Tell Me Tuesday: How to Mentally Conquer a Long Run

Molly, all thumbs-up and smiles, in the final miles of her debut marathon (with Sideshow Bob, a.k.a. me, by her side for a bit)

Let me start by oversharing: The idea for this post came to me as I was making one last pitstop before heading out to run 20 solo miles on Saturday. As my intestines rumbled and gurgled, I thought about how nerves can mess with your mind as well as your gut before a long run.

Let's use my good friend Molly as Exhibit A: Last year, Molly crushed her first marathon, literally cracking jokes at Mile 20 and smiling much of the route. But in 2010, before she had to drop out of marathon training due to a knee injury, she admitted the mere thought of long runs almost paralyzed her with fear. Molly would wake up with dread in the pit of her stomach, leaving her feel nauseated and barely able to climb out of bed.

Tying the drawstring on my capris, I thought about what a leap of faith it takes to set off on a long run. I can't count how many times I've run ~20 miles in training (suffice to say, a lot), yet even I feel a few butterflies banging around in my stomach as I strap on my Garmin 21o and take a final swig of nuun. As I covered 20 miles, I conjured up these mind games to share with all the Mollys and other mother runners out there.

-Chunk it up. This is the key to any run or race (or child's birthday party, scrapbooking project, or big work assignment): When you try to contemplate it all at once, it's overwhelming. You can slice-and-dice a run in countless ways, e.g. instead of thinking of it as 13 miles, tell yourself it's 5 miles + 5 miles + 5K. Sure, you have to complete the entire distance (13 miles), but only focus on the segment you're in. (Trust me: It eases the mental load.) Or break it up by roads. On Saturday, I focused on going around the riverfront. Then getting to the St. John's Bridge, followed by covering a stretch of Willamette Boulevard. Then.... Dimity sometimes needs to parse things even smaller, counting out 100 steps or making it to the next street sigh. Whatever works for you.

-Switch up entertainment. If you listen to an iPod or your phone on a run, "channel surf" your way through a run. I usually start with the previous week's episode of, "Wait, Wait....Don't Tell Me," then shift to "This American Life." Mock me, but I often then tune into our own podcast to have Dimity along for the ride for three or so miles. Finally, I switch to music. Sometimes a playlist, sometimes a random shuffle from Spotify. Anything to keep things fresh.

-Have company. This is an obvious one: Recruit a running buddy (or two or...) join you. And don't skip this suggestion just because no one you know is running long. I've had friends join me for the final half of a 20-miler, the first 5 of 15, the last 3 of 18, you name it. And I've also had friends ride their bike alongside of me (thanks, Pelmas!). Get creative in who you ask, and where you go. No law against doing multiple mini-loops to ensure your pals can join you. (Oh, and if you can't recruit any foot soldiers, follow my lead and stop at a friend's house for a cold bottle of water--plus a few cubes in the sports bra. Salvation!)

Let nature brighten your mood

-Enjoy bright moments. Let's just admit: No matter how lovely the scenery, a long run can be a grind. Well, call me a Pollyanna, but I look for little pick-me-ups wherever I can find them. The scent of pink roses climbing up a trellis. A friendly interchange with a cheerful mail carrier. The view from a bridge. A tasty GU.

-Don't reflect back on previous miles until the very end. This weekend, in the later stages of my run, I found it tempting to think back on the ground I'd covered. But whenever I did, I felt like a car running out of gas. Instead of feeling inspiring, I found it daunting. But, let me tell you, sisters: The second my feet hit our driveway, I let out a whoop and let all the images of the miles come rushing into my mind, filling me with pride.

-Don't confuse boredom with exhaustion. This mantra-like phrase came to me around Mile 16. Late enough in the run to know I had the distance well in hand...but well past the point where I was b-o-r-e-d with running solo. When you're "hurting," ask yourself if your body feels extreme discomfort, or if you're just wishing your run was over. I suspect it's usually the latter. (In which case, suck it up--and remind yourself it's better than playing Sorry! for the fifth straight time that morning.)

-Do mental scans of your body. Not only is this a way to keep track of tension and potential trouble spots in your body and running form, but it also helps pass the time (and remind you that you're really not as hurtin' as you think you are). I do like a "CSI"-like scan, starting at my feet and working up. Along the way, I shake out my fist-like hands, drop my hunched shoulders, loosen my clenched jaw, and try to get the corners of my mouth to turn up. Because, when all is said and done, I love running long.

Now you tell us: What mental tricks keep you going when the miles add up?


