Brain Training For Long-Distance Running

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by guest contributor Frederick Surgent, a retired professor from the department of Kinesiology and Recreation at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland. He’s still involved in the department on a part-time basis and he currently teaches “The Psychology of Physical Activity.” He’s competed in many races up to a marathon’s distance.]

Since 2008, with the introduction of John Ratey’s book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, a host of new research studies in this field has surfaced. Along with the information presented in this book and newer research, other topics related to the brain have emerged. Of interest to the long-distance runner is the information and research about how the brain can affect running performance. Based on this information, the following ideas are presented to be incorporated into advancing the training schedules and performances of many kinds of long-distance runners.

Idea 1. Mental Toughness
Train the brain to be mentally tough. Mental toughness is a disposition which fosters a need to stay with it, to persist in the wake of failure, and push beyond a person’s limits even when failure presents itself. The key here is to be aware of persisting under uncontrollable situations when they present themselves such as terrain issues, injury, pain, weather conditions, and a host of other unpleasant circumstances. This disposition is definitely an asset that all great distance runners possess. This type of mindset needs to be incorporated in every workout.

Idea 2. Resilience
Train the brain to be resilient. Resilience is the ability to maintain calmness when stress and anxiety are presented and to return to equilibrium physically and emotionally. Doing so requires the runner to retain a self-confidence and belief in self that does not waver. Training under many different stressful situations and learning to cope with them produces a resilient runner.

Idea 3. Resisting Fatigue
Train the brain to resist fatigue. Fatigue is a combination of physiological and psychological processes while in extremely stressful situations that will only persist as the race continues. Resisting fatigue is a difficult task at best, however, using thoughts in the brain to dissociate (clearing the mind of physical sensations experienced during the race and thinking of something other than what is happening now) seems to work well. In a study reported from the University of Kent, Dr. Samuele Marcora demonstrated that a group concentrating on a puzzle task (a cognitive task) while performing a stationary bike test extended their time to perform the task longer than the control group not using this procedure. This is not the only way to dissociate, however, since it involves a complex task to solve it definitely occupies the brain. Any thoughts that take your mind to a different place other than the stress and anxiety the runner experiences should extend fatigue resistance.

A theory that relates to fatigue was espoused by Timothy Noakes in the 1990s and is known as the Central Governor theory. It is his contention that the brain is instrumental in producing a safety shut-off mechanism to prevent severe damage to the body. In other words, if a runner attempts to go beyond the physical capabilities of the body, the brain will somehow prevent further work. While not proven, it is an interesting theory and takes into account the importance of the brain when fatigue is present. Attempting to extend each runner’s fatigue threshold takes a great deal of mental fortitude. It is a gradual process and needs to be incorporated into the mindset of the runner to achieve maximal potential.

Idea 4. Automatic Pilot
Train the brain to be on automatic pilot. The automatic pilot in running or any other sport refers to the efficient and economical process of mastering skills to the point at which the original mental processes for movement are no longer required. In essence, the brain no longer has to consciously control the body’s movements but more or less it operates on its own without concentrating on the motor skill itself. Sometimes, as runners think about their stride, their pace, their pain, or their movement, instead of letting the body perform on its own, the movement itself is impeded. Questioning what is being done, how it is being done, why it is being done, and many more questions can lead to doubt and worry. Letting the body do what it is meant to do to relieve the physical and mental pressures of the run increases the runner’s chances of achieving their maximum potential.

Idea 5. Imagery
Train the brain to visualize every part of a race. Mental imagery is a process by which the participant attempts to see, feel, and sense their participation in a situation, in this case running. Not only should the runner imagine the entire scene, but just as important is to attach emotional feelings to the experience being imagined. Working to actually see and feel as though the runner is actually running (internally) but also viewing the image from an external perspective (visualizing the run on a movie screen) to locate problems during the imagery process. This process needs to be practiced prior to training sessions every day to make it work. The benefits to the runner are:

  1. being familiar with the course run,
  2. overcoming issues in the run, i.e. hills, weather, rough terrain, injuries, etc.,
  3. reassuring success on the course,
  4. reinforcing belief in self and what can be achieved, and
  5. overcoming doubt about the runner’s ability to finish strong.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What part of your brain is the strongest when you run?
  • Under what circumstances do you feel yourself becoming mentally weak while running?
  • Can you ever tell that your mental state is affecting your physical state on the run?

