One of the toughest aspects of pursuing a big running goal is the mental game. I can run all day. Find the right pace, and I can cruise. But if my mind isn’t in the right place, the day can become a struggle. It’s all about the mental game.

What you think affects how you feel and perform. Training your brain is as important as training your body. — Mind Gym.

The Mental Game

As I begin to make plans for 2020 running goals, naturally, I’m reflecting back on what this year has looked like. I’ve run a lot of miles, accomplished some lofty goals and reached a few new heights, not to mention new distances. But there is still room for improvement.

I think back to a few races where I found myself in the thick of a low spot. It wasn’t necessarily climbing a mountain that broke me – hills are among my stronger sections. It’s not the training – I’ve put in several training weeks with 40 to 50 miles. And it’s not necessarily the in-race fueling – I have honed my calorie intake throughout the years.

Once I think about it, it’s always the mental game that breaks me.

mental game yogi berra quote

Ninety percent of the game is half mental

You can observe a lot by just watching. I’ll always feel a little insecure about my ability to race. Sure, I’ve collected a few top-10 finishes and age group awards at smaller races, but I’m by no means out there to compete for the lead.

I’ll never be an elite runner, but I can learn quite a bit from watching them. I spend quite a bit of time watching race recaps or reading articles to gather where the success is coming from. They all put in the training and the miles and they all can have the same skillsets out on the trails. But what differentiates one athlete from the next, is usually the ability to break through that mental barrier in a low spot and find a way to push through.

Once you reach a certain level of competency, the mental skills become as important to performance as the physical skills, if not more so.

I’m constantly reminding myself in a race that I’m only competing against myself on that day. No one else. And I’m the only person who can defeat me. At my best and at my worst.

Breaking the mental barrier

Thinking back to my biggest success of the year, my first 100k on the Divide in Idaho. I was pushing all day, successfully. My mind was set on pushing through mile 46 where I DNFd in 2018. All the miles leading up to that point, I was focused on one thing and I pushed hard, swiftly, and with purpose.

Once I reached and pushed past that point, the miles definitely became more difficult. At mile 48, I stopped, sat down, and shivered. I had been cold from the wind since the previous ridgeline but had not bothered to notice. Because up to that point, my mind was focused on the goal.

When I made it past mile 50 and realized there were 3 miles of boulders and scree ahead, it was a different game. I wasn’t mentally prepared for that section of the course and at one point I verbally shouted, “Get me off this mountain!” It wasn’t that I wasn’t physically capable of navigating those three miles. I had been so focused on the first 46, that I had not mentally prepared myself for the mountain that existed beyond that next rise.

You have to train your mind like you train your body.

This is a good exercise to walk through as I make plans and decisions for my 2020 running goals. I will run 100 miles within the next year. And that is a long distance. But before I get there, I need to mentally prepare for that feat of endurance.

This isn’t just about running. My mental game comes in strong as I enter a new year at work (our fiscal year begins October 1). I have new challenges ahead and a huge project to tackle over the next six months. So not only do I need to be on top of my game in training, but I also need to remain structured and focused in my career. That’s a big challenge.

Doubt does nothing to contribute to success. Whether at our worst or our best, it’s figuring out how to control and harness that doubt for good that can make or break our game.

How much time do you spend on the mental game?

This starts a series of posts working my way through Mind Gym by Gary Mack. I read the book and it inspired quite a bit of motivation. I’m sharing a few thoughts as I work through the book once more.

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