The language and advice around training for endurance sports tends to be dominated by physical factors – increasing your strength, improving your lactate threshold or your VO2 max. But seeing the mind and the body as one system provides a better strategy for improving, and working on improving your mental strength alongside your physical fitness will definitely reap the benefits when it comes to your running performance.
The research on mental strength and running
In a 2010 paper, Professor Samuele Marcora, from the University of Bologna, Italy, and Walter Staiano, from the University of Valencia, Spain, challenged the assumption that physical exhaustion was the key limiter in exercise performance and introduced the concept of training by ‘psychobiological’ principles. In their study, a group of cyclists were still able to produce short periods of higher intensity effort even after reaching a point of physical exhaustion.
Their research showed that our exercise tolerance is a balance between how hard we find an activity (our rate of perceived exertion or RPE) versus how motivated we are for that activity.
Other studies by Marcora have explored factors than can affect and influence RPE (and, therefore, our ‘running tolerance’). Most interesting was research showing that when athletes engaged in mentally fatiguing tasks before a training session, their performance was reduced owing to a higher perception of effort.
In another study, athletes who had subliminally been shown images of happy faces experienced lower RPE in a subsequent workout, resulting in improved performance.
Why mental strength is important for better running
If we take the time to train our mind and body as one connected system, we can improve our performance. Our training should be focused on things that lower our perception of effort and increase our levels of motivation. This isn’t just about mental skills; of course, we need to get the physical stuff right, too. If you under-fuel, pace poorly, are dehydrated, had a heavy night beforehand or simply don’t train enough, your perception of effort will probably increase and your performance will suffer. You still need to do the work, to get fitter, to lower your RPE.
However, the concept of training to psychobiological principles gives us more ways we can understand or improve our performance. It means we need to be aware of the impact of life outside of our running sessions. During the pandemic, many of us have experienced heightened levels of anxiety and mental fatigue, and Marcora’s research shows that even a mentally fatiguing day at work will probably play out in running sessions or races. If, when I’m pulling on my trainers, my mind is flooded with negative thoughts and images, this too will probably have an impact on my sense of effort.
So, a holistic training plan should look to tip the RPE and motivation scales in your favour and work on the body and mind. However, sometimes, no matter how many of the tips here you put in place, life can get in the way. Recognising the role of RPE and motivation in performance can help you contextualise runs or races that don’t go as planned. So, go easy on yourself – some days, life will just throw up too many obstacles.
How can I improve my mental strength?
1. Train to RPE: Your performance will improve if you lower your sense of RPE. Learn to pace on a scale of 0-10 rather than by constantly looking at your watch.
2. Light up: Smiling during exercise may help to lower your RPE. Try relaxing your arms, face and shoulders, and smiling midway through each mile or effort in a session.
3. Words in your head: Positive self-talk can play a similar role to smiling, helping to lower RPE. Use an interval session and practise different key words or phases during each rep.
4. Positive priming: We can’t always eliminate all the stresses of life before we run. However, we can aim to have a repeatable routine to get us as close as possible to the right mood state. Five to 10 minutes of mobility work while listening to music that makes you feel energised can transition you from your day to your session, and get you ready to perform.
5. Embrace discomfort: Lowering your RPE isn’t necessarily about training easier. It’s about getting more comfortable with discomfort. If it’s been a while since you have done interval training or harder efforts, those first sessions will feel tough – not just because of your fitness, but because you need to harden yourself back to discomfort. Weekly interval sessions that build sensibly are one of the most effective ways of lowering RPE at race pace.
6. Face the elements: Are you a fair-weather runner? If your sense of race effort was comfortable only during calm and cool days, don’t be surprised if you struggle when the wind is blowing, it’s hot or it’s raining. Practise in tough conditions so you are ready for anything.
7. Step into the unknown: Instead of always planning every element of your interval sessions, ask someone to set you a session in three or four parts, in different envelopes. Open envelope 1 and complete the first part of the workout before moving on to the next envelope. This can challenge you to regulate your effort during a session.
8. Plan your week: Plan your week sensibly. Consider moving your high-quality sessions away from days when you know you have lots of mentally fatiguing or high-stress tasks to complete.