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Mindset: The Secret To Improving Your Running And Racing

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Eric Orton is a renowned performance expert and running coach who has dedicated his life to exploring the potential of the human body and mind.

Over the past 25 years, Eric has coached Olympians, professional, and age group athletes, including runners for distances from 1500m to 240 miles.
Eric is the coach in the international bestseller, Born to Run, and has written two books: The Cool Impossible, and Born to Run 2: The Ultimate Training Guide.

Finally, the race update came through the phone. It read, ‘OUT OF TIME.’  My head and heart sank. 

He had spent a month in Chamonix, France, training so hard and smart for this race in the Alps. Thirty-four miles with 8,000 feet of elevation gain is no joke

Add in torrential mountain rain and wind and ankle-deep mud, and you begin to make concessions with your coach’s mind to be OK with him not making the halfway cut-off time.

Then the phone rang a few hours later.  It was Zach, and I was quickly scrambling my thoughts for what to say. I answered, “I am so….” and before I could finish, Zach said, “Dude, I just became the first adaptive athlete to finish UTMB MCC.” 

Zach calls himself the ‘blade runner’ because he is missing his right leg below the knee, but today, I call him the Bandit Runner. 

Yup, he missed the cutoff time, not because he didn’t reach the aid station in time, but because he didn’t LEAVE the aid station in time, which he was unaware of this stipulation.

A trail runner.

So, Bandit Runner kept running and crossed the finish line under the time allotment. Will he get a medal? Nope.

Did he run down the finishers’ tunnel, lined with hundreds of people cheering him on, in a mad sprint towards changing his life forever? YUP!

You train your lungs.  You train your heart.  You train your legs.  Do you train your brain?

I believe being an athlete is a choice and that we all can be athletes, regardless of natural ability. It is a mindset, a lifestyle, a decision. 

Together, mantras, rituals, and visualizations are fundamental to athletic performance and realizing your goals on a day-to-day basis and on race day. 

Zach and I trained his mind for any challenge that would come his way during the race. And this brain training was the reason he crossed the finish line. 

The brain is an organ that functions like a muscle, and training the brain is as fundamental as running and strength training.  

Here’s the real power of this understanding:

If our thoughts are just thoughts and are usually not reality and are only what we make of them, then we can create good stories as well as bad stories. 

People running a road race.

For example, Zach could have thought his race was over and a failure because of his missed time, or he could see this as the perfect opportunity for him to be the athlete he wanted to be. 

He had a choice, and so do you. We can set whatever ending we want in our minds: crossing the finish line, running a personal best, or even better, picking a goal we think is impossible.  

Our thinking, when stuck in a bad story, becomes an obstacle. Our thinking, when playing a good story, becomes a tool of incredible use. Before you doubt your ability to banish all negative thoughts and bad stories, stop. 

That is not what I am asking you to do. There is no pill, no method of training your mind, to fill yourself with only happy, good stories that lead to success. There will always be fears because we will always have a ton of unknowns.  

The point is not to expect them to vanish. We want to embrace our fears, realize they are not real, and then move past them and ultimately see fears as our gift and our opportunity to be the athletes and runners we want to be.

A runner with a prosthetic leg.

Train The Brain

Mantra

In sports performance tradition, a mantra is a word or collection of words that are repeated frequently and help focus an individual’s concentration and performance. Most, if not all, high-performing athletes use them consciously or subconsciously. 

Your mantra is a tool to focus your mind and disarm any negative thoughts that will try to sabotage you.

I recommend you pick a mantra that is three words that describe the qualities you must have to accomplish your goal or perform during races. 

Instead of simply drawing these from a hat, it is best to identify the three by asking yourself what obstacles stand in the way of achieving your big goals. 

Look deep inside yourself and examine your fears and the negative thoughts that you anticipate will arise once you start moving down the path to your goals during training and/or the challenges that you will experience during a big race.  

People racing on a track.

Make this list as long and detailed as you can. Really delve deep into your mind; expose your dark fears to the light of day. Write them down. 

Once you finish this list, ask yourself what three qualities or feelings you need to overcome and dispel these fears whenever they arise. 

Typically, these words tend to be emotional states, or often better yet, action words that will empower you in those tough moments – the last leg of a race, the middle of a long run, the early cold morning when you want to stay in bed. 

Your mantra is meant to focus you when you’re having trouble staying in the flow when your doubts and fears are running rampant.

Further, your three mantra words should evoke a reaction, a physical and emotional one. They should resonate within you almost viscerally. 

You might find they come from characteristics you respect in other athletes, or they’re traits to succeed that you always felt you lacked – but always wanted. Last, but most obviously, they should be positive.

As examples, here are several mantra words I’ve known my athletes to use:

  • Persistent
  • Confident
  • Indomitable
  • Independent
  • Strong
  • Efficient
  • Resourceful
  • Just go
  • Patient
  • Relaxed
  • Relentless
A person running through a field.

Drawing from these, your three-word mantra might be: “Strong, independent, persistent.” Or, you can turn the mantra into a statement, as Zach did with “all gas, no breaks.” 

For instance, your mantra could be, “I am strong, independent, and always persistent.”  Spend time creating your mantra, testing out what feelings you really want and need.

Once you find your mantra, write it down in big block letters. You’re ready to pair it with the second step to training the brain: a ritual.

Ritual

No doubt you’ve used rituals in your own life already, whether in preparing to take a test, interview for a job, or going into a race. You’ve seen them, too, probably lots of times without even knowing it. 

How many runners have you seen who wear the same shorts or socks before a race? That’s a ritual. Or the pitcher who jumps over the foul-ball line every time before heading to the mound. Ritual. 

Two people laughing and trail running.

