By: Daniel Cooper

With milder temperatures beckoning, fall racing season is in full swing, as cross country runners get ready for the most important races of the season. Meanwhile, everyone from the beginning runner to the professional athlete is taking advantage of cooler weather, training to achieve new personal records at races big and small across the country. This is the time of year where runners are chomping at the bit, eager for race day.

You have put in the endless long runs, countless intervals and gruesome tempos. It is time for all of your hard work to pay off! Your training has been implemented, and your fitness is solidified, all that’s left is to go through the peak phase of your training, ease off the miles and roll on race day. Right? Wrong!  You must also fine-tune the mental aspect of your training and racing.

Yogi Berra said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.” While his math may not add up, Berra hit the nail on the head. The word “baseball” can be interchanged with any sport and many other life circumstances. For our purpose, we are going to interchange “running” and approach the mental aspect of our sport.

Over my years of running, I have had the privilege of working with three sports psychologists. Each helped me in their own way, but ironically, they all started off their sessions with the same exact question.

“What percentage of your sport, would you say, is mental?”

I responded, “I’m not sure, around 50%. Something around there”

All three looked back and said “Well how much time do you spend on mental training, 50%?”

Actually, I had never given it much thought. Nor had I expended 50% of my time thinking about the mental aspect of running.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that so much of running is mental. Often overlooked, it is just as important as your physical training. The mental ability to visualize, trust and have perspective on your running is vital. The point of these sports psychologists was to encourage me to spend more time focusing on mental preparation, and on the “psyching up” that is necessary to physically perform well at my craft. I learned some very important lessons, and have applied them to my running over the years. They are simple yet easy to forget; and, much like waking up on cold mornings to get your run done before work, takes self-discipline.

The first aspect to improve your mental game is trust.  Review the training plan laid out for you to ensure that the goals of it match your ambitions and skill level. Then, trust in your training plan that your coach gave you, or one that a friend wrote, or some plan off the Internet, all can accommodate your aspirations if chosen properly. If you are unsure or have doubt in your mind that the training is too easy, does not include enough miles, or won’t prepare you for the distance you want to compete at, or isn’t appropriate with your goals, then you need to make a switch.  When trust is accomplished, it can really free the mind. Clearing a section of self-doubt from your head is important when you put your foot on the line.

Now that you have the right frame of mind, here are some suggested next mental steps:

  • One Day At A Time: Review your training for a given day. Visualize what you want your performance to be. Get a good attitude – the weather doesn’t matter, the stress of job, school, relationship, or family are set aside – this is YOUR time.
  • The Warm Up: While warming up, do a mental checklist of how your body feels – the legs, the muscles, the tendons, how are the knees? How are the heart and lungs doing – are they communicating well? Psych up your whole body for that day’s performance.
  • Mental Toughness: There are people who can, and people who can’t. Make sure that you are the former. Be mentally tough when training gets tough, your attitude will reflect in your runs.

This newfound aspect of trust will invoke a new train of self-thought. A belief in your ability will lead to new heights in physical performance. It seems such a simple concept, but the importance of positive self-talk and the ability to have a positive attitude cannot be overlooked.

It is also important to realize that despite what you think, you are not a machine. Sometimes, runs are not going to go as planned. Stress, sleep, recovery from an illness or injury, work, kids, weather, relationships and life in general, are going to have an impact on your running. There are going to be days that you feel just awful or down in the dumps. It is important to accept both the good and the bad days for precisely what they are. Just remember to keep a cool mental head and have perspective. And even a bad run means you laced up and ran! Even a bad run has value because hey, at least you ran!

Looking at your training, it is important that training plans fit well with your goals and are not too difficult, or to easy. Training should be challenging yet realistic, much like your goals. Having this perspective when looking at training logs is important. When bad days happen, and they will, it is important to have perspective. Realize that training for these races takes months and because you are not a machine, doing everything exactly as it has been prescribed is unlikely.

Having perspective on race day is equally important. Visualize the race ahead and the times you want at certain checkpoints that realistically reflect both your training and goals. This is an important mental tactic that can be used in avoiding that famous mile twenty barrier in a marathon everyone talks about.  If all else fails and you blow it, remember, there is always another race, another chance. This long-term approach to running will help when you have not only bad days, but good ones as well. Realize you can improve, go farther, faster and progress your talents. Having a focus on your mental training will keep your fire for the sport burning.

It can change a workout, race, or season for better or for worse. If you have never implemented mental training into your regimen I encourage you to do so. It can change your entire outlook on the training you do everyday, your race day scheme, and the overall perspective to the sport as a whole. Realizing that you aren’t a machine, and having a full view perspective of long-term concepts will do you wonders with your running.

These are great methods to improve your running without putting in any extra miles or buying any expensive running gear. All of the power to improve is within the head, it has the power to make or break what you are physically capable of. Put these tactics into play and see how they work, bend them and twist them to fit what works best in specific situations. The mental aspect of running is vital to becoming the best runner you can possibly be.


Daniel Cooper is a collegiate runner and has spent the last eight years running cross-country and track and field. You can send him questions and ask advice by emailing: