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Tell Me Tuesday: Managing the Mental Side of a Long Run

Getting from Point A to distant Point B is a mind game

This past weekend was one of the most challenging workouts of the entire Train Like a Mother: How to Get Across Any Finish Line - and Not Lose Your Family, Job, or Sanity Marathon: Own It plan, which I’m following for the Boston Marathon: 17 miles with 12 at race pace. I’d been fretting about it for weeks, especially since I had to tackle it the morning after flying more than halfway across the country. (A ham sandwich on an airplane and a bag of Sunny Seeds does not good carb-loading make.) Yet all my concerns were for naught: I nailed it! I was aiming for averaging 9:10-minute miles. Instead, somehow, I cranked out miles ranging from 8:38-8:53, with a lone 9:00 in there. I was jubilant and triumphant; I had gone from worrier to warrior. Woo-hoo!

Replaying the run in my head afterward, I realized it was a prime example of mind over matter. I’d managed the run in my head, so my body could handle it. Here are a few of my secrets for success on a long run:

Enjoy the planning. Attending to the details of an event—whether a wedding, child's birthday party, school auction, or long run—can either be daunting and draining, or it can add to the festivities. Maybe I’m an oddball, but I love mulling over possible routes for runs. This weekend, for example, I ran a familiar 12-mile loop, but tacked on a scenic 5 miles in the middle, when I knew I’d need an emotional boost. Use your long runs as a way to explore parts of town you don’t usually get to on your daily jaunts, or tack together a few loops that take you by the homes of friends who can stash water bottles in their front yard for you. Make it an adventure instead of a chore.

Chunk it up. Every time I thought about having to run race pace for “almost a half-marathon,” I got a bit queasy. Once I set off, I mentally divided the run into segments: 2 miles of warm-up. Up to Mile 4, when I could walk to eat a Roctane  and drink some nuun from my Amphipod. To Mile 6, when I’d be one-third done with the race pace miles. To Mile 8 for another energy gel. To Mile 9.6, where I could turn around on the scenic, riverside loop I’d added….you get the idea. The few times I mentally lifted my head to stare down the entire 12 miles, let alone the whole 17, I could feel my pace drop and my legs turn leaden. Instead, I stayed in the moment, focusing on short-term goals.

My constant companion on long runs

Fuel properly.
This might seem like a physical detail, but when your brain screams, “Stop!” “Slow down!” “This hurts!” “Walk, you moron!”  what it’s really telling you is, “I’m starved of glycogen, the stuff that makes me work.” By ingesting about 100 sugary calories every 45 minutes or so, your brain will stay on a more even, rational keel. On my 17-miler, I sucked down a gel at Miles 4, 8, 12, and even 15: It was a gradual, but steady, climb from Mile 14 to 16, and I wanted to stay strong to the finish.

Give yourself an out. When my mile splits kept staying about 20 seconds faster than I’d planned, I reminded myself I had that “cushion” of time to fall back on. I also told myself I could bail on the final few race-pace miles if I burned out. “Ten miles of 8:50s are basically as demanding as 12 miles of 9:10s,” I rationalized. Yet, in a deeper, more rational part of my brain, I knew I’d never allow myself to cash in that option, to fall short of the required work. Simply telling myself I could kept me pushing.

Recruit a friend. I didn’t employ this strategy this weekend, but I’ve run with friends a bunch of times during this training cycle. I used to think I had to have a friend run the whole distance with me, but my pal Molly made me realize having a friend for part of the run is often better than none. Focusing more on 10Ks this winter, Molly’s not up for long distances, so I’ll run, say, 5 miles, then meet her for 10. Or I’ll pick her up for the first half of a run, then finish up solo.

Now it's your turn: How do you tame the mental monkeys when you're running long?

31 responses to “Tell Me Tuesday: Managing the Mental Side of a Long Run

  1. Last Sunday was my longest run so far—6 miles—and this Sunday is 7. I just keep thinking it’s only 6+1. The “just plus one” is going to keep me from freaking out.

  2. I have to break mine up into smaller goals as well. Then at times I count markers, on one route there are fire hydrants, I count them & say run 7 to the top of the hill & usually I get distracted and miscount, then have to start over! It’s strangely very distracting! Sometimes a long run just sucks though & I’ll text someone for encouragement. Usually if I’m struggling it’s just sheer determination of not ever wanting to say “I quit”!

