zone

Another area when it comes to mental training and mindset is ‘THE ZONE’.

What does it mean to be in the zone? Elite athletes refer to it on occasion but what is it. The best way to define it is to describe it.

Few would argue that NFL quarterbacks have probably one of the hardest jobs on the planet. They have to identify the look the defense is giving them, call or make adjustments to the play, and then within 2 seconds, interpret what the defense is doing based on the look given by the defense and what the defense actually does.  All this while several 300+ pound monsters come charging at them, not to mention the fact that tens of thousands of fans are watching not including the millions on TV. You have to have thick skin to deal with the pressure.

Quarterbacks coming out of college often describe how going to the NFL is a whole new level of speed and quickness. They describe how fast the game is, but the ones who are successful also describe how the game seems to slow down almost like it is in slow motion for that few brief seconds. And then BAM! SPLAT!, a 300 lb defensive end sacks them because all the receivers were covered.

But the point is this.

Everyone who made it to the NFL or even the collegiate level had great athletic and physical skills. They can all lift heavy weights, run great 40 yard dash times, and all have physical talent. But those who rise above the others have something else. They have an amazing work ethic, drive, self-belief systems, the ability to overcome diversity. Generally speaking, they have mastered the mental game in their own minds.

So a thought may have just popped in your head… We aren’t professional athletes so what does that mean for the rest of us? Well, let me ask you this.

The Definition of an Athlete

What is your definition of an athlete? Is an athlete a high school, college or pro athlete? What about middle school? What about the little league? Being an athlete isn’t just measured by being good? Ever watch a T-Ball game? Defining what an athlete is is not clear cut.

Let me ask you this.

Do you consider yourself an athlete? Why or why not?

How you answer that depends on your mindset. We’ll come back to this in the future. But how you think as a runner, as a person, as someone who is trying to be the best they can be or even just trying to get better, this stuff is important. However, most of us ignore it or squirrel it away in the back of our minds somewhere in the back where we store silly facts in the event we ever get selected to be on a game show.

But somewhere along the way, there has to be a place for each of us to find our sweet spot. A place where we are consistent and confident in what we do, where we enjoy doing what we do and where we do it in a healthy way so we can reach our peak level of performance. The challenge is, we all have parts of it, we just rarely have all cylinders firing at the same time….

All this ties back to the mental game.

So how do we make changes in our lives, or push ourselves when we need to push ourselves or strive to be better and have it all be something more than just words coming out of our mouth? How does all this translate into anything meaningful and more than just psychobabble and meaningless ‘feel good’ rhetoric?

During my injury time off, I spent many, many, many Saturday mornings and Wednesday evenings (18 months to be exact) while my running club was out on their run and I was waiting for them to get back.I reflected on how many of us struggle with consistency, the frustrations of being injured, lack of time, fear, self-confidence, fatigue, the pursuit of perfection and a bazillion other things that often pops into our minds. So many of these things are detrimental to us and get in our way of optimizing not only our training but how we go about life.

I had this a-ha moment, that if I had continued to stay healthy, I may not have had. The mental side of training went mostly ignored. I mean we all talk about it, but do we ever really do anything?

As runners, I would estimate that 95% of our focus is on the physical side of running. We focus so much on the physical fitness side, the training, the cross-training, the actual pounding the pavement or the trails all seeking the improvement that will make us better runners.

But what if I told you, that we are missing the boat.

There is a physical component, there absolutely is. But what if I told you as runners, as recreational athletes, we are holding ourselves back because we aren’t dealing with our minds. We are often our own worst enemies. We relentlessly pursue what our bodies can or should be doing, but leave the mind behind in the hopes that, well,  “if I experience a little more pain or suffering, if I push myself a little bit harder here and there, then maybe my mental toughness will get a little stronger as a result”.

Then there are others of us, who consistently sandbag it. We don’t push ourselves, we get complacent, lazy, or we make excuses. Usually, there is something deeper. Under the covers.  Not always, but usually.

Most of the time, we spend our time across both spectrums. There are times when our mindset allows us to push hard, and other times where we fight it out with our brain. And crazy enough, it can even occur in the same run, just minutes apart.

How is Our Mindset Wired into our Minds and Can It Be Changed?

As humans, our existence is messy in a lot of ways. We have personal situations, work situations, families, good things that happen to us, bad things that happen to us, we are sometimes surrounded by people who knock us down, but then we have others around us who pick us up.

So many things go into what ultimately builds our mindset and its impact on the mental aspects of training.

What if I told you that how we see ourselves, what we think about ourselves, what we think of others around us, how we view physical fitness or our own body image including how we are wired in terms of personality or how we choose to spend our time physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally, directly determines how we perform.


We each have a psychological core. Our psychological core is our most basic, the deepest component of our personality. It contains our attitudes, values, interests, and motives. It contains your beliefs about yourself and your self-worth. It makes up the “real you” not what you want others to think about you.

