Overcoming Mental Obstacles In Training

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Written by: Kevin Beck

Learn how to minimize mental obstacles while training in order to maximize your training efforts.

Lint is a runner and triathlete with all the enthusiasm in the world, but at times his vigor is his own worst enemy. He sits at work and broods idly over the afternoon’s mile repeats, but then he fails to hit his target times and skips the last one or two reps. He sometimes rationalizes knocking a few miles off a planned 20-miler when he’s speeding along halfway through, figuring a fast 17- or 18-miler offers the same benefits as a slower, longer run. But on marathon morning, Lint finds himself suddenly attaching great importance to these “missing” miles, and he often slows down markedly in the latter stages of his races even when feeling physically and mentally up to the task. His tune-up races generally suggest that his goals are well within his reach, but he hasn’t yet attained them. He recognizes that he’s far better in competition than in practice, but something has long been missing from his repertoire.

Contrast this portrait with the experience of Colleen. When Colleen began training for her first half-marathon, she knew her biggest challenge would be completing the longest run of her life in South Florida’s boggy heat. Recognizing she’d have difficulty doing this by herself, she joined a club and was soon running group 10-milers most mornings. Her apprehension quickly yielded to confidence, and the race itself went swimmingly. “At first I thought I wasn’t doing enough speed work,” Colleen says. “But I’d always been too heavy on track repeats, which I enjoy, and deficient in basic endurance stuff. Now, the half is my favorite distance.”

The different outcomes of these two scenarios are no accident. Lint got most of his miles and workouts in but habitually talked himself out of any chance to get the most out of his key sessions. Colleen applied an established race-preparation tool—visualization and rehearsal—to her training before focusing on the race. “Doing two-hour runs in the humidity not only got me in shape but convinced me I could actually race 13 miles,” she says. “But the biggest thing was spending a lot of time during the week thinking about those runs, and, after I’d done a couple, picturing them going well.”

Don’t Wait to Think

According to sports psychologists, the process that Newton instinctively grasped—which in its simplest form can be represented as “see the training; do the training; see the race; do the race”—may be essential to top performance. Therefore, learning how to dip into your mental-skills arsenal on a daily basis is critically important.

“One of the major errors athletes make is using mental skills, such as mental imagery and self-talk, only immediately before and during competition,” says Nicole Kulikov, PhD, a 2:45 marathoner and fitness professor at Holyoke Community College who specializes in sports psychology. “Like any form of physical training, it needs to start in practice sessions.”

So while many runners understand the value of visualizing a positive race result, few appreciate the need to make this habit a part of enhancing and guiding their training, especially the parts they fear outright or for whatever reason shy away from. As a result, many fall short of their expectations, owing not to inadequate motivation or sloppy schedules but to a failure to mentally prepare for workouts they find vexing.

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