42 responses to “Tell Me Tuesday: How to Mentally Conquer a Long Run

  1. Breaking up the run is good advise. I would actually do 5 or 6 mile loops, and just focus on getting through the next loop. Sometimes I’d have a friend jump in for just one or two loops (it’s easier to get someone to do a 5mi run than a 15mi run).
    Also, for long runs over 13 miles, I like to look for half marathons to do. I’ll run the difference before the race begins, then enjoy the last 13.1 miles with other runners and course support (water stations, etc.).

  2. I focus on my feet, and how they are hitting the pavement/ground.

    The more correct, on the forefoot, they hit the ground, the more points I give it.

    But just remember, not to go negative if you hit the ground heel first, just improve the next hit 🙂

  3. The 1st 3 marathons I trained alone and did a lot of music. Last year ran with BRB for most long runs and it was like I got free therapy during my long runs. This year I’m back on my own and I miss my BRB, but I too now do podcasts (AMR, book girl) and I’ve also done books on tape/cd. Just make sure you don’t have it on shuffle- did that once and lets just say I thought it was the strangest story :).

  4. I agree with all of your suggestions. I only add that I since I usually run long with other people, I have had a very difficult time running solo. Years ago I used to run mostly solo…but I have happily met some great running partners on the way. Unfortunately when they can’t join me, I find myself not wanting to do it by myself…I think I have become quite dependent on my buddies! Any one else find themselves dreading a solo run? Thanks for the post!

  5. I try really hard to be very present in the run. Whether it’s 5 or 15 miles, I tell myself “this is what I’m doing for the next hour or more”. I remind myself before I start that it’s not about “getting it over with” but, instead enjoying the way I have chosen to spend my time. If I start a run with the attitude of just wanting to “get it done” it’s so much harder & I don’t enjoy it. I guess committing to the run & remembering it was my choice & I can also choose to savor it. Sounds so simple when I put it down like this, but, when training for longer runs it’s easy to slip into an “I gotta log miles” kind of attitude.

  6. I prefer to run alone. I don’t like worrying if I can keep their pace or if I’m running too fast or slow for someone else. I also don’t listen to music, I feel like it gets in my way mentally & makes the run harder. Some of my favorite tricks are to look up while I run & watch the trees “move over me” or just watch the sky. Looking up helps me breathe easier & let’s my mimd wander. I also do the “all systems check” starting @ my feet & working up my body. “Legs are fine, sit back into your run, keeps me from leaning too far forward, relax the hands & shoulders, not even breathing hard, etc”. If I get bored, I just start listing everything I’m greatful for. Pretty soon it turns into thing like “I’m greatful for this weather, the color of the sky, watching those brothers play in their yard, the smell of lilacs, etc. Not only do you truly experience your run but it becomes this overwhelming positive moment for me. I also run 3 or 5 mile loops over & over for long runs. Then its more like 3 loops today instead of 9 miles. Mentally, way easier

  7. I have been lucky enough to find a long run route that is mostly uphill (nothing crazy, just a gradual incline) on the way out, that way I can tell myself that the way home is all downhill!! It really helps the second half seem much easier!

  8. Thanks for the tips! I am getting ready to challenge myself with my yearly fitness goals and all of these help me realize that I too was getting to be a bored runner. I need to get back to running for me and finding the joy!
    What really got me recently was reading Born to Run. Perhaps I need to dust it off and read it again.

  9. That’s so funny that you said the thing about confusing boredom with exhaustion. Yesterday, as I hit the last mile of my first 13 miler since February, I had a conversation with myself about why I was dying to quit. I was thinking I was beat, but then I realized that I was just bored to shreds! I’m going to attempt downloading a digital book recording or a couple podcasts for my Ipod to see how it goes on the next one. 😉

  10. thank you for the tips. I have seem to lost the love of running or the fear of pushing to hard causing injury but now maybe I wonder I am just bored. I struggle through short runs, I will try these tricks for sure!

  11. Getting really nervous about my first Half Ironman this weekend and these tips totally help. I just went into my race plan spreadsheet and wrote “chunk it up,” and “body scan” into my goals sections for each leg!

  12. For something long – at least 10 miles – I reward myself. I think of something ahead of time & then reflect during my run…I also imagine how amazing I will feel upon completion. And, during the couple of moments of doubt that creep in, I think about how awful quitting would feel and I KNOW quitting is NOT AN OPTION!!