There are 20 comments

  1. Dan Connelly

    I wonder what the author thinks of meditation, for example yoga nidra, or almost any yoga. I find it helps keep focus inward, on the moment, instead of on discomfort, either present or future.

  2. Luke

    The idea that mental toughness and pushing through pain *(or even injury) needs to be incorporated into every workout may be the worst advice I’ve read on this site. That’s gym-class “give 110%” BS and has no place in a mature approach to training, especially in a sport just starting to appreciate the risk of OTS.

      1. Nathan Toben

        I don’t think that this is what is meant by “persist even in the wake of failure”. Persisting means apply correct circumstantial action, so if one is injured, persisting is not quitting, but rather, treating the injury on a consistent basis so to return to running.

    1. Justin

      In my experience, mental training is centered on the functional difference between pain and discomfort. If you understand the sustainable nature of discomfort, then you can transcend mental limits. If you understand the unsustainable nature of pain, then you can avoid becoming a spectator.

  3. Markus

    This article is written by somebody who has never done an ultramarathon. So I would say all his advise is very theoretic.

    I agree with Luke that his advise to incorporate “pushing through pain” in every workout is a good recipe to get injured.

    Mental training is one of the most important things in ultramarathon running but there are many ways to get there. The most important part is to learn from yourself and others in different events. There is no better teacher than experience. Just “pushing through stuff” won’t work. You have to know when to push and when to relax in a ultramarathon.

    Part of my mental training is the mentioned visualization of the upcoming race. Basically you have to create your own toolbox over the years.

  4. Sean

    I couldn’t agree more with this article. I constantly aim to simulate stress and fatigue in my workouts. It is through this “suffering” that I have been able push through tremendous pain and injuries during endurance evnts because of the resilience built during training. This has included multiple day events without sleeping or rest. And I have experienced the affects of letting the mind overcome during races too, one of which I simply dropped out after only 14 hours knowing that I would never be able to regain control of my thoughts and body.
    Great article!

  5. Robert

    I know for me, running in heat & humidity will get me mentally. I start letting it get to me mentally then the run just goes downhill from there. Then post run the mental aspect of being upset with myself for not being mentally strong to run through it.
    This is probably the area I need to get mentally stronger.

  6. Meghan Hicks

    Luke(s) and Markus,

    First, the reason why I decided to publish this article is because of the author’s combined experience in studying and teaching sports psychology as well as his own running experience. The author states that the ideas discussed are based on research on and knowledge of how the human brain functions during long-distance running (which isn’t limited to ultra-distance runs and races) as well as field-expert hypotheses on the same. I, thus, disagree on a foundational level that the author’s inexperience in running events beyond a marathon’s distance makes the concepts of this article hypothetical–the ideas come from within the professional field in which the author works.

    Further, having run a good number of marathon-distance races and runs as well as ultra-distance races and runs, I’d definitely argue that the mental attributes needed for success cross back and forth over the marathon-distance fence. I am comfortable with the idea that the author’s personal experience with endurance running allows him to relate to concepts defined by the field in which he professionally participates.

    While I won’t speak for the author directly, I would never choose to publish an article here that advocates runners pushing through situations that will have long-term detrimental repercussions. I do not feel this article encourages this at all. Reaching the finish of a challenging run or race can sometimes come fairly easily, with little extraneous circumstances presenting themselves which need to be surmounted. We occasionally have these perfect days. But I’m sure most people would agree that pain induced by the length of time on feet, effort, terrain, and climactic conditions, as a couple major examples, is an extremely common aspect of long-distance running. This discomfort is temporary and generally ceases as soon as the run does or a couple days (or perhaps weeks in the case of longer events) later. Reaching the finish of a run or race under these circumstances is just plain going to require ‘grinning and bearing it,’ being mentally tough, at times. These are the circumstances about which I think the author is writing.

    I feel that you three make super-valid points, however. I do think that the mental skill to which the three of you are referring is another of the many mental components–only some of which are addressed in this article–of successful long-distance running: intellectual objectivity in situations of cognitive and/or emotional stress, or what I’d describe as it relates to our sport as the ability to objectively analyze present circumstances for their positive/negative/temporary/lasting effects and make decisions in your body and mind’s best interest.

    I appreciate you reading and commenting! Thanks.

