Training to be a mentally stronger runner

What makes a strong runner? If you have two runners, of absolutely equal physical ability, which one is going to win?  I would say the runner that is mentally stronger. Do you think that the person who always wins a race is the most fit? I certainly do not.  One of my favorite running buddies likes to say he can be defeated in a race but you’re going to have to beat him because he isn’t going to let up.  I love this mentality.  Maybe because of my competitive nature, I love competitive races.  I seek out races where I am going to line up with people of equal or better abilities and be pushed to my limits.   I’m not looking to win races, I am looking for races that push me to perform at my best for the day. In order to reach my goals, I need to train physically as well as mentally to be prepared for a goal race.
Let’s face it, racing is hard.  Whether you are racing yourself or the competitor next to you, there is going to be a point in the race where you’re going to want to stop or at least slow down. Having a bag of tricks to help you overcome these moments will help push your racing to the next level and help ensure that you are able to run your best race for that day.    Speed training and tempo runs are a great opportunity to practice overcoming those difficult moments. I think of speed runs as an opportunity to mentally rehearse my race day, it makes us more equipped to handle being uncomfortable. Here is a variety of tools and techniques I like to practice.  What works for one runner may not motivate another. For me, what gives me the added push, can vary by day. The bigger my bag of tricks, the more likely I am to reach my goal for the day.

  • Visualize- Before race day, visualize as much about the race as you can. Go through your warm up, stretching routine, and strides.  Visualize yourself running the entire race successfully.  Once you have visualized how perfect your race can be. Mix it up, visualize yourself struggling in a race and overcoming it. Visualize less than ideal weather and what you will do to handle it. When race day comes, this will help you stay in the zone and overcome almost anything that comes your way.  I use this on race day as well.  When I am struggling I repeat to myself “Relax, Strong, Fast!”  As I am saying it, I visualize the words very slowly and the second time I physically act on those words, by the third time I say it I usually feel more relaxed, confident and am able to pick up the pace. It works for me.
  • Positive affirmations/quotes-I am a sucker for inspirational stuff. I am constantly searching for the right quote to give me that added motivation.  I love finding new ones, but for some reason I have a few that have stuck with me over the years.  One of my favorite quotes is, “You are stronger than the moment.”  I have no idea where I heard it, or who said it.  I love that quote, and I know it to be true.  I know the discomfort of racing will go away almost seconds after crossing the finish line and I will be filled with adrenaline and overwhelmed with the feelings of accomplishment.
  • Mind Tricks- In high school our cross country team was working on 400 meter repeats. It was hot and we were tired and beat up.  The girls were starting to get whiny.   My coach looked at one of the runners as we lined up for the next repitition and told her, “no matter what, do not think about pink elephants!”  Questions erupted but she refused to answer,she was very adamant about not thinking about pink elephants.  While we were all standing at the line baffled, she yelled “go!” Every single one of us were wondering what does pink elephants have to do with running?  Why pink elephants? Is a pink elephant a real thing?  To our surprise, we all ran that lap as our fastest.  The first thing coach asked us, “what were you thinking about while you ran that lap.”  We all kind of giggled, pink elephants.  It’s so ridiculous, but it worked.  Sometimes we focus so much on the running, the mechanics, the breathing that we make things worse.  By thinking about those silly pink elephants we weren’t thinking about our 200 meter splits and how much our guts felt like they were going to bust.  It’s okay to enjoy the adventure, look at the crowd and get lost in your thoughts for a little bit.  We all run because we enjoy it, right? That doesn’t have to completely go away when the race starts.
  • Be your own coach-If you were your own coach, what would you say to yourself? What are your strengths and weaknesses? Is your form correct? As I am running I coach myself up.  I will tell myself things, such as, “your breathing sounds good, you look strong but you need to relax your arms.”  Seeing my coaches along the course in high school always helped me.  Now I just, kind of, recreate that as I go along.  Sometimes I will even nodding my head in agreement with my “coach.”  (Yep, I talk to my self and agree with myself.  Runners are all kinds of crazy ha ha). It can sometimes be like an out of body experience, because as the coach, I am able to distance myself from the struggles of racing.
  • Break it down into smaller pieces –At some point in a good race, I always seem to hit hostage negotiations stage. I am trying to convince myself to make it to the next check point. I argue and plead with myself. Depending on how much I am struggling it may be a light-post 100 meters away or the next water station.  Just maintain this pace until then.  When I reach that point, I move the goal back a little bit.  Focusing on the smaller goals makes it easier, to keep going. Thinking you need to hold this crazy hard pace for 3 more miles in a half marathon is hard.  Giving yourself a pep talk to the next water station is a lot more manageable.  I just need to get to the final mile, then I magically find another gear.
  • Remember all of your hard work- Each workout is like a deposit in the bank. You are constantly putting money in and race day is the time to make a withdrawal. Training cycles, rarely go 100% perfect.  There are good workouts and bad.  You manage to survive them and push through.  Remember the good workouts and how much you have grown as a runners and think of a time when you weren’t at your best and you were able to push through. Remember that hard work, and use that.  You should be confident in yourself
  • Sometimes I get mean with myself- You know that image of the drill instructor or coach getting in your face and yelling at you. I know it’s not the most positive way of coaching, but at the right time a good butt chewing gets me motivated. Sometimes while running I just have to have a few not-so-nice words to get me going.  One time I thought my coach yelled at me, to stop sucking.  This lit a fire under my you-know-what.  I found out after the race, he said something entirely different.  I also learned I run quite well when I am mad.


How do you handle the struggles that come along with pushing your limits in a race? Have you given it much thought, or do you wing it on race day?  When you think about race day do you embrace the discomfort it comes with an all-out effort, or do you dread it.

This is one of my favorite running pictures.  Not because I look good at all, but because I can see the work I put into reaching my goal.  It hurt and it was so worth it. 

Thank you so much for reading, check out my other posts for more great topics.  Got something you want to read about?  Let me know! Please comment, share and subscribe!





Published by RunCanvas

Hi I am Janell! Avid runner and coach with 14 years of experience helping runners reach their goals. Wondering if working with a running coach is the right choice for you? Run coaching is available for ALL levels and paces. If you run, you are a runner. Hiring a running coach will help you to become stronger and more resilient – both physically and mentally.

9 thoughts on “Training to be a mentally stronger runner

  1. This is a great post! I work on the mental aspects all the time, but sometimes it’s hard to remember all that in the race!

    Before the Panama City Beach half, Wendy @ Takingthelongwayhome gave us all momentum jewelry bracelets that said “never give up”. I touched it often during the race. It helped!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, mental toughness is sometimes more important than physical ability.

    Personally I am stubborn which always gets me through. Plenty of races where I should of dropped but being stubborn I finished somehow.

    As for training, I like finding partners who are a bit faster and try to hang with them on training runs. Helps simulate race day. Nothing wrong with a little competition among friends lol

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely agree on both points. I have watched a lot of inferior trained athletes beat or set better personal bests based purely on guts. There is point in a good race you have to decide your going to keep going.
      I love training/chasing my faster running buddies. I have some 2:22-2:30 guys who will pace me through long run work outs and tempos. Its pretty much easy pace for them and they do such a great job keeping me on point.


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