We all know the importance of training our bodies to achieve running success, indeed it is this training that allows us to go further and faster with every session we complete. However, just as important is the time spent training our brains - in other words using psychological practices to focus our minds towards achieving even more than we thought possible. SCOTTISH RUNNING GUIDE found out more...
As your running improves and you start to reach levels you previously only hoped you could, it is understandable that you would want to discover new ways of taking your body that extra mile. Nutrition, new equipment and energy drinks are all examples of ways in which you could improve your performance in a physical sense, but what if it were possible to use your mind to help you perform at a higher level? Scientific nonsense or does mind over matter really exist?
Sport psychologist Hayley McEwan talked SCOTTISH RUNNING GUIDE through some of the fundamental ideas in using psychology to enhance sports performance, primarily discussing the use of the four C's, Hayley explains: "The four C's or concentration, confidence, control and commitment are a great place to start when introducing people to sport psychology as these concepts reasonate with any level and type of run. In basic terms it is fairly obvious what these four words mean in relation to helping you achieve your potential, but applied more closely to your own situation you will really start to understand what a great effect they can have on your performance."
Kicking us off is concentration - key to performing well in all areas of life - and fundamental when training or taking part in a race. Hayley told SCOTTISH RUNNING GUIDE: "It is important to develop the ability to remain focused throughout your run - not forgetting what you want to accomplish from it - be it going the whole distance without walking or achieving a particular time."
Indeed, it is easy to become distracted in this modern, busy world - when out running we can sometimes find ourselves distracted thanks to work stresses and noisy traffic; not to mention tired legs and sore muscles. Hayley suggests: "In order not to lose focus you must have a few tools in your mental tool belt: think about your breathing, your technique or if racing, focus on a fixed point in the course or a runner in front of you. When you notice you are losing focus, return to one of these focus points and concentrate your mind on it. Staying in the present and not letting your mind drift to irrelevant things can help you achieve the most out of every run. Remember though that part of the joy of running is sometimes thinking about absolutely nothing and there will be times when you can indulge yourself in this!"
How do I know what to focus on? A key question Hayley encourages her athletes to ask themselves is 'where does my focus need to be at the start, after 1km, during the 5th km etc?'. Working out a concentration plan for each section of a race is a good way of training your concentration. It might be that you know there's a tough hill on the course and using some visualisation as part of your concentration plan can help. Hayley says: "If you find yourself at the bottom of a hill with little energy to tackle it, then try imagining a magnet is pulling you to the top and making your job that bit easier. Using visualisation like this is not only helpful in terms of spurring you on, but it is also a great way of blocking out any distractions around you."
Moving on, confidence is clearly very important when striving to be a better runner. It is easy to say, but in order to improve, you have to believe you can improve - that sub 50 minute 10K will only happen if you tell yourself you are capable of it. Hayley comments: "Believe in your own abilities - compare yourself with yesterday, not with anyone else, they've had an entirely different journey to you. If you feel that you have not trained enough for the race, reassure yourself that you can still give your best effort on the day. Adopt a philosophy of 'no regrets' and say it to yourself during tough moments in a race."
She continues: "The key that opens any door in the development of your running is confidence, and this transpires from having good preparation and planning. By setting achievable yet challenging running targets and then recognising what you have achieved after each training session the increments can be huge.
"For instance, log your sessions - and not just the numbers! Your thoughts and feelings about how a session went are just important. By becoming aware of the things you think about and say to yourself during training, you can start to make changes. Compare saying 'I hate hill runs, they hurt' to 'on my toes, drive the arms, head up'- what do you think each of these runners would look like performing hill runs? Sometimes, it's not easy to get into these habits, but faking it until you make it is a good place to start breaking negative thinking habits. Have a go of disputing your negatives and changing them to more positive statements in your head."
The idea of control is linked to each of the other C's. The premise is that you control the things you can control such as your emotions, preparation, and thinking. You can't control the weather, or other competitors, so don't waste vital mental space on them. Controlling your emotions by recognising what they are telling you can be a starting point. Hayley says: "Anxiety before a race is a common experience for runners, but it is not necessarily a negative experience. The butterflies and sweaty palms before a race can be perceived as readiness.
"That surge of adrenalin as the body prepares to undertake the task at hand can also leave some runners interpreting this as negative. However keeping focused on your race plan, having a mental list of why you're ready for this race and doing some physical relaxation beforehand can alleviate the symptoms of anxiety. Try deep breathing, inhaling down to your belly button, then exhaling and imagining all your worries being blown out in that breath."
Hayley also suggests using mental imagery when you feel like this, for example think back to a run you have taken part in previously, focusing on the positives to really 'own' what you did well such as steadily paced yourself through a steep climb, held back at the beginning of the race saving your energy for a great end - we all have memories of a race where we really made ourselves proud.
The last of the C's is your level of commitment. It is all very well, planning your runs and building your confidence but what really counts is getting yourself out there and doing the training. Hayley again: "Having an attitude of 'the least I can do is 10 minutes' often works when you don't feel motivated to run. If you are debating with yourself whether to go out running or not, consider a minimum of 10 minutes as your threshold. Can you afford 10 minutes? You will probably convince yourself that you can. When you are preparing for race day, thinking of all the times you didn't feel like going out, but did a minimum of 10 minutes can also contribute to your confidence."
All of this sounds great - but it is worth remembering that while focusing on a long term goal is clearly beneficial it is equally important to engage yourself in the here and now, last word from Hayley: "A lot of sports performers limit their thinking by only focusing on outcome goals, but it's the process goals that add up to the outcome goals. Processes are the building blocks that you work on every day contributing towards your desired outcome. Try working backwards from the outcome that you want, for example a sub 50 minute 10K and then work out the processes you need to engage with. Ask yourself 'what are my goals for tonight's run?' 'How can I prepare today, to get the most out of tonight's run e.g. nutrition, kit preparation, positive thinking about the run, mental imagery of the run. All of these things can be done in the short term to prepare, but will feed into that long term goal."
It is often said that medals and PB's are not won on the day, but in the many days of preparation before a big race. By using the four C's as part of your every day running regime you will realise that this sentiment is spot on and race day glory is just an added benefit.