Many runners know the nervous thoughts that can overtake their minds minutes before the gun fires at the starting line of a race. They know how overwhelming the number of miles can seem the night before a long run day. As much as running is a physical activity, it can also be a mental workout.
It's long been practiced in sports to push out negative thoughts with positive ones, but how much does it help? Research shows that our thoughts have a significant impact on performance. So how do we tap into that and put it into practice on race day.
What do we know about positive thinking?
Maybe you've heard that consciously smiling during a workout can trick your mind into thinking you feel better and stronger. According to the Scientific American, expectancies "are capable of producing physiological outcomes." That means if you think you can, then (with proper training) you probably can cross the finish line with a personal record or knock out your first marathon.
"Such expectancies and learned associations have been shown to change the chemistry and circuitry of the brain," the Scientific American states. "These changes may result in such physiological and cognitive outcomes as less fatigue, less immune system reaction, elevated hormone levels and less anxiety."
In the late 1990s, Dr. Tim Noakes, author of Lore of Running, theorized that the brain includes a central governor, where the "sensation of fatigue" is a response from the brain, meaning the brain has a part in dictating our limitations. For runners, that means your brain is just as important to training as your body is.
How do our brains affect our performance?
Research suggests that performance is improved when athletes harness their minds to work in their favor. Dr. Robert Udewitz, of the Behavior Therapy of New York, studied two types of high school runners: a cross country team who distracted themselves from the pain of running and a second group of runners who consciously acknowledged the stressful thoughts and tried to work through them. According to Udewitz, the second group ran faster.
Another study found that people who focused on a certain muscle while working out were actually able to work out that muscle 22 percent harder.
A 2009 study found that cyclists who rinsed their mouths with a sports drink while riding saw an improvement over their 40-kilometer rides. The cyclists didn't even swallow the drink; but the act triggered the mind to believe that with the sports drink, they would perform better--and they did.
This research means that our minds exert a powerful influence over our physical performance and that tuning up our brains is important.
How can we train our brains?
If you're looking to implement more positive thoughts during your next run, here are some suggestions from the Behavior Therapy of New York.
- Recognize your irrational thoughts ("I didn't do enough training") and replace them ("I didn't get in as much mileage as I wanted, but I'm still going to do my best").
- Visualize the details of race day. Udewitz says this "primes the mind and body for success."
- Focus on what you can control on race day. Concentrate on your form and staying relaxed.
- Know that it isn't easy. Running is a taxing activity, so celebrate each mile that you finish as an accomplishment.
- Focus on other things, such as spectators and other runners. Pinpoint a runner or landmark and run to it, and then pick another and run to it to help break up a long run or race.