Ask the Experts: Mental Training

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I'm not very active, but I'd love to start running and maybe even participate in a half marathon one day. But I'm overwhelmed thinking about where to start. Can you help?

Sounds like you've already started! Just considering an accomplishment like finishing a half marathon is part of the goal-making process. It's important to give yourself permission to explore your options, decide what your goal will be, commit to it and then develop a strategy. For a half-marathon training plan check out Active Trainer or pick up the latest issue of Her Sports. You may also want to consult books, such as Jeff Galloway's Half-Marathon: You Can Do It, or look into Web resources.

Create a training schedule that includes small daily and weekly goals. A daily goal may be something as simple as running at a certain pace or completing a certain distance. A weekly goal may include adding a speed or hill workout to the week's training and making that workout a priority. This gives you something to focus on that is immediately achievable. By accomplishing intermediary goals, you'll stay motivated to keep working toward your ultimate goal without feeling overwhelmed.

I'd also suggest spending some time thinking about why you want to accomplish this goal. What's motivating you: To complete a new challenge? To lose weight? To raise money for charity? Training can become challenging and remembering why you set out to do it in the first place can help motivate you along the way.

I've run a few marathons and enjoy the training, but sometimes my long runs are hard because I get really bored. Is there anything I can do to stay focused and enjoy my runs more?

Long runs are definitely a challenge--both physically and mentally. There's no doubt they can get monotonous, and it can be difficult to stay motivated. To keep your brain interested, divide your run into several segments and plan a specific focus for each portion ahead of time.

For example, here's a plan for an 18-mile run. Use the first three miles as a warm-up. Make sure each body part, from your head to your toes, is relaxed and getting into an easy, fluid groove. Make the next six miles the second segment of your run and chose a new focus, like your leg turnover. Spend some time in this six-mile segment counting the number of times your foot hits the ground and work toward 90 strides per minute, the rate many coaches recommend. Try to get into a rhythm and to settle into a comfortable and sustainable cadence by the time you complete this segment.

Alternate your focus on the next six-mile segment. For example, mile one, focus on your breathing. Keep it deep, easy and smooth. Mile two, concentrate on relaxing your upper body. Be aware of hunching or tightening in your shoulders or neck. Mile three, pay attention to your core and overall body position. Repeat this breakdown of focus to finish this six-mile segment.

Take the last three miles to cool down. Go from head to toe to see how your body is feeling. And spend some time during those miles celebrating how far you've come and what you've accomplished.

If all else fails, get creative during your long run and give yourself an imaginary task, such as decorating a house or planning a dream event. Some runners do work in their heads, from writing memos to practicing presentations. You may be amazed what new solutions occur to you while you're pounding the pavement.

I get so nervous the night before a race I can't sleep. What can I do to relax?

Try this breathing exercise in bed the night before the big event: Lie on your back with both arms at your sides and begin a series of "circle breaths," deep, full breaths that start with an inhale through your nose, reach down through your abdomen, rise up through your chest, and finish with an exhale through your mouth. With each breath, picture a circle being drawn through your body. Breathe in for two seconds, hold for two seconds and breathe out for two seconds. Repeat this exercise for at least 10 full breaths.

Once you settle into a relaxed state, start to imagine your race. See yourself at the starting line, feeling relaxed and prepared. Then imagine yourself completing each mile. Try to create as many details as possible, and incorporate as many senses--sight, sound, touch--into your imagery. Most importantly, visualize crossing the finish line feeling strong and confident. Research shows a positive outlook can make a significant impact on your race results. Before you know it you'll be relaxed and ready to fall asleep.



Paige Dunn is a sport psychology consultant who counsels and  educates athletes on the mental component of the athletic experience through her private practice, Xcel Sports. She specializes in working with endurance athletes of all levels and abilities. For more info, visit xcelsportsgroup.com.

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