Boosting your running performance with mental training

An insight to mental skill training

Sports Psychology consultant Gary Barber looks at some of the studies analysing the power of mental strength and mind skill training when it comes to running. Can boosting your mental skill really improve your running, or is it just a distraction from the real exercise required to run long distances?

I’ve never been a great fan of that most beloved of sports clichés: "It’s all in the mind!" or its obnoxious twin, "it’s 100% mental!”

If these statements were true, I wouldn’t bother running 80 miles a week and spending hours ploughing through the worst that the British weather can hurl at us. Living the ultimate dream of the armchair athlete, I could just stay at home and think about all that hard training. I could sit on my couch, massage the remote control, and maybe watch a video of the Flora London marathon. I could keep hydrated with a six-pack of beer and think really hard about winning. And if somehow, I don’t manage to win, it’s only because the other athletes "wanted it more."

Almost all serious athletes will, however, acknowledge that mental skill training does play at least some role in the overall preparation and delivery of a great performance. Exactly how much of an influence is hotly debated by exercise scientists, sports philosophers and armchair experts. Let’s review some of the evidence and you decide whether there is anything to this "mental stuff."

An intriguing study with direct implications for athletes was conducted by exercise scientist, Bill Morgan. Morgan hypnotised cyclists before they started to cycle on a bicycle ergometer. The cyclists were asked to pedal for 15 minutes at a constant speed against a constant resistance. For the first five minutes they were told that they were cycling on a flat road. As would be expected, their heart and breathing rates increased and then plateaued.

They were then told that for the next five minutes they would be cycling up a very steep hill. When this happened their heart and breathing rates dramatically increased. In the final five minute segment of the test, the cyclists were told that they were cycling on the flat road again. Their breathing and heart rates fell back down to "pre-hill" levels. Physically the task had not increased in difficulty at any time throughout the test, it was just that the cyclists believed that things were going to be harder and their bodies responded accordingly.


You have to remember that a mental skill – just like physical training – is not mastered simply by doing it once. Imagine practising for a race once or twice and then saying "the training didn’t work for me; I’ve got to try something different." No serious athlete would do that with their physical training and yet, too often, mental skills are abandoned if they don’t bring immediate results.

The athletes who are interested in creating a mental training programme may want to consider including the following principles of training:

Frequency – Practice on a regular basis. Just like physical training, you will need to practice regularly if you wish to see results. As you would lose fitness with extended inactivity; so you will lose the benefits of mental training without regular practice.

Duration – Practice for a significant period (20-30 minutes per session).

Intensity – Bring an emotional content to your practices so that you replicate (in your imagination) the race conditions.

Specificity – Develop a range of skills that can be applied to the ever-changing challenges of a running race. For example: relaxation for pre-race conditions, self control for the early stages of a race, discipline and perseverance when the race becomes physically draining.

Progression – Improve the quality of your practices week after week.

Does mental training work?
Certainly you have to sift through the anecdotal and scientific evidence before arriving at your conclusion. Bill Rodgers – the great American marathon runner – stated that he used his mental skill training to visualise an enormous hand pushing him up the infamous HeartBreak Hill in the Boston Marathon. Was it then coincidence that Rodgers pulled away from his rivals at that critical point in his race?


Then there are verified reports of deep sea divers who – using yoga techniques – have learned how to slow both their heart rate (to barely a few beats per minute) and oxygen consumption rate, so that they can stay under water for several minutes with only a single breath. Imagine the benefits of that kind of mental discipline in a running race: using your mind to relax a specific muscle that is repeatedly cramping toward the end of a marathon.

Further evidence of how we think and how our body responds to that thought can be found in the science of Psychoneuroimmunology. Studies have shown that white blood cells - which fight infections - function significantly better when people were given relaxation training. Also, these blood cells were found to be four times more aggressive in fighting colds when a person had positive thoughts rather than negative thoughts about the illness.

Research by Richard Achterberg discovered that negative thoughts and emotions significantly increase muscular tension. As tense muscles do not work as efficiently as relaxed muscles, it is apparent how negative thinking could be to the detriment of a running performance.Not to be outdone by the other experts, sports writers have long mined the riches of ancient philosophy looking for evidence to show that there is a connection between our thoughts, behaviour, and running performance.

Aristotle believed that it was our experiences that shaped our lives: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit." If Aristotle had been able to trade his toga for some lycra and entered the local 10km, he would have relied on his physical training to give him the confidence (a mental skill) needed for a great performance.

Descartes would have taken a different approach. He viewed our thoughts as the main influence in our existence: "Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am!" For him, the confidence comes first and the athlete’s successful performance will then follow.

So is it the thought that counts? To help settle this debate even Shakespeare offered some advice. If you are a confident athlete bursting with energy or a nervous bag of bones remember: "Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so."

Gary Barber is a Sports Psychology consultant who has been doing a lot of thinking recently!


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