As much as running is a physical activity, to truly start becoming better at running, continue to make progress and reach your potential you have to become mentally strong, too. One of the toughest types of runs to conquer is the long run…and this starts as soon as you see it on your training schedule and your brain automatically goes to a place of, “I’ll never be able to run that far.” See, mental. And you haven’t even started yet!
Having mental tricks in your back pocket to utilize during those hours of running are crucial to your long run success. Here I’ll discuss my top five:
- Prepare Your Brain Before You Begin
- Remind Yourself of Your “Why”
- Break Your Run Into Manageable Chunks
- Expect the Devil on Your Shoulder
- Utilize Mantras
- Practice Mindful Running
The truth is that nearly every person, who has trained appropriately for enough time, is capable of those long runs that intially seem impossible. People who run marathons and beyond are not special, they are just willing to put in the work AND utilize mental strategies that allow them to keep on keeping on.
Getting Through the Long Run
When I was training for the Boston Marathon, I shared in this video the important of mental fitness. Your body to can adapt to the physical stresses you put in through, but often it’s the mind that’s the barrier to you making the gains you want to see.
As a coach, I’ve noticed one major hurdle that new, and even experienced distance runners have, is getting through the long run. And this is often due to mental blocks that kick in both before and during the distance.
Before I give you my tried and true mental tricks for getting through the long run, I DO have to recognize that one of the number one reason runners struggle with getting through a long run IS actually physical, which then leads to a mental spiral. And that’s doing them too fast!! So be sure to check out my Comprehensive Guide to Long Runs to make sure you’re executing them correctly in your training week after week.
Beyond that though, it is normal and human nature to feel an urge to quit when you are nonstop moving for hours at a time. This action is not innate and takes serious mental focus. So let’s get into the mental side of running, and how you can better equip yourself with strategies to conquer the long run with a smile instead of feeling overwhelmed by it.
6 Ways to Mentally Tackle the Long Run
At this point I’ve run countless 90+ minute long runs, so I’ve certainly had time to think about what it takes to get your brain right for those long runs. Here are my 6 top tried and true tactics!
1.) Mentally prepare before you even start.
Negative feelings and dread often accompany the impending long run. And this is the last way you want to feel about something that absolutely has to get done as part of the process towards you achieving your big goal. It’s important to recognize those feelings when they show up and have a way to combat them so you can get that blissful night of sleep you need before heading out the door for your long run with a can-do attitude, a few deep breaths and a smile.
Instead of me just telling you not to worry about it, because that’s easier said than done, here’s what I recommend to help you have that positive mindset you need:
Practice visualization techniques:
Using a visualization strategy to see positive experiences happening on your long run can play a huge role in having a great outcome for your long run.
“See” yourself at certain points along your long run course looking strong and feeling accomplished. “See” yourself taking in fuel and water and feeling energized.
“See” yourself taking hills smooth and comfortably.
Focus on previous “wins”:
Runners who have success week after week with their long runs still often get negative thoughts such as, “What if I can’t do it?” or “What if something goes wrong?” When the reality is that it is highly likely this runner will crush their next long run just like they did previously. So think about what you’ve done well and focus on that, such as: “Last week I cruised through my long run, so this week I know it will go just as smoothly.” And often, you may have fear about the long run because you had one go bad…well remind yourself that everyone experiences bad runs, and then focus on all of the good ones you’ve done and tell yourself that this big one coming up will be one of the good ones, too.
Only talk positively about it:
This is a simple reframing technique that can work wonders. Instead of telling friends and family that you HAVE to run a long run this weekend and therefore can’t do this or that, say that you GET to run a long run this weekend and are excited about how much closer it’s going to put you toward having a great experience in the upcoming race you’re training for. Will people look at you sideways? Maybe. But my guess is they will be inspired by what you’re accomplishing. And the trick here is not that you most certainly ARE excited for your long run, but that talking about it in a positive manner both out loud and in your head will help you feel more encouraged and optimistic about the long run.
2.) Remind yourself of your why.
Many people pull a “what” out of the air for a big goal (running a marathon for example), but fail to pinpoint the “why.” And that is a crucial step.
