Mental Training 101: How Do You Quiet Your Mind on a Run?

In this first part of our new monthly mental training column, sports psychologist Jeff Troesch gives tips on how to quiet your mind while running.

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One of the essential elements of mental training, including quieting your mind on a run, is learning to harness control of your attention. Attentional control involves intentional and purposeful “shifts” to put your attention in the most productive place at the most productive time. A lot of this happens relatively organically and unconsciously, given that our senses are being bombarded by hundreds of potential distractors at any one moment. While running, we have visual things all around us, we have the sounds and smells that might be present in the air, and our bodies may be feeling any number of things from head to toe. In addition, there is the stream of dialogue that many of us have going on in our heads—some of which is relevant and helpful, and some of which may not be either relevant or helpful. Shifting attention is in contrast to “drifts” which occur when we allow our minds to go to places that are sometimes not productive, e.g. we may not be aware that we’ve allowed ourselves to fixate on the pain in our quad for the past two minutes and that this has unnecessarily increased our heart and respiratory rate and created self-doubt about finishing the run.

When running, the idea of a “quiet mind” reflects a desire to minimize irrelevant internal chatter and/or an intention to shift attention to that which is productive. Part of evolving as an athlete is to work towards a consciousness about what uniquely works best for you. Here are three ideas from which you might choose:

1. Learn mindfulness techniques and apply them during your running.

One technique in mental training revolves around the notion of using meditative techniques and breathing exercises to learn how to create an internal awareness without becoming distracted or judgmental of the thoughts.  This is a learned skill, and there is a plethora of websites, apps, or podcasts that can assist in helping you to learn this skill. Learn the skill away from the running environment and then it can be applied in the running environment. As with any skill, this requires committed effort and consistent practice in order to take advantage of the benefits.

2. Use a mantra, phrase, cadence, or song to help direct mental attention.

There are some athletes who utilize a purposeful strategy of having a phrase or mantra that’s repeated over and over, a count of steps “one, two, one, two, one, two” or singing a song as a way to direct attention to an internal place so as to override thoughts of body soreness, fatigue, or any other non-productive thoughts. An ultra-marathon athlete with whom I worked simply repeated the phrase “one more step, one more step” whenever she found herself in a “bad place” internally during her 100-mile adventure.

3. Use purposeful attentional shifting throughout your run to “play a game.”

Use intentional shifting to move from visual to auditory to kinesthetic. During my run I might cycle from “see a tree” to “hear a bird” to “feel my foot strike on the ground.”  Then “see a rock “and “hear the crunch of the ground underfoot” and “feel the sun on my back.” If I cycle through these senses when my mind gets “loud” it works to keep my mind busy on things that are calming, productive, and helpful.

In the end, for everyone there is an element of trial and error related to what works best for them, but being deliberate in developing a strategy that works for you can definitely pay off—not just in training day-to-day, but in racing too, making your entire experience more productive and enjoyable. 

Jeff Troesch is a sports psychologist with more than 30 years’ experience in the field. He has worked with professional and amateur athletes from a wide range of sports, including golf, tennis, surfing, and triathlon. He has helped lead pro triathletes to world championship and regional championship titles. He was a guest on our Fitter & Faster podcast, which you can listen to here.