7 Ways to Strengthen Your Mental Game

How to train your brain to help you run your fastest and farthest

It’s near the end of a long, hilly run. Your legs feel like cement blocks. Your rival is gaining ground, but who cares? It’s hot, your feet ache, and you just want to kick back with a burger and an ice-cold beer.

Been there? We all have. Everyone, from ultra-swift leaders to back-of-the-packers, battles mental fatigue and negative thoughts. Give those thoughts control, and you’ll sabotage your race. Tame them, and you may find yourself finishing stronger and happier than ever before.

Samuele Marcora, director of research at the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at England’s University of Kent, studies mental fatigue’s impact on physical performance. His 2010 study on a group of rugby players showed they could manage a 700-watt sprint on a stationary bike—even after they thought they’d already reached exhaustion. His research suggests perception of effort limits exercise tolerance in highly motivated subjects.

Extreme endurance athlete Richard Parks was the first person to climb the highest mountain on all seven continents and stand on both poles in seven months. He told BBC his mindset, rather than brute force, got him through difficult and sometimes life-threatening situations. Talk to any marathoner or ultrarunner and they’ll tell you the same: Their will to finish carried them forward in those critical final miles. To develop that kind of iron will for your own runs, you need to learn to override some of your brain’s signals that slow you down.

If you’ve ever conceded defeat to a competitor or slowed to a shuffle near the end of a trail race, examine what’s inside your skull. Did you convince yourself you were too tired, that you couldn’t take the pain anymore, or that you weren’t good enough? If so, it’s time to hit the brain gym to build your positive mental muscles. Here’s how.

Give Your Brain Some R&R

In 2015, Marcora co-authored a study with Alister McCormick and Carla Meijen that analyzed a host of literature on psychological factors affecting endurance performance. The authors found consistent support for self-imagery, self-talk, and goal setting as performance enhancers. The study says that because “mental fatigue increases perception of effort and undermines endurance performance, endurance athletes should avoid mentally draining activities before they compete.” In other words, if your brain is tired, it’ll trick you into thinking exercise is harder than it really is. That gives us a good reason to relax and get plenty of rest the night before a long run or race—and to avoid crossword puzzles on race morning.

Run on a Full Tank of Fuel

If you’re cranky late in the race, check the obvious first: Are you hydrated? Have you eaten lately? Sometimes a gel or a piece of fruit is all you need to get your head straight. According to runner, coach, and author Steve Magness, glucose (aka sugar) can help increase willpower and self-control. Not only do your muscles need food for energy, so does your brain.

Focus on the Present

Focus on the step you’re taking now, Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter, sports psychologist and author of Your Performing Edge, tells Trail Run Project. “We’re always worrying about the miles we’ve just run or the miles we have to go, but the only mile that matters, that you can do anything about, is the one you’re in right now,” she says. “Say to yourself, ‘Just this mile. Just this step. Just to this aid station.’ Keep your mind focused on the task at hand.”

Recite Power Words

San Francisco Bay Area-based ultrarunner and coach Sarah Lavender Smith used two phrases to help her run hard in the final 20 miles of this year’s 100-mile Western States Endurance Run: Get it done, I can run, and suck it up, Buttercup. “Toward the end, my legs were seizing up,” she says. “I was doing four-minute run-walk intervals. That mantra helped me stay in the moment.” It also helped her finish in less than 24 hours, earning her a coveted silver belt buckle.

Dahlkoetter recommends repeating power words and phrases. Pick words that resonate with you. For example:

  • I am a winner.
  • I am in my element.
  • This is easy.
  • I am strong.
  • I run with joy and ease.

“We can change the way we feel by changing the way we think,” says Dahlkoetter.

Picture Positive Images

Dahlkoetter recommends using mental images to help you through rough patches. In a race, imagine your competitor has a magnet on her back and let it pull you toward her. If you’re alone, which happens often in an ultra, put the magnet on a tree of the top of a hill.

You can also imagine energy pouring into you through a funnel at the top of your head. Depending on your beliefs, this energy can come from the sun, a higher power, or from friends and family.

Associate and Disassociate

“When you associate, you’re aware of your body,” says Dahlkoetter. “Do a body scan from your head down to your legs to check your posture, relax tense shoulders, and to assess your form.” Focusing on your form will help you run strong late in a race and take your mind off the pain.

In non-competitive environments, try the opposite. Take a mental vacation using disassociation. Imagine yourself swimming, soaring like a bird, or whatever else inspires you.

Dahlkoetter says alternating between association and disassociation can help you get through dark patches in an ultra or extra-grueling race. It worked for her during the IRONMAN® World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. “After the bike, I was ready to quit. It was so hot and I was so exhausted,” she says. “I started walking the marathon.”

Instead, she went back to a time when she felt strong and confident: the San Francisco Marathon. Suddenly, instead of suffering through the humid Kona heat, she was running in cool, foggy Golden Gate Park. “I took myself there and realized I wasn’t walking anymore. I moved up from nineteenth to second. That’s how powerful this stuff is.”

Embrace the Pain

The pain from effort (not injury) comes from the mind. You can work through it. “Instead of This is too painful. I can’t do this, tell yourself, This is what my body should feel to go faster,” says Dahlkoetter. “Remind yourself that it’s just a sensation, and it’s connected to doing your very best.”

Lavender Smith remembered this and her mantras during the inaugural Grand Circle Trail Fest, a three-day stage race through Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, and the Grand Canyon. She finished as the third female runner. Discomfort and thoughts of giving up come with the territory, says Lavender Smith. If you feel too comfortable, that could be a sign you’re not really pushing your limits. “[When you do feel discomfort,] congratulate yourself on being tough enough—and trying hard enough—to run at the maximum effort level you can sustain for the race distance,” she says. “Reassure yourself that your rough patch will pass, and the pride you feel afterward will make it all worthwhile.”