  13. 1)When I first started running long (and they were about 5 miles), I wrote a list of all the places/neighborhoods that I wanted to see by foot because so much can be missed in a car. As my runs got longer, I began checking the list to determine where I could sight-see with my mileage.
    2)I only listen to music on my long run as both an extra incentive and so I don’t lose the importance of listening to my body.
    3)If my long run is on a Sunday morning and I feel guilty for skipping church (again!), I run to church, say a quick prayer, and continue on my run with a spiritual boost.

  14. I take my dog, Jengo, with me the first part of my run. If my son is awake when i drop the dog off, he goes in the stroller for the rest of the run. If he isnt up, then i enjoy some time with my hands free!

  15. I had to laugh because your podcast, Wait Wait and TAL are my top three and I actually save them up all week for my long run!!

    Even better than podcasts though (sorry!) is the company of my running buddies. I used to do all my long runs solo, but once I found a group that I clicked with, I never looked back. In the spring, when I was training for a full and they were training for a half, I would do 10-12 km before meeting up with them, and then join with them for the remaining (and tougher!) 20 km or so. On occasion, I even ran to our meet up spot to get in the extra miles and then had my husband pick me up after. Their company makes the miles speed by, and it’s a fabulous way to start off my weekends (we run Saturday mornings).

    1. I save the same podcasts every week, but instead of TAL, it’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. Music is always easier to motor to though, so I play music for the last few miles.

  16. Breaking it up mentally is key: 3 + 3 + 3 or whatever seems much more manageable than 9. I’ve been doing my long runs (10 on Saturday) on the treadmill and I watch a movie. Mostly because my husband travels so I like knowing that I can at least stick to my schedule if I have to. But I want to start doing them outside. I’ll be tracking down a pal for sure — and if not, loading up an audio book. Bossypants (Tina Fey’s book read by her) got me through a lot of great training runs for my most recent half-mara. I’m thinking Jenny The Bloggess’ book might be my next one!

  17. I have had my (not always willing) teens ride their bikes carrying my fuel. My best times were with them. Hopefully they are learning something about work and endurance while they watch. My daughter laughed watching me “jump” with van halen in my ears. We have had some precious conversations on lonely long roads.
    I also prefer to run alone.
    Mile 1- get out done
    mile 2- just do push it through
    Mile 3- be me
    mile 4- check my form
    mile 5- feeling the jive
    mile six- sucks can I stop?
    mile 7 -heaven (run more than an hour)
    mile 8 -I feel great
    mile 9 -shine (get into the song dance a bit sing)
    mile 10 – think of where I’ve been!
    mile 11- I have almost run a half!
    mile 12- delve deep into why
    mile 13- check out the scenery
    mile 14- grateful for a support team (my hubby who has been home with kids for 2 hours now).
    I throw gratitude, noticing and greeting every car bike person I pass with every mile.
    I can run!
    Always feels great to be done!!

  18. This post couldn’t have come at a better time. I lost the mental battle during my long run this week. I was off schedule, the AMR podcasts and my music wouldn’t load to the MOTOACTV and my husband put compression sleeves in the basket with dirty, wet towels. Twas a mess. I gave up, cried and cut my run short by 5 miles, deciding along the way that I would abandon marathon training. I, of course, feel differently now.

    I think it’s important not to have just one thing that clinches a long run (music, partner, etc.) When the tough really gets going, I count my steps. I also switched up my fuel, mixing in Pretzel M&Ms. Every mile I made, I got two of those tasty bites. And, in last ditch efforts, I imagine my dad riding his bike next to me. He never got to see me run but I think he’d love it and would have been a great sherpa. Thinking of him always helps.

  19. During training for my last half, my BRF and I took turns planning the route for the long runs. It really makes the time go faster when you don’t know where you’re going because she planned the route or if it is new scenery. I live in a smaller town, so a long run pretty much covers the whole town!

  20. I like to break up my long run too. I will do a 2 or three mile loop then head for an out and back. By the time I am turning around, I am more than half way done and that gives me a lift.

  21. I have always been a solo runner….i’m so worried that whoever I’m running with is going to try to TALK to me and I just don’t want to talk while running! Too exhausting! Do you guys like to talk while running or am I just very asocial??

      1. Hey Jessica G,

        I lost my running partner recently, long story. So, I have a friend who lives in another state. We run “together” she in her time zone, me in mine. We text each other on long runs for support. Seems nutty but it keeps us on track. If one of us is dealing with a sick kid or hubby, we cheer the other one on. Virtual running partner and no real run/talk. BTW the texts happen during what we call pit or puke stops….we also have a play list…we got it off of here to train with. It helps.

