Last updated: Mar 04, 2014
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Going out for a run is a great way to clear your mind and burn off stress. But what happens when your head starts to interfere with your legs? "Running is a hugely mental sport—pretty much everything goes through your mind when you're out there, and you can easily get in your own way," notes Cindra S. Kamphoff, PhD, director of the Center for Sport and Performance Psychology at Minnesota State University in Mankato. But worrying about how you'll make it up that super steep hill or whether you'll hit your goal time uses up valuable energy—not to mention turning your runs into a downer. Master your mind and you'll not only make a big difference in your performance but also enjoy your workouts that much more. Put your brain to better use with these strategies from sports psychologists and coaches.


Mental block: Making excuses
Defeat it: It's too hot. It's too cold. This path is uneven. All these negative thoughts—especially those about things outside of your control—are enough to make you want to plant yourself on the sofa. The next time your downbeat inner voice starts to say, "I can't," change the conversation. "Instead of thinking, This is too hard, tell yourself that this challenge is going to make you a stronger runner," says Kamphoff. If it's 90 degrees out, remind yourself that running will show your dedication, and take some pride in that. "Most of us aren't in tune with that little voice," she adds. "Once you are, you can reframe it and get rid of those self-imposed limits."

Mental block: Setting unrealistic goals
Defeat it: "Runners often have a black-and-white goal, like running a 10K in 45 minutes," says Kamphoff. But this single-mindedness can backfire, especially if you find yourself veering off pace. Instead of setting one target, choose three, she advises. The first can be narrow, like hitting a certain time. The second should be a bit broader, like coming in the first half or top 10 of your age group. And the third should focus on the process itself. "Give yourself the goal of taking in water at every mile," suggests Kamphoff. "Having these multiple goals will take away some of the anxiety and help you perform your best."

Mental block: Trying to keep up with the Janes
Defeat it: Obsessing over your ability to match pace with that redhead right in front of you can leave you wanting to just go home. So whenever you start to compare yourself—unfairly—with others, remember all the things that you love about your running. Working this out ahead of time can help. Take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle, suggests sports psychologist JoAnn Dahlkoetter, PhD, author of Your Performance Edge. On one side, list all your worries, like I'm too old to do my best time. On the other side, adds Dahlkoetter, who has worked with Olympic runners, write positives, such as I love how running clears my head.

Mental block: Feeling guilty about "Me" time
Defeat it: Here's the thing: If you're miserable, how happy is the rest of your household going to be? To stay positive, think of those miles as a free therapy session. Just ask your spouse—wouldn't he rather see you come back from a run in a good mood than have you skip it and feel on edge? We thought so. And you're setting a good example for your family, especially your children, notes Jonathan Cane, a running coach in New York City. "My 2-year-old sees my wife and me doing healthy stuff, and he constantly emulates us," he says.

Mental block: Letting boredom derail you
Defeat it: Runners fall into one of two camps—those who focus on what's around them (spring flowers, honking horns, the hoodie of the runner just ahead) and those whose attention turns inward (heart feels like it's going to explode, breathing too fast, weird tingling in right foot). We each also have a broad viewpoint or a narrow one. A broad point of view means thinking about a lot of different things; a narrow one is drilling down to a single thought (Must. Catch. Up. To. That. Girl). Being internal and broad is a particularly tricky combination, points out sports psychologist Charles Brown, PhD, consultant to the Association of Applied Sports Psychology, because you're self-critical but not engaged.

"You don't have a clear focus and can end up feeling bored or burned-out," he explains. Your aim is to get out of your own head and concentrate on what you see, hear, smell, etc. Too difficult? Keep mental chatter limited to thoughts about technique, like how fast your legs are turning over or what your breathing sounds like. It can also help to try the 3 P's, says Dahlkoetter: Positive images, Power words and Present focus. Create a positive picture of yourself running strong. Repeat phrases like "I'm tough" to yourself throughout the run. And remind yourself to stay in the here and now. These constructive images and words will inspire you to keep going, step after step.

Strike this pose
Feeling a little nervous about a big race, or just looking to pump up your intensity? Try this power stance from Charles Brown, PhD: Stand tall with chest high and hands on hips. Breathe in deeply through your nose and out your mouth about 10 times. "Doing this pose helps increase your testosterone levels while lowering the stress hormone cortisol," he notes. "Research shows that people who do it before stressful events actually feel bolder." Now go out and kick some butt!