Mastering the Mindset – how the most important distance for a runner is between their ears

We’ve all heard the cliché about how running is ‘all in the mind’. At first glance this doesn’t appear true because we all know to our cost that the body is involved. At a deeper level though this does ring true for long distance runners. Mastering the mindset of distance running is critical in order to enjoy success, which I take to be achieving your potential. Athleticism and genetics can only get you so far. Until such time as you master the mindset you won’t achieve your potential.

Goal Setting

Setting inspirational goals and having the benefit of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is essential. Without a clear vision of what you want to achieve you won’t be motivated to push through the dark cold mornings of winter or the searing heat of summer training. When you are tired you’ll give into feelings of laziness and longing for comfort. If you don’t sacrifice for what you want, what you want becomes the sacrifice. Get the goal in place first and be driven towards it from that moment onwards.

If you don’t sacrifice for what you want, what you want becomes the sacrifice.

Smart Training

Being smart in training will determine whether or not you achieve your potential. If you don’t train enough or over train, you’ll end up in a similar position. The most common mistake is the base unscientific assumption that in order to run fast long-distance races you must smash yourself practising to run fast over long distances. Smart training saves getting hurt for race day: train when you train so that you can race when you race.

Training smart doesn’t mean that you don’t train hard, but it does mean that you train in a disciplined way, maximising your chances of achieving your best. Smart trainers also recognise that rest is an active part of training. To many runners, rest is a swear word, even worse than people asking you how your ‘jogging’ is going. Ultimately if you don’t understand your body and train smart you’ll pay the price. You’ll do good, but doing great is the goal. (Read more on this here). No matter how inspirational your performance on race day, the mind game begins long before it and if you haven’t been smart you’ll be found out.

Pace Discipline

The key change of pace in the first half of any endurance event that you need to achieve is most likely to be running slower, hardly ever faster. If you find yourself needing to run faster in the second half of an endurance race it is usually because you have run too fast in the first half and by then it’s almost impossible. This is where older runners appear to have the edge over younger runners. If you are content enough to allow others around you to rush off whilst you keep a disciplined pace, you will invariably pass most of those who disappeared from your view earlier on.

If you have done your homework prior to a race and have a confident idea of what your potential finish time can be you can set an average pace per/km and settle into the run. This is a critical mindset to master and requires the most application at the start of a race in the moments after the gun has gone. If you aren’t disciplined the first few km’s will go by with you stealing way too much time and paying the price later on. Taking time to get some time trials in before your race will give you data to work from in order to make accurate predictions about your potential finish time. Pacing strategy is worked out long before race day and it must work off results and not aspirational projections.

The Middle Miles

The middle miles of a race is that point you get to where you are a long way from the start and a long way from the finish. There is nothing to do but keep your pace and cadence and settle in for the middle miles. In a marathon this for me is usually from 21km – 33km. During this phase it is very easy to lose concentration and subsequently to lose form and effort. Your body starts hurting and a million reasons pop up as to why you shouldn’t maintain the rage.

Holding your head here is a discipline that takes time to learn and requires mental toughness. This is where the strong intrinsic motivation and inspirational goal setting comes into play. Learning how to ‘keep on keeping on’ is important to help you get through the middle miles maintaining pace and keeping your concentration levels high.

The Hurt Locker

Endurance races hurt, especially when you are racing for your best possible time. Wrapping your head around the hurt aspect needs to happen well before the race. Coming to at least an intellectual acceptance that you are going to hurt is important. When that hurt first starts the initial alarm needs to be countered with the settled agreement you have with yourself that you are prepared to hurt. Once the hurt start it doesn’t stop, but it can get more manageable, depending on your mindset. Again, visionary goal setting and strong intrinsic motivation comes into play. Hurt it is the price you have agreed you are going to pay to achieve your goals and now is when you make the payment.

Mastering the art of getting into the hurt locker and not allowing yourself to open the door until it is all over takes time to master. Once you are able to do that you are now able to push through new barriers of pain and panic threshold.

It is a strange sport that we do, in that suffering is very much a part of the experience. The willingness to suffer is of course critical, as is learning to embrace the suffering. The glory of achievement cannot be experienced without embracing the discipline of suffering. By all means train your body but also train your mind. Become good at what stops others who are not prepared to pay the price or endure the suffering.

In a marathon you can bet that the 33km mark is where you will find the hurt locker the most challenging. This is the 1km out of the 42.2km that will usually determine the outcome. A strong mindset here will help you survive and push on to the finish. Many a marathoner have their dreams dashed between 33km-34km.

Unwise decisions in training will come back to haunt you in this stretch of 1000m. I’ve seen time and time again that this is the point where people who race when they train get found out. If you are good at the hurt locker but unwise in your training, you will still get found out. The runner’s mindset is a continuum of wise decisions. One bad link in the chain can result in disappointment.

No Panic Stations

The fight against the alarming signals your body sends to you constantly in an endurance event can stop you in your tracks. A strong, informed mindset here is critical. If you have done the training and are conditioned enough to take on your particular challenge, science must trump the feelings of alarm. My tough point in any sub 3 marathon is usually the 18km mark when my legs start sending my worrying signals about fatigue and pain. I counter this by embracing the fact that the pain has set in, but also the fact that the pain won’t slow me down, it will just make the effort harder from a pain threshold point of view.

Science tells you that if you’ve done the work required you can continue at the pace required. Of course your legs hurt, you’ve been running on them for a considerable period of time at a considerable speed. Legs are supposed to hurt, but that doesn’t mean you have to slow down or be defeated. It just means that it’s going to cost you. We wouldn’t want it any other way would we?

Tactical Withdrawal

A strong mindset should not mean that you do dangerous things to your body. On any given day your body may respond in a range of different ways. Every now and then you may need to make a decision to make a tactical withdrawal, and live to fight another day. Too many runners have caused themselves considerable damage by not withdrawing and listening to their body. This makes the runners mindset a complex set of considerations when things are not going well.

I have run an ultra where 2 runners died (Comrades 2007, also here) and 2 others when one runner has died (Comrades 2014, Comrades 2018). No race is worth your life, and there is no shame in pulling out. We all need to work out whether that desire to pull out is simply a matter of mental and emotional weakness or if it is out bodies telling us we need to stop. It may be something as simple as a viral infection that affects your body to the point where you can die. In my 10 Comrades so far 4 runners have died. I admire any runner who pulls out of a race they have spent months preparing for and gone to considerable expense to enter.

There isn’t a race where I don’t feel like chucking the towel in. It is an angst I have to push through continually, particularly when my suffering is at its apex. Knowing what is really going on is critical. It may well just be an overwhelming desire to stop or it could be that something seriously wrong is happening with your body. Pushing through when all the facts tell you that it will damage you is not heroic. For every person this dividing line between pushing through and knowing that something is wrong is an art form to develop.

Feed The Beast

Plenty of runners have been undone by poor execution of a nutrition and hydration plan, nor not having a plan at all. This is an important aspect of your mindset. Apart from the necessary nutrition, hydration and electrolyte replacement for your body, a well-executed plan keeps your mind alert and helps you in the continuum of good decision making. Being careless about a plan and its execution has the potential to ruin your race and it could may well damage your health and without being melodramatic it’s valid to say that it can lead to your death. The fitter we get the easier it is to underestimate just how much stress we place our bodies under when we train and race. Don’t take your body for granted and remember that you are not bullet proof, as much as may feel that way.

Stan Fetting coaches with South Pine Stiders, wants to pull out of every race he does at least a few times, and has made every mistake a runner can make.




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