Anyone who is an athlete (that’s you by the way) needs to have a “why” for their purpose in doing the training they are doing. If you don’t, you are really going to struggle pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone for very long. With endurance running, being uncomfortable is kind of the name of the game…I mean nonstop movement for hours isn’t exactly what we used to doing!
So as you’re out on those long runs, continue to remind yourself of your major reason for being out there. Keeping the focus on the “why” will help push you to the end even when it gets really tough.
3.) Break your run into manageable chunks.
This may end up being a physical strategy to tackle the long run, but mentally it makes it feel much more doable. When I was training for the Sun Valley Marathon, I explained how I did this in a vlog I made for YouTube when I was running one of my 20-milers. In a situation like this, instead of thinking about it as a 20-mile run I think of it as four 5-mile runs. For me, a 5-mile run is easy peasy and something I do all the time without a second thought. So it’s much more manageable to think of it is as “just’ 4 of those and then it doesn’t seem so daunting. And then every 5 miles I try to have a mini-celebration, like taking a gel, stopping for a minute to take in a few extra deep breaths on a beautiful day or simply give myself a little fist pump on a job well done as I continue on.
You can even plan for your rewards ahead of time like this: “When I make it to 5 miles, I’ll stop and take a photo. When I get halfway, I’ll let myself switch to music.”
A mantra I love that really goes well with this point is “run the mile you’re in.” So, instead of thinking about ALL the other miles you have to run, you only worry about that mile right then. If you’re not feeling great, for example, think about what you can do to make that mile go better (slowing down, taking a gel, etc) and just try to make it til then. And then when you start the next mile, that’s the only one you worry about.
4.) Expect the devil on your shoulder to show up.
It’s not realistic to think that the negative voice inside your head won’t show up at all. Even when taking the miles at an easy pace like you should be doing on most of your long runs, they are still challenging! What you are doing is hard work that asks a lot of your body.
This negative voice is most likely to show up when you get bored, tired and overwhelmed. But you can’t let it get the best of you. But preparation to combat it will serve you much better than hoping that it just doesn’t come. This way you’ll be able to say something back to this negative voice that’s trying to get you to stop or give up. I like to remind myself “this is not an option” or “we are not negotiating this.” If you think it’s crazy to think about having these conversations with yourself in your head…well, perhaps you just haven’t run long enough just yet. I’d guess this actually resonates with many runners!
5.) Have mantras to help you stay positive.
Whether you’re using them to combat negative thoughts, push through a rough patch or just be proactively positive, mantras can be an incredibly powerful tool for making it through your long run.
These are some of my favorites:
I’m stronger than I think.
I didn’t come this far to only come this far.
Grit. Grit. Grit.
I can do hard things.
What the mind believes, the body achieves.
Push through the pain.
Let yourself be incredible.
Pain is temporary.
These can also be positive mantras that you play on repeat so that negative voice stays away.
6.) Practice mindful running.
I feel like we hear a lot about how to make running more “mindless” – essentially doing things that help us tune out from the physical discomfort. But, mindful running, where you allow yourself to be more engaged in your run where you’re more connected to your body and breath, can do wonders for getting through a tough run. And the best way to do this is to detach from distractions.
As helpful as distractions can be to get through a long run – think podcasts, your favorite music, tracking your mileage on your watch, talking with your running buddy, etc. it’s important to remember that those options aren’t always available and it’s very possible you won’t have access to them in your race either.
I recently listened to a great podcast episode from Strength Running, Master Your Mental Training With Dr. Justin Ross, where host Coach Jason Fitzgerald had Dr. Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist who specializes in athlete mental health and sports psychology, share the best mental practices runners can be doing.
One thing Dr. Ross recommends is completely disconnecting for at least the first half of a long run as a way to develop body awareness and focus. He shares that mindful, distraction-free running allows you to connect to your body so that you can do the following:
- get your breathing in a good rhythm
- ensure proper running form
- counting step to pay attention to cadence
- become more mentally aware about how you feel
Running this way will keep you in that strong runner’s mindset and force you to be in the moment as opposed to becoming overwhelmed with the amount of miles you’ve already done or how far you still have to go. It will also help you become a more efficient runner and will help you conquer the struggles and mental barriers that are inevitable late in a race.
To quote Dr. Ross, “to be successful in running you really have to be able to learn to develop deep focus.”