The Mental Side: Sports psychology and an alternative philosophy of running

"Be water, my friend."

I'm not a fan of most elements of  sports psychology.  Why? Because I think it usually attacks the problem of inconsistent or poor performance from the wrong angle.  In virtually every case, the main problem with a poor "mental performance" in a race is caring too much.  Athletes invest a huge amount of emotion and self-worth into their running performance, and a poor performance, understandably, hits you hard in both of these areas.  By using classical sports psychology techniques like concrete goal-setting ("I will break 4:30 in the mile"), race visualization, or listening to motivational music or self-talk CDs, you magnifythe emotional investment that a runner puts into his or her race performances. 

A gymnastics balance beam is four inches wide.  Walking along a four-inch-wide line just above floor height is simple for anyone, but elevate that beam up four feet off the ground, and most people will find it much more difficult.  Raised thirty feet off the ground, all but the bravest of adrenaline junkies would refuse to walk it, even with a safety rope.  Using this as an analogy, we can see how elevating the value of a race in a runner's mind is akin to raising the balance beam ever higher in an attempt to motivate them to cross it.  If you set concrete and ambitious goals, visualize your race ten times over, listen to a self-talk CD and your pump-up mix before a big race, but don't run your best, what happens to your mental state?
Thus is my opposition to most sports psychology strategies.  If an athlete is performing well in workouts but not on race day, the first issue to address (other than poor pacing—most often going out too fast—which is frequently the true culprit for "not being tough" at the end of a race) is the level of emotional investment and expectations in races.  I believe that, physically speaking, races should be approached exactly the same way as a workout, down to the specifics of the warm-up.  If your training approach is sound and you are a reasonably experienced racer, you should not have a problem putting out solid performances on race day.  This doesn't mean every race is going to be a slam dunk—just like every workout isn't a slam dunk either.
To be sure, there is value in being prepared for a race.  Having a plan, having some conceptual goals, and having themes or concepts to focus on at different points in the race can all be very helpful.  "Hah!" you say.  "So you do use sports psychology!" Well, to some extent.  But it's one thing to make a race plan, and something else to make a good one.  A good race plan is one that does not invest your self-worth in your performance and keeps you focused on the task at hand—essentially, one that allows you to run as if you're doing an extremely hard workout.  You can read more about how to make a successful race plan in the companion article to this one, conveniently titled "How to make an effective race plan."
I am opposed to race visualization, meditation, contemplation, or any other significant mental or emotional engagement with the race before it actually takes place.  You only have to run the race once in the real world.  Why expend the energy to run it ten or twenty times in your head? Even visualizing running a race represents a significant investment of mental and emotional energy, which really ought to be conserved for the race.  If you've ever had to run a hard workout by yourself, you've probably found yourself imagining you're in a race—barreling through the last mile of the state cross country meet, perhaps, or crushing the last 10k of the New York City Marathon.  And your workout goes great!
Take this as evidence that the mere mental image of racing is an additional "energy reserve" that you can tap into when needed.  It makes sense not to drain this reserve before you need it most: during the race! So, do not lock yourself in a quiet room to meditate on your race plan for an hour the night before a race, or take cold showers in the dark to visualize every piece of the race (I was guilty of the latter during high school).
Mental energy is a semi-limited resource.  I say "semi-limited" because its limits are not as tangible as those of physical fatigue (we can't reliably measure your mental energy levels, nor will we ever be able to), and the limits to mental endurance aren't absolute—there always seems to be a little more you can squeeze out when you need to.
I am not of the opinion that the ability to endure pain and suffering is a rare or difficult to develop ability.  If you want to see people endure pain, don't go to a cross country meet, go to a hospital. There, you'll see completely ordinary people who, without fail, draw upon immense determination and tenacity to endure the pain and suffering of surgery, cancer, infections, and other afflictions.  If these people, who have likely never faced suffering of such magnitude ever before, can manage, surely any runner can push himself or herself to the brink of exhaustion, if in the proper mental state. 
Sports psychology is full of buzzwords, most of which I'd be quick to dismiss as hand-waving social science hooey, but there is one concept that I am particularly fond of, and it should be familiar to any competitive runner: Flow.  I barely even need to  explain it; anyone who has done more than a few workouts and races knows what it is.  You know that Flow is the special sensation you get when  flying at the end of a workout, or pulling away from an opponent in the final stages of a race.  More than anything else, this element defines a "good" performance.  So, the mental project for any runner is simple: Flow.  Most people will agree with this principle; the problem is how to achieve it.
At its core, Flow is a state of relaxation, a state of efficiency, and a state of calm.  This is why it is easier for most people to achieve in workouts than in races.  It is internal, which is to say, not created by external motivation.  Fundamentally, Flow does not come from aggression, tension, or anger.  This is a radical departure from the motivational speech, team cheer, crowd enthusiasm, Hollywood movie depictions of the inspired runner that are popular in Western distance running popular culture. 
To be sure, a major component of a great performance is dependent on strength, power, tenacity, or some other 'fierce' state of mind.  My position is that even the mental will behind the hard drive to the finish in a distance race can be a fierce and powerful state of mind that originates from a place of calm and focus, not one of aggression and negative emotions. 
Approaching the optimal mental state from the perspective of calmness, tranquility, and non-action is not a popular stance.  Many people could reasonably disagree with me on these points, but regardless, that is my view.  Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote: "Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it," and indeed water is my metaphor of choice for describing many aspects of running.  Many years later, Bruce Lee echoed this in his famous advice: "Be water, my friend."
Embracing this idea took me many years.  It is not the traditional way, the way of grinding and hammering and forcing your way to the top.  I don't expect anyone to make a sudden conversion.  But perhaps you can begin to see the fine distinctions in philosophical approach begin appear in running: the difference between fast and hard, the difference between relaxed and slow, the difference between focusand aggression.  This is my philosophy of running.  What is yours?

About the Author

John J Davis, PhD

I have been coaching runners and writing about training and injuries for over ten years. I've helped total novices, NXN-qualifying high schoolers, elite-field competitors at major marathons, and runners everywhere in between. I have a Ph.D. in Human Performance, and I do scientific research focused on the biomechanics of overuse injuries in runners. I published my first book, Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners, in 2013.

2 thoughts on “The Mental Side: Sports psychology and an alternative philosophy of running”


    I was thinking of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as I was reading the article thinking that Self-Actualization, then, must equal Flow in this case. In my experience, it's been true, too. Any time my mental or emotional life is out of whack, so is my running - it just seems to get harder and harder... whereas the opposite is also true: when my inner life is awesome, so goes my running!


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