During my track workouts, I blink my eyes three times and then put my sunglasses on at the start of each interval. Ritual. That Olympic sprinter pointing to the sky before getting into the starting blocks. Ritual.  

Like mantras, rituals act to center us, to trigger focus in our minds, and to bring us into flow.  When paired with the mantra, they are even more effective. 

To create your ritual, think of something that is easy to do, subtle, and can be performed anytime, anywhere, without being distracting to yourself or others or requiring undue effort. 

You might need to do this ritual while running or in a busy place whenever the need arises for you to get in the flow to perform and return your awareness to your goals at hand.

As I mentioned, I blink my eyes three times. That’s my ritual. I like to pair the three words of my mantra with three acts in my ritual. You could tap your hand three times against your leg.  Snap your fingers. Clench and unclench your fists. Rub your ear three times. 

You get the idea. Once you have a mantra and ritual, we add visualization to this powerful brew.

A trail runner.

Visualization

I am a big believer in creating something in your mind’s eye. It is remarkable to me that people don’t do it more. They’re missing out on so much unused power. 

Okay, so there are many ways to use visualization. I’ll begin with its ability to connect emotion to your mantra and ritual, magnifying their effect. 

This works because emotion is a powerful motivator for both our bodies and minds.  Throughout, I’ll refer to this visualization technique as finding your flow state.  

Now, your flow state is a moment in your past when you feel you had the qualities of your mantra. Say, when you were at your strongest, most independent, and persistent. Think back to a time or an event when you displayed those traits.  

Don’t worry about how far back you need to go, as long as that moment is vivid and detailed in your memory.  Take yourself back there, close your eyes, and follow the pathways of your mind to that time. 

People running in a race.

Once there, relive it; make it as real as you can by remembering as many details as you can.  Hear the noises. See the people, the scene. Experience this moment as it happened.

And most of all, sense how good you felt about yourself; savor how strong, independent, and persistent you were at that moment. Take as long as you need to get there; enjoy that time again. 

While you’re there, notice how your memories are creating emotions by revisiting this experience. Notice how the visualization of something in the past is giving you real, immediate feelings in the present.

When this past moment is vivid in your mind’s eye, when you can feel the same emotions you experienced at that time in your body now again, say your mantra and do your ritual, all together

Do this several times if you want. When you feel finished, take yourself slowly back from your memory of the past, in your mind’s eye, to the present moment.

Every time you repeat this exercise, you will connect your mantra and ritual more powerfully to your flow state. Once you have this tool in your arsenal, you can use it in your pursuit of your big goal. 

Calling on your mantra and ritual while remembering that wellspring of positive feelings will help you to have the ability to be exactly the way you want to be and act anytime you need it.  

When things get tough and you think the worst about yourself and want to give up on your dreams, reconnect to this flow state through the mantra and ritual. But do not limit it to these “big” crossroads. 

If you need a boost during a race or workout or just throughout your day, this performance technique is there for you. All together: mantra, ritual, feeling. And you will be in a place to perform.

A concentrated runner.

Race Visualization

Let me walk you through a practice you might do each night during race week:

Close your eyes; take yourself through your mind’s pathways again to your race in the future.  Begin with the evening before. See yourself eating a good meal and readying for bed. Go for detail as much as you can. 

See yourself wake up race morning. What time does the clock say? Feel yourself rising from bed with energy and calm, a warm, radiant feeling of strength. 

See yourself eating your pre-race meal; sense exactly what you would like to feel that morning: a little anxiousness and nerves? Smile and say to yourself, “Perfect.”

Now you’re dressing for the race, putting on your shorts, your shirt, and your shoes, and tying those laces tight. See yourself warm-up; feel the deep breaths of air in your lungs that wake up your muscles. 

People running in a road race.

Create everything exactly the way you want it to go and feel. See yourself at the start, jumping up and down to stay warm. Hear the crack of the gun. Feel your body moving, running strong, fast, sure. 

See yourself at every step of the race. See a low point, that moment when your legs feel weak, your breathing is hard, and you want to slow down, quit even – then see how you respond, how you stop those negative thoughts, how you use your mantra and ritual to find your flow and forge ahead, better, stronger than before.  

Take yourself through every part of the race, making it as real as you can. You hear the cheers of the crowd. You see the finish and your time on the clock. 

You feel yourself breaking across the finish line, achieving the result you wanted, arms high, a smile spread across your face. Feel that success. See your success. Create your success, just like Zach.

Photo of author
Eric Orton is a renowned performance expert and running coach who has dedicated his life to exploring the potential of the human body and mind. Eric was one of the coaches who pioneered the online coaching industry and has operated his run coaching business for the last 25 years helping Olympians, professional, and age group athletes, including runners for distances from 1500m to 240 miles, Ironman triathletes, cyclists, etc. His study of ancestral cultures, like Mexico’s legendary Rarámuri ultrarunners, has made him one of the foremost authorities on running, evolutionary biomechanics, and human performance. Eric is “the coach” in Christopher McDougall’s international bestseller, Born to Run, where his coaching was instrumental in helping Christopher complete the epic adventures described in his books, Born to Run and Running with Sherman. Eric is author of two of his own books: The Cool Impossible which has been published in 7 languages and 15 countries, and Born to Run 2: the Ultimate Training Guide. Eric travels the world speaking and coaching clinics on running. He is the former Director of Fitness at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and currently lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

1 thought on “Mindset: The Secret To Improving Your Running And Racing”

  1. This is one of the most inspiring and helpful articles I’ve read about running. I have often taken other runners’ mantras (and they’ve helped) but I have now created my very own, along with my own ritual and feeling. It all made such good sense. Thank you, Eric

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