    1. I felt the same way, like running with someone would somehow “ruin” what I had going on. I have to say, I still love running by myself but talking someone through the last few miles of a long run is pretty cool! (AND, I found that I’m the talkative one 🙂

  22. Towards the end – when I am feeling ready to be done – I tell myself how much time I have left instead of miles. If I have 3 miles, I think, okay a half hour…no problem. Somehow that seems easier than 3 more miles.

  23. I always have plenty of thinking to do on those long runs….I prefer out and back routes, so I have some sort of destination…and then no way home except my own two feet.

  24. No tips for you, but I’m definitely stuck right now with confusing boredom for exhaustion. Lately I much prefer doing hill repeats and my new fave- the track. Short, sweet and kick my ass, which is a good feeling. Even though I always have great company and a scenic view on my longer weekend runs, I’m just not feeling it right now. Hoping it’s just the miserable heat, is all…..because I do want to get back to my double digit days!

  25. I found I don’t do well with loops around the neighborhood unless it is when the kids are in bed. They see me and want me to stop and play. Way too tempting.

    Instead, I like to pick a place to go. I had a 10 mile run on Saturday so I decided to run to church. The most direct distance isn’t 5 miles exactly, so I went through the neighborhood a little to make the rest of the distance. I didn’t think of the return trip until I got there. Then I headed home knowing the only way to get home was my own two feet. It worked, even if I was slow.

  26. The best trick for me is to run with friends, even if it’s not for the whole run.

    This past weekend I tried a new trick while running solo and it was so awesome. I imagined I was characters from different movies and had a blast making up the script. My favorite was imagining I was “Jane” Bond and how I was taking out all my “enemies” during the run. I must have looked like a complete goofball with a huge grin on my face, but it helped so much.

  27. I like to do out and backs for long runs. That way if I need to run 14, I play a 7 mile out course. While running the 7, I’m thinking 4 down, 3 to go. 5 down, 2 to go. Then once I hit the turn around point, I tell myself I’m just running back home now.

    Also, I am so amused that you said you listen to Wait Wait while running. I said that in runchat once and a whole bunch of folks commented that they would never listen to Wait Wait during a run or that they couldn’t imagine doing it.

  28. I’ve recently started inviting a friend along for portions of my long runs and it really helps give me a little lift (even if it’s just for 3 miles). Also chunking my run into smaller segments helps me to not get too psyched out about how far I have to go.

  29. Ha! You must have me in mind…I have a 13 mile LR this week and woke up dreading it…but chunking it up is such a great idea…I usually only do that at the end (I think “I only have a 5k left”) but I will definitely try it this week. And I ALWAYS run by myself, which can get a little monotonous after a while but I cherish the time alone. As a mom of 4 I never get to do anything alone, never mind spend multiple hours on my own!

  30. So true, “making it to the next street sigh.” That’s generally how those extremely long runs look to me. If I can only make it to the next street. Sigh. If I can only make it to the next street. Sigh.

    I always tell myself I’m just going to run 5 and take enough fluids and food for the training distance. I always run the called for distance, but I still play the 5 mile mind game with myself even after years of long training. I get to 5, decide whether I want to go home or stay out (hint: I’m always at least 5 miles away at that time), then commit to another 5. That continues for the entire distance. I do the same thing when I run the race. Somehow it makes it more manageable in my head.

  31. I remember hearing about Molly on the podcast! How cool to see her on the blog as well. I don’t run to eat but when I run a really long run, I do reward myself with something indulgent. Sometimes that meal is my carrot. Thanks for the tips and reminders. I especially enjoy taking the LR bird by bird or, in this case, mile by mile, and the exhaustion/boredom check in.

  32. I bring along flavors of gu and nuun that I only use for long runs. That makes things seem a bit more rewarding.

  33. Mix up your playlist or add some new songs and save them for your long run. It always makes me smile when a something I haven’t heard comes on and if I really like, I might repeat it a few times. That will cover at least a mile or so.

  34. I’m not sure I’m the only one, but ususally I prefer to do my long runs alone. I “love” the idea of going slow/confortable for long time exclusively dedicated to me. I can solve so many problems, or a can think about nothing in particular. A friend of mine invited me to do my 13mi long run with her na dother 2 friends, and inmediately without thinking too much I said: thanks but no thanks. She just smiled and said that she must be a newbie because she doesn’t have the drive to run by herself more than 4mi.
    However, I must say than while training for the marathon the best long runs were the ones I had a friend joining me for the last 6mi.

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