  3. For long runs, I have discovered podcasts and audiobooks to be my saviors. I get tired of listening to my music, soon it just turns into background noise and isn’t very motivating for me. I rented the audiobook of Born to Run from my library and downloaded it to my iPod. Best running motivation ever! I’ve also found some interesting podcasts to download. The other thing I’ve done is download a free metronome app on iTunes (it’s called Backbeat). I set it to 180 bpm and work on my cadence to that. It’s very monotonous but it works!

  4. I seek out new routes for a change of scenery, and I make a new playlist. (I know that music/no music is a topic of debate in the running community-I am definitely pro-ipod on long runs!) I also remind myself of how great it will feel to check this run of and be proud of my accomplishment.

  5. Are you getting as excited as I am??? I am finally feeling like I am in marathon mode and ready. Boston here we come!

  6. I have some awesome friends that have been riding their bikes next to me, even in the rain and snow! 3 hours of conversation without kid interruptions is priceless ;). I also typically run out and backs and focus on how far out I have to run to turnaround versus the total distance. The real mental challenge for me is when I start in a different location than normal or miss calculate my turnaround and have to run past my turn to go home.

  7. Nice job!

    My latest strategy once running is to count up rather than down, and even more importantly, to try not to think about the miles at all. I find it demoralizing to think “8 more miles” so when I hear the Garmin beep, I think “another mile down” instead.

  8. This post was perfect for me today. I ran a half this past weekend and had more of a battle mentally than physically. Thanks for the ideas!

  9. I love my long runs. Been following the FIRST training method from the book Run Less, Run Faster for this marathon training cycle and I find my long runs to be so enjoyable after a grueling track workout and an intense tempo run. And, I have definitely seen results after 5 weeks of training. I hope to break 4:00 this time (marathon #3)

  10. For too long I was avoiding hills on my runs and getting frustrated whenever my route would accidentally encounter one. Talk about mind monkeys!! But I entered a race with several hills and realized that I needed to “get over it” in a big way. So I wrote in “hill training” for a several different weeks in my training plan. The first of those weeks came and I was a little frantic, but I knew I needed to do it. My first morning of hill repeats ended up being a lot of fun – I kept challenging myself again and again and at the end of the run I was thrilled that I had conquered them all.

    I also discovered a life lesson: hills that seem daunting and painful when you are trying to avoid them aren’t nearly so challenging when you seek them out.

  11. Do you suck down the whole package at each of those points? Or do you divide it up?

    I tried out GU for the first time on last week’s long run. It was . . . . interesting. Ha!

  12. After going through all of my “lists” (what to cook for dinner list, grocery list, prayer list, wish list, to-do list, etc….) then I start playing number games counting things. When I can’t do mental math anymore (like figuring minutes per mile or fractions of what part I’ve completed) then I know it’s time for some nutrition (Cliff Shot Blocks or Gu or Lara Bar).

  13. I have conversations with people that I would never really have with them. I get to tell them what I think and always feel like I won.

  14. This is really helpful to me. I’m training for my first 1/2 and struggle with planning my long runs properly. It’s taken me a while to get the different factors down pat, but fuel is definitely a struggle, both before and during. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  15. I do the same thing with big organizing projects, I have to break it down. If I obsess that I have 14 miles on Saturday I won’t make it, but I do know that I have a 7 mile out and back plan, which helps since I know I usually make it 7 miles without going to the bathroom, then I plan for the potty break, then I try to pick the 4 miles so I know I’m more than half way to the half.

    But the best if having a buddy and some really good gossip, or a new play list, or issues that you’ve been stewing about.

    Finally, I always know I can call my hubby if I really run into trouble, but then there’s the bummer of not finishing which I hate more than anything, and always gets me going.

  16. this a part that I struggle with A LOT still.
    that and my stomach.!

    I do my best to NOT focuss on how miles are left
    I break it in parts also.
    before the big hill
    after it
    the turn around…once I have less than half to do I count down the miles.

  17. I’m think I’m the oddball when I say that the long runs are my favorites. I love the quiet, the beauty and the fact that no one needs anything from me when I run. I seem to have no problem getting out there for the long run, it’s the short-medium runs that I find myself putting off. However, all these strategies are going in my pocket for race day. Reminders for when I want to “quit”. Perfect timing as I work on my pep talk and race day strategy!

