The top mental roadblock that Kamphoff’s runners reported were destructive, woe-is-me thoughts: How can thousands of other runners meet their goal and I can’t? Or Seriously? I worked so hard and here I am cramping up. “Negative thinking hurts our running because it doesn’t allow us to see possibilities or our own potential,” Kamphoff says. It can also lead to shallow breathing, increased heart rate, or tense muscles, any of which can make it physically harder to run.
Hurdle It: Midway through the 2012 Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon, Tere Derbez Zacher was hurting and thinking, Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this. But the 41-year-old family counselor from Scottsdale, Arizona, pulled it together. “I kept telling myself, Where the mind goes, the body follows, and that got me through,” she says.
Indeed, the trick to managing negative thoughts is to recognize that you have the power to silence them, says Greg Chertok, director of sports psychology at the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Center in Englewood, New Jersey. On your daily runs, practice being aware of your inner voice, and when it says something negative, employ a stop mechanism—a tool that enables you to shift your focus to something positive. A motivating word or a distracting song or body cue, like concentrating on your breathing or on your arm pumping, can work. When Jeff Weldon, 40, CFO of United Prairie Bank from North Mankato, Minnesota, started struggling at mile 23 of the 2012 Whistlestop Marathon, he stayed positive by smiling. “Sounds corny,” he says, “but it really worked.”
I won’t be happy if I don’t run 3:40. My only goal is a negative split. I must run a faster time than my last race or all my hard work will be for nothing. Performance goals keep us motivated and help us push hard to reach our potential. But if you are fixated on just one outcome, you risk disappointment if it’s not your day and you fall short, Kamphoff says.
Hurdle It: As early as mile two, Derbez Zacher knew that running a 2:45 personal best wasn’t possible. But her secondary target—a sub-three-hour finish–was within reach. “Having that backup goal kept me going,” she says. Kamphoff suggests using a goal range, such as aiming for a 1:50 to 1:55 half-marathon. “A range changes your self-talk,” she says. “If you’re hitting 8:40s in the early miles and have a rigid 1:50 goal [8:23 miles], you might worry and stress. But with a range, you’d be on pace, increasing the chances that you’ll stay positive.” Make sure your goal range is realistic: The faster end should be something your training suggests you can do on a dream day. The slower end is something that will still make you feel satisfied.
Runners tend to question their abilities, particularly when they’re tackling a new distance or aiming for an ambitious time. But doubt’s opposite–confidence–is among the most important predictors of athletic performance. If you don’t believe you stand a chance, says Kamphoff, you’ll be less likely to take the risks and actions necessary to reach your goal.
Hurdle It: Go public with your insecurities, suggests Rebecca Williams, 43, an education program coordinator with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who questioned whether she could finish a marathon. She expressed her doubts to other runners in her local training group and on the Mankato Marathon’s Facebook page. The simple act of voicing her concerns stripped them of their power, and the encouragement she received from others eased her anxiety.
Sports psychologists also recommend drumming up evidence that disproves the insecure thoughts. For example, if feeling sluggish during your taper makes you worried you won’t be able to PR, remind yourself of all the strong workouts you did that indicate a new record is within reach. If butterflies linger, put them to good use. “Studies show that professional athletes have as much doubt as anyone, but they see it as a stimulant,” Chertok says. “They learn to interpret body signals positively, reading nerves not as worry or doubt, but as excitement for the race.”