5 Ways to Run Past Your Mental Blocks

You slept in and missed your 6 a.m. run. Do you feel like a failure the rest of the day? A pit stop during a race costs you time toward your PR. Do you berate yourself the entire way to the finish line? You feel a shooting pain during a workout. Do you ignore it and finish up your mile repeats?

If you answer yes to those questions, you're probably a perfectionist. About 40 percent of recreational runners are, says Oliver Stoll, Ph.D., a professor of sports psychology at Martin-Luther-University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany. Not that striving for excellence is bad. "Perfectionists set goals, train hard, and rarely struggle with motivation," Stoll says. But runners who beat themselves up also set themselves up for problems.

"Athletes, no matter how ambitious, have to learn to accept a certain amount of imperfection, otherwise they risk burnout and injury," says Nate Zinsser, Ph.D., director of the performance enhancement program at West Point Military Academy. Here's how to talk back to your mental bully so you can keep your running healthy and fun.

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THE CRITIC: "I was up all night with a sick kid. But I still have to race hard."

THE COMEBACK: "It's okay to adjust my plans."

One race day there's always the risk you'll face an obstacle illness, travel delays, weather extremes. When these things happen, you need to lower your expectations and tweak your strategy without deeming yourself a failure. Stoll says to follow the example of German marathoner Sabrina Mockenhaupt. At the World Championships last August, it was humid and 73ºF. Knowing she doesn't run well in the heat, Mockenhaupt decided to start conservatively. In the second half of the marathon, she felt strong enough to increase the pace and move up from 28th place to 17th while other runners struggled and faded. "She couldn't control the sun," Stoll says. "So she listened to her body and ran a race she could feel good about even if she didn't medal or PR."

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THE CRITIC: "I can't keep up with the frontrunners in my running group. That means I must not be a good runner."

THE COMEBACK: "It doesn't always make sense to compare myself to others."

Some unhealthy perfectionists judge their performance against other runners even if the playing fields are hopelessly skewed, says John Dunn, Ph.D., associate professor of sports psychology at the University of Alberta. "If I'm a 52-year-old overcoming an injury and I'm running with a bunch of healthy 25-year-olds, is it really realistic to judge my performance against theirs?" Genetic predispositions, age, injury history, work and family responsibilities can affect how well we run at any given moment, Dunn says, so it's much healthier to measure your performance against yourself. "If you're seeing improvement relative to your own abilities, then you're improving," he says.

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THE CRITIC: "My foot hurts, but I'll run through the pain so I don't get out of shape."

THE COMEBACK: "If I listen to my body, I'll recover faster from minor injuries and have fewer serious ones."

Running coach Roy Benson of Amelia Island, Florida, says backing off at the first sign of pain is the smartest thing runners can do. "When you feel a twinge or an ache, cut back your workouts to 50 percent right away," he says. That is, if your long run is eight miles, only run four; if your speed workout is four half-mile repeats, do two instead. "That alone could cure a minor issue. And it'll prevent it from turning into something bigger." If not, take three days off. Don't worry about losing fitness during such a short period of downtime. "Aerobic fitness begins to decline without any exercise in about a week to 10 days," Benson says.

THE CRITIC: "I'm a lazy bum because I took a day off."

THE COMEBACK: "If I allow myself to rest, I'll stay healthy."

It's great that you love running so much, but a routine rest day is the best way to stay committed. If you don't give your body that opportunity to recover, you risk injury, which could sideline you for several days or worse. "You need to view rest days as a time when your muscles are performing necessary recuperation work," says Patrick Cohn, Ph.D., an Orlando sports psychology expert. "A rest day is just as important to your training as a workout." If you have to do something, make it a low-impact activity like swimming, biking, or yoga.

Want to improve your speed and race better? Make sure you get enough rest.
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