We need to examine this area honestly, as painful as it may be if we want to understand how we behave as we do.

Then we have the way we typically respond to things. Our typical responses are how we behave most of the time. Not all the time, most of the time. It is the behavior that shows us and others the essence of who we are.

For example, we may be primarily introverted or extroverted. Let’s say for the purpose of this example, you are an introvert.  Even as an introvert you may be extroverted at times.  Generally speaking, you tend to be introverted. most often, but maybe when you are around your closest friends you act more extroverted.  We will come back to this later but for now, just understand that we have some built-in behavioral patterns that develop over time that become a part of how you typically will respond to things.

Finally, we have role-related behaviors and that is when your behavior or actions change when the situation or perception of the situation changes. (Keynote on perception, we’ll explore this further in an upcoming episode).

An example of this is how you perform under pressure vs. doing the exact same thing when you are not under pressure.  Or maybe you have a tendency to sleep in on Saturday mornings instead of going to your running club’s group run yet you have no problems being able to attend evening runs.

It is the situation and its impact on your mindset that comes about in certain conditions.

The good news is that this type of behavior is the easiest part of our personality to change and when we learn what type of things triggers certain behaviors, it makes for easier change. In one of the first couple of episodes, we will explore these triggers and identify how we can stop them before they can cause harm.

For me, late-night TV often leads to a big bowl of buttery popcorn. It is one of my triggers. Knowing to avoid late-night TV (and instead DVR’ing my shows), I remove the trigger of late-night TV and thus avoid eating a big bowl of popcorn. If I watch TV earlier in the day (like weekends), I have more willpower to resist.

Willpower is like a muscle, it gets tired and you only get so much use of it each day.

I will spend a whole episode on WillPower and how we can really increase our success as runners in a future episode.

This Week’s Action Item: Mindset Inventory

So here is the action item that I want you to do and please, please do not skip this step or all this is a waste of time. I want this to really be helpful for you and be something you can take action on. So get a couple of blank sheets of paper, or better yet, get a small journal. If you don’t have one, use paper for now, but get yourself a small journal because what you write down will be used for some time if you follow through the series. We will be building on these over the course of several episodes.

On one piece of paper, I want you to think about what feelings you frequently struggle with. Don’t worry, nobody’s going to psychoanalyze you, in fact, it is outside of my pay range and only you will see it anyways. But it is important to take an inventory of what primary feelings you struggle with. In fact, if it helps, I’ll run through some to give you an idea. Now we all have these at one time or another so don’t write every feeling you ever had down, just write them down if they jump out at you as being something that you notice you have tendencies towards. I’ll tell you what to do with them in another episode.

Here we go:

  • Overwhelm
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Sadness
  • Shame
  • Self Judgment
  • Angst
  • Uncertainty
  • Stress
  • Guilt
  • Anxiousness and anxiety
  • Giving up
  • Apathy
  • Is this worth it
  • Not feeling like working out
  • Frustration
  • Feeling like you are in a funk
  • Cloudy thoughts
  • Wanting to feel comfortable
  • Comparing yourself to others

Now you may have noticed that all these tend to be negative. That is OK. We aren’t going to focus on the negative in fact the complete opposite will be true. Again, these are normal feelings!

On the second sheet of paper, I want you to look at your daily and weekly routines and list what I will call ‘symptoms’. These are things that may indicate that you not reaching your potential or maybe these are things that you would like to change about yourself. This will be different for everyone, but we need to call these things out.

For example:

I don’t think I can do ___ (insert whatever this is.. half marathon, 5k, marathon)I don’t think I am ready to do ___ (insert whatever this is.. half marathon, 5k, marathon)I haven’t been able to stick to ___ beforeFeeling like I am stuck in a plateau with ____Frequently missing workoutsI feel down or frustrated after missing my goalI often give up when things get tough with ____Minor aches and painsI sometimes snap at my spouse or childrenI feel like I always put others in front of myselfMy spouse or others complain that I run too much, or spend too much in the gymI often have low energy  especially late in the dayI often find reasons to NOT work out or feel like I do not enough timeI often engage in negative self-talkI binge eat or snack excessivelyI obsess about stepping on a scale every day.I often put things off until later because I don’t feel like doing themI want to do things but for some reason, I can’t seem to get startedI find it hard to jump right out of bed in the morning

Again, I want to emphasize that no one will see these but you, so please make an honest assessment. There are probably 100 other things that you may think of that I did not describe, so write those down!

So the purpose of this is identification. Areas that we can work on and areas that as we go through this series, we will concentrate on.  As we go through the series, I will have resources, tips, actions, and small drills that you can use to help develop the mental strategies you need to turn some of these around, and to prevent yourself from sliding back because you will not only have the awareness of what is causing many of them but the tools to address them.