  18. I definitely break it up into chunks. I go through my neighborhood, then I do the loop, then I do the next neighborhood, then I get to downtown, and so on and so on. When I see myself trying to make it from driveway to driveway, I restart my playlist (assuming I’m solo) and rethink my planned route. I like the idea of picking up a friend and running with people in smaller distances rather than all solo or all with one person. I will definitely try that this summer while I train for Chicago!

  19. To help with the “fly and die” syndrome, I’ve been concentrating on running my long runs on a 5k loop. It’s helped me tremendously with “feeling” the pacing of my runs…I don’t own a Garmin…and probably never will.

    (Not gonna lie, I developed this because I grew mold in my amphipod one week had no other way to carry water.)

    Taking more time to refuel and drink is helping me get into the groove of training for a 50k race this year. I said I’d never run another marathon…but I never said anything about running farther!

  20. Great post! Since I’ve just started training for my first full, I know that I will have to work on all of these! I’m still not great at fueling and I have yet to figure out the logistics of stashing my water bottles for the longer runs. As for running with buddies – anyone want to join me for a long run in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Montana? 🙂

  21. I have a very very hard time with mental toughness. Typically, my brain starts to peter out 2 miles from the end—no matter how far. If it’s 18 miles, at mile 16 is when I hit a mental block EVEN IF I’VE DONE 18 BEFORE. If it’s 23, it’s mile 21. I don’t know why that is. Lately, I’ve been trying to make the 2 miles-from-the-end a not ‘common’ part so I don’t look around and see KNOW I am (that helps only a tiny bit).

  22. First of all, I need to have a goal and a plan. I was training for a full last spring, and the first thing I did was print out my training schedule and hang it on the fridge, I also had a copy in my office at work, if a piece of paper says I have to run a certain distance, then I’m unlikely to bail.

    As for the Long Run itself, I do try to run at least part of it with a friend. Last year my RP was training for a half, so I had company on about half of my LR. I’d often run a few km, meet her, run her LR, then only have a few km’s left to finish up. I also plan music and podcasts to keep myself entertained during the solo parts of the run. If I have a new podcast that I’ve downloaded, I’ll save it for LR day and actually be a bit excited to get out there so I can listen to it. Audio books also work for this.

    During the run, especially if the whole thing is solo, I split it up into 4 sections usually, half the out, then to the turn around, half the back, and then finish it up. Once I get to my turn around point I feel like I’ve mentally tackled the distance, as I really don’t have much choice but to get my butt back to my car or house, so I might as well suck it up and run in.

  23. I am training for my first marathon that will be in April, so recently the long runs have gotten, well long. First, running with someone is such a mental mind booster. You can talk or not talk, but they are there with you. Second, breaking the run up into fuel breaks is amazing! Gives you something to look forward to, especially if you love what you are going to be refueling with (for me it’s those wonderful energy chews). Another thing that helps break up the run for me is that I run the first half of my run with my running partner and then we split up to run our comfortable paces. Knowing that I made it through the first half gives me the confidence to know I can make it through the second half.

  24. I am big on breaking things down into manageable pieces and my long runs are no exception, especially if I’m tied to the treadmill. I tell myself I can have a drink of water every 15 minutes or I do micro intervals … I will play with my pace, varying by .1 MPH which in terms of pace is not much but gives you a mental break when you need it, same with incline.

    When I’m road-running, I focus on the out and let the back take care of itself. I have no idea why, but mentally if I can get my out distance, the back is somehow not really mentally taxing for me.

  25. I remind myself that it COULD be 10 miles on a treadmill. Other than that, I’ll remind myself that two years ago I was still hopping around on crutches, had 16 months of therapy ahead of me and should probably be thrilled that I’m running again. That always shuts up the Negative Nelly that dashes around in my head!

  26. While training for something (full right now) it seems to be easier for me. ‘Oh, 15 this week? That’s only 1/2 out and back farther than last week, of course you can do THAT.’
    Interestingly, it’s the shorter weeks that are the problem. ‘It’s only 9’ turns into the longest 9 miles ever. Need to work on that.

  27. I’ve been avoiding long runs like the plague lately, so my mental monkeys are alive and well. Since my son and I just registered for a half this summer, I better start getting those monkeys to behave and this post is a great start.

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