Talking It Out: Sports Psychology and Running

The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month and I thought it would be a good time to talk about my own personal journey with how my mental health and running has been tied together and, more specifically, how seeing a Sports Psychologist has helped me get over some humps, adjust my mindset, and find more enjoyment in my running. 

When I first started running, I found that I was able to make progress in a fairly linear way. I moved from 5k to 10k and onwards and I was able to see progress as I gained more experience and fitness. 

At a certain point, however, and perhaps as my goals became more lofty, I felt much more pressure from myself to do well. I would feel a sense of disappointment if I didn’t hit my paces during a workout or even worse (in my head), if I didn’t PB during a race. I would build up tough efforts in my head before I had even tried them and I began to play the comparison game with other runners: “How come we’re running the same mileage and I’m not as fast?” or “Why can’t I PB just like these runners?”. My head began to rule my body, and at least in this case, it was not giving me what I needed – it was weighing me down. 

I had always been interested in Sports Psychology and decided that this time would be as good as any to start speaking to someone about my running and how it affected my mindset and mental health. Many conversations with my sports psychologist followed and, while I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect upon starting, I did find that there were a few talks, tips, and lessons that stood out in my mind that really made a difference. I’m hoping that if anyone reading also finds themselves in a similar boat, perhaps any of these little pieces of advice can resonate and help.

Goal Setting and Confidence

When I first went to see my sports psychologist, I was coming back from an injury, coming off a disappointing race, and had just experienced a personal tragedy. I couldn’t really wrap my head around what running goals I could realistically accomplish. My confidence felt shot and I had let a lot of doubt enter into my mindset. One of the earliest conversations that I had with my sports psychologist surrounded goal setting, both long-term and short-term. This was important as it allowed me to verbalize what I hoped to accomplish not only during that particular training cycle but also over the next few years. It provided me with a sense of focus for each run. The goals (particularly short-term), we discussed, should be realistic and achievable. We also discussed that I should establish an A, B, and C goal so that no matter the result, I would hopefully achieve one of the goals that I had established. Additionally, I would also say that having smaller goals for each run helped build up my confidence, which after several disappointing results, had begun to waver. During one particular workout, I simply said to myself to do all the intervals without pausing for a break (something I had become too accustomed to doing). And while it might seem like a small goal, achieving this gave me an extra little boost of confidence.

Cue Words or Mantras 

One of my favourite exercises that I worked through with my sports psychologist was coming up with cue words or mantras to be used during an upcoming race. We discussed ten words / phrases, going through the alphabet, that I could repeat or think of during the race. It was important to talk through these words and phrases with a professional because it allowed me to say them aloud, but also to hear feedback of whether or not they would be appropriately powerful to focus my mindset. As I mentioned before, my self-confidence was very shaky and I know that my mindset was filled with a lot of self-doubt. After coming up with 26 words, we narrowed them down to just 4. And those were the ones that I would repeat during the race. It provided me with a sense of incredible focus during the race and when things felt tough, difficult to maintain and as doubt crept in, my mind didn’t give in to these thoughts or feelings, it went to the mantras over and over again. With my mind focused on the mantras, my legs were simply allowed to keep moving and moving.

Pre-Race Routine

I’ve often felt a sense of anxiousness and nervousness before a hard workout, and these feelings have always been present before a race. I know that there are many people who can relate. Often, it’s just a butterflies in the stomach type feeling. However, sometimes it would approach a higher level of anxiety, and this would pull my focus and attention from the run that I was about to do. To help with these feelings, we discussed a pre-race (or pre-run) routine – something that I could practise beforehand. Then, I could follow the routine on race day so that, with the steps all laid out, unexpected events were hopefully minimized, and I could try to approach the start of the run with a sense of calm. We spoke together about a pump-up playlist to block out distractions and to focus my mind, closing my eyes to visualize the race ahead and hopefully seeing the course and result that I was aiming for. And finally, breathing during all of these steps to not only calm my body but also my mind so that both were ready to accept the challenge ahead rather than colliding with it. 

There are lots of techniques and strategies that can help runners and athletes who continue to struggle with their mental health and mindset. I do hope that perhaps some of what I have written about has helped, but I can not stress the importance of talking to someone and how much that act can help. Alexi Pappas, an Olympian who is a great advocate for mental health for athletes, says that we will rush to a physiotherapist or expert when we have a physical injury, but too often we do not do the same when we have an injury or a struggle of the mind. Let’s normalize this practice and help one another as we all strive to reach our goals and figure out that delicate balance between mind, body, and running.