Training Your Mind

by Patti and Warren Finke, Team Oregon
"Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self- satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming." - John Wooden

Almost all competitive runners will agree that a major component of their sport is psychological. When we have questioned marathoners at Boston, New York, Twin Cities, Honolulu, Seattle and Portland, the consensus was that more than 50% of competition was psychological. However, very few runners acknowledged that they incorporated psychological training into their programs. We think that this is because few runners understand the concepts of sports psychology much less how to apply them to their training. We hope that this article will provide some insight.


A winner is the person who gets what he wants out of his sport. If you watch the television coverage of a road race, you might think the winner is the person who comes in first. Yes, this person is a winner, but so are the runners who set and achieved other goals; some of these goals as simple as finishing or maybe only participating. A winner according to Webster's Dictionary is someone who is successful.

Athletes who have been successful in many sports have been studied to determine what psychological traits make them "Winners". Five significant traits can be identified.

1) Winners Know How To Win

Successful athletes know how to set many achievable goals. This goal setting technique does two things. First, it is easy for the runners to develop commitment to a goal that is realistic and achievable. Second, if there are many goals, some will always be achieved, guaranteeing winning.

Why is winning important? Because it builds self esteem and confidence, the bases for vision and self control.

2) Winners Make Things Happen

Successful people have a attribute called vision. While most of us like to perform in the area where we have experience and can use the feedback; winners are able to envision performance outside this "comfort zone". They are able to "push back the envelope". Instead of using terms like "Because" and "That's the way I've always done it", winners say "What if" or "Just do it". In order to have a breakthrough performance, it is imperative to have vision. Vision can and does drive performance in all endeavors.

3) Winners Love a Challenge

Winners look at events, barriers, and circumstances as challenges to undertake with an optimistic point of view. Losers see these things as obstacles that cannot be overcome, a pessimistic point of view. The successful runner know that positive vision and appraisal drives positive performance. The successful runner feels in control of any situation and recognizes the importance of facing up to obstacles.

4) Winners Control Energy

There are two kinds of energy : positive and negative. Winners can control both kinds of energy to their benefit. Winners know how and when to apply pressure to themselves. They also know what motivates them to their best performances. We have heard elite athletes speak of their "moments of doubt" and the techniques they use to turn those into "moments of control".

5) Winners perform in "The Zone"

Just what is "the zone"? When athletes describe successful performances no matter what the sport, their descriptions of what they were feeling are very similar. Common thoughts show a combination of relaxation and tremendous energy; enjoyment of the activity without anxiety or fear; an effortless performance. They describe not having to think about what they were supposed to do, but that it came naturally. They were able to concentrate easily and a super awareness. They felt in complete control, able to do anything, confident and positive. Again self control is an important element.


Goals - Setting Yourself up to Win

The first step to success is learning how to set goals. We have asked hundred of runners in our marathon clinic what got them out the door to do the required training. Over 90% answered that they had committed to the marathon and, thus, needed to do the training.

These goals need to be multiple, achievable, reasonable and definite. We often have runners come to us with too many and too disparate goals such as in the next 2 months I want to run a marathon, set 10K pr's, race every weekend and only run 10 miles a week. We suggest that you spend some time on a seasonal basis setting up goals. Look at the race calendar for the year, decide how many and what kind of races you want to do. Determine which races are most important to you. You can run a marathon, set 10K pr's and finish many races, but not all of these at the same time and not in 2 months.

In a training program, the easiest way to set goals is to lay out a written training program with long term goals, (6- 12 months), medium term (4-12) weeks, short term (1-4 weeks) and daily goals. Break the year and the race schedule into training and racing seasons; no one can race well either physically or mentally year round. You can run races year round, but plan to run them only for fun or as a training run during the training season. Next set goals for shorter periods of time. Most runners get into ruts of using mileage and pace as their only goals. Some runs are easy days, so the goal should be to run, relax and enjoy it. Other goals could be to run a different route or to run with a friend. The goal could be to be in control of the pace and run an even effort workout on both hard and easy days. The pace goal for a training run should be within a time window which has a maximum and a minimum. This way, if you stick to your training plan, you will guarantee being a winner if you run the workout within the planned times.

Keep a training log that has space for planned and actual runs. Record how you feel during each run.

To help you with goal setting you may want to join a training group like Team Oregon or get some private coaching.

Talking about your running and training with others runners is a way to maintain commitment. It is important for your family and friends to understand your level of commitment. Communicate to them what your running gives you, how it makes you feel, and , most important, your goals. That way they can understand when you go out the door when time is short, when the weather is bad or when you feel the need to run every day.

Vision - Making Things Happen

Vision is a very powerful concept. It has been called various names such as "mind over body" and, more recently, "feedforward". Routinely our existence is within a comfortable action/reaction loop where we are either performing (Action) or appraising(Reaction). Appraisal provides the knowledge or basis for action. If our actions result in positive feedback (ie we enjoy the action), we will approach performing the action or activity positively the next time. One very strong way we achieve enjoyment from a task is by being successful at doing the task. In other words, success breeds a positive approach to an activity. This positive approach is called confidence. Failure, on the other hand, destroys confidence. To maintain and improvement commitment, it is imperative for you to be successful, to feel that you are a winner and to build self confidence.

With increased levels of self confidence comes the ability to "push back the envelope", take risks, extend our horizons. This is always preceded by forward thinking, what we call vision. You can run 2 miles every day, then wake up one morning and think "what if I run 5 miles today". This is vision. Its the courage to extend beyond previous performance levels.

Note again, that our appraisal provides the knowledge or basis for action. A researcher, Maxwell Maltz, showed that appraisal takes place even when we are visualizing, just thinking about an activity and not performing it. Since appraisal drives performance,a positive visualization of a performance will help promote success in an actual performance. This aspect of sports psychology is called "feed forward". Its effectiveness has been demonstrated many times in Olympic training programs of the last decade.

