We run for all different reasons, but regardless of what those reasons are, we don't run to get tense. Tension is something we runners hope to shed, rather than pick up along the way.
Unfortunately tension is exactly what happens to the body when fatigue sets in during a run. It's easy to lock up when protecting tired muscles and before you know it you're expending unnecessary energy. And getting more tired.
One of the great attractions of running – especially outdoors – is its ability to help us switch off and get into a state whereby you're not even aware of your footfall. But there comes a time in any run when it's also good to check in on yourself, be it a fartlek session, a tempo run, a long, slow distance run or a race. Especially in a race.
Rush to relax
A good time to do it is when you start to focus inwards, on the negatives: How much further? It's tough to breathe. I really feel like stopping. This isn't fun.
Switching your thoughts to a constructive checklist can help shift your focus away from the negatives. Also, the more you get used to checking in on yourself, the less likely you will be to develop bad running habits and the less likely that these habits will develop into injuries.
The more practised and aware you are of what good running form is, the stronger a runner you will become.
Kathryn Holloway, a Sydney running coach and 3:04 marathoner, has a mental checklist she uses while running - and especially when racing - to help keep her body relaxed.
"I go through this checklist when I'm starting to hurt," says Holloway. "I start with my feet and slowly tick everything off. It really helps reset me."
The runner's checklist
This is Holloway's eight-point checklist:
Start from your feet. It makes sense to start with where you land, which is key to the rest of your body position. Check that you are landing mid-foot, nice and light, not like an elephant. Think about pushing off with the big toe.
Ensure you have a slight lean from your hips, you want gravity on your side, so leaning backwards won't help you relax or run forward.
Hips are tilted under so you're not running with your bum stuck out like a duck.
Hands are nice and relaxed. Think of holding an egg in your hands that you don't want to crack. Your forefinger and thumb are lightly touching, like a yoga pose.
Shoulders are important because the further you run, the more tense and less relaxed you become, and you can find your shoulders will end up around your ears. To get your shoulders down, think about brushing your fingertips across your hips.
A quote by Tani Ruckle – a 2hr33 marathon runner – which has become my mantra for running when it all gets tense is: Fingertips, hips… fingertips, hips. It always works for me and brings me back to that nice relaxed state.
Breathing. Focus on slowing the breath in. Visualise the breath getting all the way down into the belly, and exhaling as quickly as possible. I like to breathe in for three counts, out for one, but everyone finds their own ratio. If you find yourself breathing fast with short, sharp, shallow breaths, this is the time to reset and focus on breathing. It has an amazing effect of relaxing you when running.
Face. Think of being nice and relaxed through the jaw … and let your face muscles loosen.
Head should be slightly tilted down; you look weird if you are looking up.
Get in the zone
Another running coach I know jokingly suggested that once you've done your full-body checklist you're likely to have finished your run or just be very bored. But at least you won't have given up.
On that basis a checklist serves as a distraction technique, too. As does music. I'm not a music user while running, partly because I'm not a fan of gadgetry and also because I'd likely get too distracted by the music and run into something.
But it's an important tool for runners such as Holloway, who says it serves the dual benefits of pacing assistance and zoning out.
"I often find I run to the beat of the music," she says. "I have some good old '70s and '80s playlists that take me back to some good memories and that's a good way to distract myself, too. Before I know it, a few kilometres have gone past and I didn't even notice."
Do you have any relaxation tips to alleviate running tension? Let us know in the comment section below.
Pip Coates is a running tragic who knows the euphoria of training for and completing a major race, but also the heartbreak of injury and every bend in the long road back. In between runs she is also the deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review Magazine.