    1. ken michal

      I couldn’t agree more, Megan! The pain I push through on training days is nothing compared to what I do to myself on the race course! The only real way to prepare yourself for the pain of race day is to experience it in advance (which is something I’m sure we all know and experience)! It’s definitely best to keep those easy days easy but hard days should be just that! Should we push through pain? Yes, as long as we have the sense to differentiate good pain from bad! :)

      All Day!
      ~Ken

    2. Markus

      Good points Megan.

      What I learned over the years that the topic “Mental training” is kind of difficult to discuss since we all have ideas about it and how we use it for our ultrarunning purposes.

      Ultrarunning is a sport with a lot of parameters which are not exactly part of running. And that’s where dealing with the unknown or unexpected comes into play.

      In ultrarunning you have to deal with a lot of discomfort but I would like to think that pain should not be part of it. Unfortunately the media is covering our races as “Sufferfests” and runners as the Queens or Kings of pain and a lot of runners seem to like that association.

  7. ken michal

    Really loved the article!! Perfectly timed too! I’ve been focusing a lot on all of the above points as I prepare for my 96 hour in three weeks (yee-freaking-haw!!!)! Definitely going to have the chance to experience some world class pain and fatigue! I’m shooting for a minimum of 300 miles, which is 100 further than I’ve gone! Super stoked to see it happen!!

    Experience is definitely key with the mental game! Once you’ve seen it done, you know you can do it (think the 4:00 barrier and how many people were able to do it after Roger Bannister!)! Once you’ve done it yourself, you have the keys to do it again! The more you do it, the more natural it is! I’ve only run 4, 200’s so far but I’ve found that the harder they get the easier it is next year! I’ve discovered that after 150 miles, I’m able to convince myself that pain and fatigue are sources of energy (probably a delusion after telling myself that for 150 miles… ;) )and really feel alive when running long! Managing pain and fatigue really is a skill set! In order to master it (still have a long way to go!!), you have to practice!

    Ultras (especially >50 miles)are definitely a mental game! If it were physical, I wouldn’t be able to do it!! :) It really is amazing the things your body will allow when you have the mental game! I’ve put my body through some amazing things and it usually rises to the occasion! So cool to see that happen!

    Would love to see more articles like this!!

    All Day!
    ~Ken

      1. Stephen Patterson

        300 miles in 4 day is a lot! And would be a wonderful accomplishment. However I beleive Stu Mittleman’s record is 577.75 in 4 days.

  8. Erik

    Although the general premise of training one’s brain to deal with discomfort seems sound, and in line with the value that ultra runners place on mental toughness, I question the concept that, “this type of mindset needs to be incorporated in every workout.” The bulk of contemporary research tells us that differentiation (slow/fast, long/short) is the key to progression. Surely, a training state of constant mental stress will create the same fatigue that constant physical stress will. To this end, although I haven’t seen the research to which he refers (it’s not cited), I would be surprised if it tests the effect of daily mental stressing over a long period of time. It likely is limited to the effect of specific interventions over a limited time span.

  9. Ann

    With only one marathon under my belt, I am just starting to understand how much my brain can help or hinder me as I try to master longer distances. This article me moved me for other reasons. Learning how to push myself beyond what I had thought could be done while training for last Fall’s marathon without injury has been instrumental in making the decision to run and race (although very slowly at times) during my current cancer treatment possible.

    Most days there are no physical reasons to refrain from trying to get miles done, so I am learning more about resilience and letting my anxieties go during each run than I have ever done before. Perhaps the greatest gift this cancer fight has given me is the chance to push myself mentally while also listening to what my body is telling me it can actually do that day. Each day that I can run is truly a gift and who knew how much cooler it would be to run in a Washington DC Summer without all that hot long hair?

  10. Rob Sargeant

    I start to get distracted the most during ultras when I experience stomach problems. In my struggle to get over it, I begin to doubt if I should continue. I had to drop out of one race because my stomach seemed to stop digesting. I think part of it was the heat of the day.

  11. Chris

    It’s been said that life is an uphill battle. I say anyone can coast downhill… so I welcome the quad smashing, gear grinding, oxygen starving, heart rate maxing challenge of going uphill against the grain of life!!! I relish in the sweat of the challenge, the mental contest of fatigue and the burning desire to feel every cell in my body awakened by my old friend Pain. Others reject you but I miss you and embrace our reunions. Life is a sensation, dig deep and touch the rawness of its roots– LIVE!!!!!! This is how I enjoy my journey, Wide Awake!!!!

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