The first step in improving your psychological performance is becoming aware of your feelings, thoughts and sensations while you are running. Leave your walkman at home and, instead, tune into your own body while running by yourself. Take note of what you are seeing, how you are feeling, and what you are thinking. You will be surprised ar the range of your thoughts and emotions.

If you want to control your own destiny, you need to know in advance what is expected of you and how you are going to produce it. This requires visualization. If you have planned your workouts in advance, this is the next step.

Before each workout, find a quiet place where you can relax and spend 5 - 10 minutes considering the workout. First, acquaint yourself with the workout's requirements : times, distance, etc. Then consider the goals of the workout and what it should do for you physiologically and, possibly, psychologically. Last picture yourself running the workout smoothly over the entire course and, finishing within you time window and getting any reward you have planned for yourself. As you get better at doing this, make the visualization as detailed as possible with colors, sounds, smells, and physical sensations of your experience.

Use the same technique while you are doing your workout to periodically visualize the next segment of the workout. If you have trouble try watching yourself in windows as you pass, following your shadow or by having someone videotape you.

Self Control - Dealing With Challenges and Focusing Energy

Self control is important in being able to perform well under a variety of stress-producing circumstances. Some aspects include being able to accept criticism, not being afraid to fail, maintaining composure under stress and being able to perform to potential during competition. To do these you need to be able to control and channel your emotions, focus your concentration, bounce back from setbacks, and most importantly, deal with negative thoughts. Negative thoughts and emotions create negative performances. During competition, they can result in a vicious negative cycle of thought and performance, the destruction of commitment. Most competitive runners have experienced this destructive scenario.

A serious runner should pursue and maintain the attitude of an optimist. Barriers can be viewed as obstacles or challenges. Winners see barriers in their paths as challenges rather than obstacles. People who excel often don't even see the barriers as challenges, but as a normal part of the activity. "Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off your goal" - Johnny Danger, motorcycle daredevil. Most barriers faced in competition are faced by all the competitors. Those who use them as challenges they can rise above, rather than as obstacles that hinder performance, will be victors. You can be a winner or a whiner.

Another important part of self control is controlling and channeling psychological energy. Energy comes in two forms : positive and negative. Positive energy is the energy you get when you ar enjoying an activity, e.g. a "slam dunk" in basketball. Negative energy is the energy you get from fear. Both of them can be motivators. Psychological research, however, has shown that the best performances take place in an atmosphere of positive energy, often described by the participants as a state of joy. Although negative energy can motivate you to perform, it is more often associated with negative motivation. Negative thoughts and fears usually inhibit performance rather than drive it. In competition, once doubt gains a foothold, it has a tendency to snowball into many negative thoughts, loss of energy and poor performance. Winners recognize and have ways of dealing with negative thoughts. If possible, they avoid them entirely. Otherwise, they are able to cope with them rapidly and dismiss them.

Try to detect negative thoughts while you are running or thinking about your running. You may wish to write some of them down and think about them later. Many of these negative thoughts can be dismissed immediately as being "plain stupid" or as being about things over which you have no control. Most of the others can be turned into challenges or put into a positive perspective.

Having positive or negative energy is one thing; controlling it is another. Winners have the ability to focus the energy into performing the task at hand. Whether it is the dread of a final exam in school or the excitement generated by the crowd in Boston, winners know how to use it.

Maintaining this focus of energy is one of the most difficult tasks for a long distance runner in competition. You will be faced with numerous energy wasting distractions and negative thoughts during the race. To achieve top performance, you must learn to stay positively focused.

On your "hard" workout days, practice detecting your level of focus. You should be thinking in the present about what you are doing, not in the past or the future or about external things.

On your "easy" workout days practice relaxing and dismissing all stress producing negative thoughts you may have. Work on visualizing yourself effortlessly running in a state of enjoyment. Think about "looking good" so if others see you run by they will think you are completely enjoying your run.

Achieving "The Zone"

The ultimate in self control is when it is totally automatic, the state athletes call being "in the zone". Almost everyone has had an experience when everything seemed to flow like magic and performance was effortless, even joyful. These experiences are often described as "out of body" or "zen-like" because of the degree of simultaneous focus and awareness and the lack of physical effort to the point that the performance is joyful. The "zone" is mysterious, but it is a place where winners live.

We have no exercises guaranteed to get you into "the zone." It is important for you to recognize when you have these positive psychological experiences and try to determine what led you to them. If you have one, write down in your training log everything you can remember about what happened and what the surrounding conditions and environment were. After several "zone" runs, perhaps you can find a key to what motivates your experience.

Try to recognize "zone" experiences when you are watching others take part in sports. Hang out with runners that you think have achieved running "in the zone".



Have a Training Plan
  • long term goals
  • short term goals
  • strategy

    Keep a Training Log

  • daily plans and goals
  • daily results
  • comments


    Revisit Plan and Goal
  • how far
  • how fast
  • what is the purpose of this workout

    Plan Rewards

  • for major workouts
  • for achieving goals

    Visualize Workout as a Positive Experience (2-3 minutes)

  • yourself exercising
  • your route
  • what you feel, see, hear, smell and taste
  • completing as planned
  • having a positive experience
  • any post workout reward


    Develop Self Awareness
  • listen to body
  • listen to thoughts

    Develop Self Control

  • generate positive thoughts and relaxation
  • deal with negative thoughts and tension
  • focus on the present
  • visualize yourself in the present


    Log Results

    Log any possible Positive or Negative Influences

  • plan means of using positives in the future
  • plan ways to cope with or avoid negatives

    Reward Yourself for Accomplishing Major Goals

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