Mind games

There’s a well-worn running aphorism that goes something like: “The greatest distance you’ll ever cover is the six inches between your ears”.

For such an intensely physical activity it always amazes me how much in running comes down to mental attitude, whether you’re tackling a marathon or just going for a jog around the block.

If you’re thinking positively and sending yourself upbeat messages there’s not much that can stop you. Conversely, if you’re mentally off your game nothing is going to go right. You may even end up quitting.

And often times in a run, especially over a distance or at a pace that is close to the edge of your capabilities there is a key moment when you need to give yourself a mental boost just to keep going.

Marathoners know it as “hitting that wall” - that perfect storm of mental and physical and disintegration that can prove insurmountable.

Jez Bragg knows a thing or two about getting through the tough times.

The 31-year-old Englishman signed up for his first marathon only 9 years ago and since then had been hooked on distance running, going longer and longer.

In 2010 he won the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, one of the world’s most brutal races.

“You have to treat it with a lot of respect,” he says, with typical understatement. “Just finishing is a massive achievement.”


Inevitably there are low points. So how does he battle through?

Bragg likes to break down the race in his mind.

"I’ll have little time goals for certain sections,” he says. “You can’t think, ‘I’ve got 40km to go’. Counting down is the worst thing you can do.”

And keeping a sense of perspective is also important, he says.

“You can maintain your morale by building a rapport with the people around you and just laughing at yourself for being in such a state. A sense of humour is so important and keeping smiling when you’re feeling so crap.”

And while not many people would want to do the distances Bragg loves, that advice can work for all of us.

Paula Radcliffe is another legendary tough distance runner. After she won the New York Marathon in 2007 she revealed that it was the thought of her baby daughter that kept her going when the pain was at its most intense.

“I kept repeating to myself I love you Isla, I love you Isla to keep my rhythm going,” she said.

Whatever gets you through.

Personally, when the going gets tough, I’ll use a stack of mental tricks either to distract the mind from the suffering or, alternatively, to focus ever more closely on it. One quirky trick I’ve developed is to bring to mind a close family member who died a few years back. He was a tough competitor and it invariably helps me re-focus if I imagine he is running along beside me.

What do you tell yourself when the going gets tough?