mindset running for confidence

Running tips: learn to enjoy running with this simple mental health hack

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To run well, you need to feel confident and comfortable — two things you can train yourself to feel. Strong Women editor and runner, Miranda Larbi, shares the four mindset-altering phrases that have helped her to run stronger.

Running, while obviously a great cardio workout, is so much more than physical exercise. You don’t have to run long distances to have experienced and battled against the mental challenges that come from putting one foot in front of the other. Running strong is all about being able to quiet the anxieties and focus the mind to reach your goal, whatever that might be.

I only realised just how fundamental a solid mindset was to running when I started training for my first marathon. Very quickly, I went from running 10km a week to 40km, heading out for long runs on the weekend. I had a funny turn one Sunday morning when I was halfway through a 15-mile outing, my stomach started sloshing around. I started sweating and my heart felt like it was on the brink of a cardiac incident. Every step I took was torture and I began to doubt my ability to make it to the nearest Tube station, let alone the end of my run.

After dragging my limp body around the route to the very end, I wondered what the hell had happened out there. Why had I felt so awful? What if that happened again? From that moment on, I began to fear my long runs in case I had a similar episode in which I felt totally powerless, unwell and unhappy.

Desperate for answers, I booked an appointment with a sports hypnotherapist who gave me four simple snippets of advice for retraining my mind before, during and after training. And you know what? They transformed the way I run, my self-esteem and the way that I tackle other issues in my life.

Understanding anxiety

For years, I’ve lived with chronic stress — the kind that metabolises into stomach issues and skin trouble. It probably shouldn’t have come as a shock then to realise that the stress of marathon training would trigger some kind of physical reaction. Running is hard, whether we enjoy it or not!

Anyway, I went to the therapy session stressed out of my mind at the thought of running a marathon. Despite having trained for it, the specific act of running 26.2 miles just seemed wild (and still does). The start line seemed like an impossible goal — let alone the finish — with my sleep becoming disrupted at the thought of being sick mid-run or being unable to keep going.

The therapist asked me one simple question: “What’s the worst that could happen mid-run?”

Thousands of thoughts flooded my mind: death, shitting myself, being sick, pulling a muscle, breaking a leg, having a heart attack… the list was endless.

That, the therapist noted, was confirmation of my status as a catastrophiser — someone who worries about the worst-case scenario despite having little evidence to back up that fear. As someone who’s never died/had a bowel mishap/got a heart issue, it was extremely unlikely that any of these dramatic incidents would happen to me while running down Wapping High Street. To help contain those pesky thoughts, he gave me four mantras to think about while running.

Mantra is a kind of meditation that originates from ancient religious Indian texts. Reciting them continuously and calmly (silently or aloud) is thought to calm and sharpen the mind. There is research to back this up: a small 2016 study got 62 people to chant for 10 minutes, and found that doing so can reduce stress and anxiety, and improve attention and mood. A larger study, this time from 2017, concluded that meditation and mantra practice are effective but that you’ve got to understand the benefits and mechanisms of mantras first. 

Re-framing fear

These mantras might not work for you but give them a go and edit them to fit your own experience. 

“I’m a trainee runner”

When you’re a trainee, anything can happen. You miss your targets, you fluff meetings, you accidentally overwrite important documents but that’s what traineeships are for — messing up and learning on the job.

As a trainee runner, anything can happen. From missed PBs to injuries, it’s all part of the learning process. I was told that the simplest way to reduce performance anxiety was to call myself a ‘trainee’ and to set my traineeship graduation for the moment I passed the marathon finish line. Four years and three marathon cycles later, I’m still a ‘trainee’ runner. I’ll probably always be one — not because I keep failing to progress, but because I keep learning more about my body with each run. Why graduate when you can be a life-long learner?

“This pain will pass”

We all want to avoid pain but with running, it’s inevitable. The very worst thing you can do is ignore that fact. I used to try to distract myself from feeling uncomfortable and eventually, that made everything feel worse. When I felt ill, ignoring the early warning signs actually crippled me with nausea. The therapist told me to start acknowledging the pain when it started, to welcome it and to understand that all pain is temporary. 

William Pullen is a BACP accredited psychotherapist and author of Run for your Life. He tells Stylist that this idea is similar to the “beginner’s mind” in Buddhism. “From this place, we can access vitality and flexibility” — which is harder if you think that you already know how to run.

Obviously, if you’re in serious muscular pain on a short run, you should stop and seek medical assistance. In marathons and marathon training, however, pain is part and parcel of running over 26 miles and that pain can take various forms — from cramp and belly ache, to calf twinges and mental anguish..

“Denial and repression never work,” explains BACP accredited counsellor Eve Menezes Cunningham. “If pain is for some kind of gain, gently reminding yourself that you’re still taking good care of yourself and will ice/rest/whatever else afterwards means that your body can trust you.”

“Keep it in the first mile”

As mentioned above, it’s so easy to fall down the ‘what if’ rabbit hole. To avoid descending into despair, you need to work out how likely it is that you’ll suffer the worst-case scenario. Have you encountered it before? Even if that situation does happen, so what? By asking yourself a series of these logical questions, you take the power out of anxiety and the fear becomes a lot more manageable.

Interestingly, the worst-case scenario did actually happen to me, when I was running home from work during a subsequent marathon training cycle: I was hit by a car. And you know what? Now that that’s happened, a big part of my fear has evaporated. Bad things can happen but they’re often not as life-destroying as your mind likes to imagine.

Pullen’s version of this is ‘keep it in the mile’: “deal with the challenge in front of you now. Worry about the rest later.”

“No one knows how far I’ve run”

This might sound ridiculous but I used to be consumed by what I imagined other anonymous runners thought about my pace, posture and energy. The way to break through this mental block is to remember to stay in your lane.

You have no idea how far someone else has run by the time they pass you or you overtake them. For all you know, they may have literally just stepped out of their front door or this could be their 20th mile — and that’s the same for you. The next time that you’re struggling to gain any speed and you start to worry about being overtaken, remember that as far as anyone else knows, you might be on the last leg of a ridiculously long run… even if you’re only running a few kilometres.

Mantras may not work for everyone and sometimes, anxiety and stress can feel overwhelming. You may find that practising the skill of meditating outside of your running practice helps you to tap into that mindset when chasing down the miles. As Pullen says, these sorts of mantras are comforting because they do encompass essential truths “that help free us from nonsense.”

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.

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