The Power of Positive Thinking

Contributed by Erin Garvey, a 2017 Ambassador for The San Francisco Marathon.

By now, as you’ve likely begun your training for any of The San Francisco Marathon events – the Full Marathon, either half marathon, the 5K, or the 52.4 mile Ultramarathon – you’ve probably already noticed something rather surprising. Sure, the time you need to devote to training well can be hard to come by, and of course, chafing, blisters, or the realization that you ran too soon after having lunch can all be huge nuisances.

What’s the big surprise, then?

With running, while it is (understandably) a very physically-taxing activity, it also requires a lot of mental effort and energy expenditure. In other words, your mind – what you think, how you think, the words you use when you’re talking to yourself mid-run (we all do it!) – can seriously affect how you train and race.

In a nutshell: a lot of running is mental. In order to run well, you have to get inside your head.

Race Day isn’t that far off now, so it’ll behoove you to begin considering what your mental game is right now and how it is shaping up to where you’d like it to be. Are you your own biggest cheerleader, or are you your own harshest critic? When the training gets tough do you quickly give up and tell yourself that “there’s no way I can ever do this,” or do you give yourself a chance to try, even though you may possibly fail?

Most anyone will tell you about the importance of positive thinking. Naturally, while an enthusiastic, “I can do everything!” attitude cannot and will not substitute for months of solid and consistent training, positive thinking can save the day and make your race astronomically more enjoyable when things get challenging and you swear that you’re going to retire from running for the rest of your life.

Below, I’ll briefly list some easy ways that you can get your mental game on par with your running in the months before Race Day.

Behold: mantras. Call them what you will – a personal motto, silly New Age hippy dippy nonsense, or a power phrase – a lot of runners swear by having a mantra to cling to during tough spots in races. It doesn’t matter what it is, having something positive such as a key phrase or word that can summon you to rally when things get tough is what you’re after here. In fact, some runners like to wear their mantras as jewelry, or they write them on their race day bibs. Ideas include: “I can do hard things,” “believe and achieve,” “go forth and kick ass,” or “one foot in front of the other.” Find what works for you and go all-in.

Take in the race signs. You’ll likely notice some fun spectator signs on the course, so take a brief second to read them and internalize them. While some are silly – “if this were easy, it’d be called Your Mom!” – others are often great sources of genuine encouragement. When you are racing, or even in the throes of your training, remember that the work you’re putting in is unquestionably inspiring people you know, as well as countless people you don’t. Even when things begin to feel tough, know that what you’re doing matters to many people besides yourself. That random spectator at Stow Lake who yelled at you and screamed that you looked strong? Own that!  

Read up. Sports psychology has become very popular over the past few years. One of the best books on the subject of enhancing one’s mental game is Matt Fitzgerald’s, How Bad Do You Want It? Give this book a read if you’re interested in learning how athletes at the top of their game get their mental training to be as top-notch as their athleticism and how you can apply their tips and techniques to your own training. There are many other sports psychology books out there that are worth perusing as well.

Mentally callus yourself. Finally, I think one of the best ways you can strengthen your mental game is by routinely flexing that muscle in training. Doing workouts or races that will challenge you – to hold paces that may be uncomfortable, to cover distances that are tough – will allow you to “mentally callus” yourself so that you can teach yourself that you are capable of doing hard things: even the things that you’re positive you can’t do. Similarly, consider periodically taxing yourself in training just a little bit so that you’re comfortable with working just a little bit longer on Race Day. This can mean occasionally running on a route that you find a little boring, or not finishing your run until you end in a distance that’s reminiscent of your event at The San Francisco Marathon (for example: running 5.2 miles instead of 5, since you’ll be running 26.2 miles at TSFM, not 26). There are so many little things you can do to “mentally callus” yourself so that on Race Day you’re primed and ready to go.

What matters most with running and developing your mental game is paying attention to how you talk to yourself. If you’re constantly ridiculing yourself about how slow you are, your size, your inability to cover your race distance, then you’re clearly undermining and sabotaging yourself. Believe in yourself and in your abilities, as well as the training that you’ve put yourself through, and you’ll naturally change the tune of your inner monologue.

It’s helpful to draw from extrinsic motivation and inspiration, but I guarantee that the strongest, most influential support will come from yourself: believe in yourself every step of the way.

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