Exercise the mind to benefit your running

Sportsmen and women of all kinds have been known to refer to their body as a separate component. Countless times I have heard professional athletes or weekend warriors make comments such as “the body is doing ok so I'm hoping to play a good game this week" or “I'll continue to compete as long as the body holds out."  Even in my own training groups I have heard from my own mouth “so how's the body holding out?". I am sometimes as guilty as the next person of thinking about my body and the rest of me as somehow separate.

What this also tells me is that we can all be guilty sometimes of buying into the mind/body split concept.  The language of this divide dictates that we can be let down by our body when it is “not letting me compete anymore" or conversely that we need to get our mind “right" to be more successful at our chosen physical pursuit. Whilst it can be helpful on occasions to consider the various parts of our self to compartmentalise elements so as to allow us to focus our attention on areas that could be better or monitor areas that are going great it is helpful to predominantly maintain a more harmonious approach that acknowledges the interconnectedness within ourselves.  

Our body will not walk run or parachute jump unless we are inclined and motivated to do so. It is our mind that drives us. But what happens if our concentration lapses if our drive is stuck in neutral or if our grey matter thinks getting out and running doesn't matter?

There is sufficient research to suggest that maintaining our cognitive functioning is beneficial to our health in general but more specifically for exercise we also know that keeping sharp upstairs will benefit us downstairs.  Keeping sharp psychologically is as important (if not more so) than maintaining our training volume or staying flexible when trying to achieve our running goals. The challenge is to understand how to do this.

Running itself is a cognitive activity

Running itself is a cognitive activity.  Whilst much of it is automatic it still requires your brain to work sufficiently. Last summer I was enjoying one of my favourite trail runs and was conjuring up a plan to convince some friends to experience the exhilaration of the fantastic path through the fern forests, over river crossings, and past spectacular water-falls when with only a short distance left to run I found myself flat on the ground.  Whilst my planning was going well my eyes and feet were not and I had tripped over. Due to a mix of fatigue and distraction I had lost concentration and it had been my undoing. Not so much of a problem when on a flat surface perhaps but problematic in a forest. I had failed to stay “in the game".

Another way to consider the benefits of being mindful of the interconnectedness within is to recall starting out on an exercise related journey after a lay off or injury.  For a while it is a challenge to get our feet legs arms etc. doing what we want them to do and it is also tough to keep plugging away when all these different body parts are painful and telling us to stop hurting them. In these instances it is likely that our thoughts and feelings kick in and drive us.  It might be the lure of a PB or our commitment to complete the event and raise funds for charity. Whatever it is we make conscious decisions to override the pain and continue on.

All of us face the challenge of pushing through with our exercise when almost every fibre is telling us to stop. So the next time you're out on a run and feel like you want to sit down right there in the street, consider letting your mind take over from your feet. 

Top 5 ways to exercise the mind whilst running

  1. Reflect on past successes

    One of the first ways to harness the power of our mind is to recall the ways it has helped us in the past, and build our own evidence base for the present and the future. Acknowledging our past successes opens doors for future ones.

  2. Embrace cognitive challenges in everyday life

    Take opportunities to challenge yourself cognitively in life in general.  This could include Sudoku crosswords talking to a friend about complex issues or playing with your 1 year old. Many activities require the use of complex cognitive functions and should be embraced as important components in your staying sharp regime.

  3. Challenge your mind when running

    When running set cognitive challenges. The possibilities here are endless from goal setting through measuring your stride length and cadence by counting how many steps you take over a certain distance and in what time. You could even set a single “mind" goal for each run. If you trail run you could count how many birds you see or you could count red cars when running in the city. None of these activities should replace sufficient concentration and focus to adequately undertake the motor skill of running but should complement the running.

  4. Think about and plan parts of your running

    Keep your running dynamic and active as a concept by thinking about and planning at least some of your runs. Consider what you want to achieve from the run and plan how to make it happen.  If your program calls for a speed session then plan what you will do. Where you will do it and other aspects such as who with the desired speed/time etc. Planning of this kind is another complex activity that keeps you functioning well.

  5. Visualise future success

    Many people visualise their activities to increase the likelihood of successful outcome. Closing your eyes for a minute or two prior to setting out for a run can be beneficial to how you complete that run. If feeling fatigued halfway through a run is slowing you down try visualising yourself flowing comfortably through that halfway point effortlessly cruising up that hill or easing across the finish line sporting a broad smile so that when you get to those points you can recall that picture in your mind's eye and feed off that to continue on. 

Like everything new build up to these techniques and consider adding one of these to your toolkit each week over five weeks and get ready for the difference it can make to your running when you exercise your mind.

Written by Brendan Pawsey, psychologist with Health Maps.

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