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IMGCA Article - The Mental Game of Running


The Mental Game Of Running

Find Your Mental Power For Peak Performance


Bill Cole, MS, MA

I've been the mental game coach and advisor to runners in many categories: track, marathons, ultras, obstacle races, biathlon, and distance races of all lengths. I've done this with High School, college, AAU, professional and senior runners. My clients have won local, state, regional, national and international events, including 4th place in the Redbull 400 World Championships in Germany, 3rd place in the Philadelphia Toughest Mudder Obstacle Race Course, and 3rd place in an international Skyrunning Ultra in Mexico.

I was fortunate to be the Consulting Producer and Founding Producer on the documentary film The High: Making the Toughest Race on Earth, which was selected as a 'Finalist Best Feature' in the 2015 Trail Running Film Festival. LaUltra-The High is the world's highest and toughest ultra-marathon, held in the soaring Himalayan peaks. The race crosses the two highest motorable mountain passes in the world, covering 222 km (138 miles) with a 60-hr cut-off, with temperatures ranging from very hot 40C (104F) to very cold minus 6C (21F). Learn more at

Many non-runners look at runners and think, "How mental can running be? All they do is put one foot in front of the other and keep going". Well, I'm here to tell you, running is plenty mental. When runners are close together in skill and experience, it is often the mental side that makes the difference.

True runners know how the mind can make or break a run. It seems like some runners naturally have the right mental stuff and others can't buy it. I'm here to tell you that anyone can learn to be more mentally tough. All it takes is desire and the right mental strategies.

Here are four mental approaches to running I've used with my clients with great success.

  1. Don't Hope For An Easy Life. Strive To Be A Strong Person:  I ask my new clients, before their race, "Are you hoping for an easier type of race and easier types of opponents?" If they take the bait and say yes, I then ask, "So what will happen if you arrive at the event, and it is far tougher than you were hoping?" They think for a minute and say, "I guess I'd be in shock, and I would have a hard time adjusting mentally". This is exactly what happens to runners. They hope things won't be too rough and that they can cruise through the race. This is called hoping for victory. But of course we know that hope is not a strategy. You need to steel yourself mentally for a rough and tough race ordeal. Then if it's nasty, there are no surprises, and you'll probably race well. However, if it's easier than you thought, you'll be pleasantly surprised, and you'll still be in a good mental space to compete hard.

Most people run a race to see who is fastest. I run a race to see who has the most guts.
Steve Prefontaine

The truth is that running hurts. No one gets faster without meeting their personal pain barrier straight on. No amount of junk miles, fun runs or affirmations are going to get you over the hill at the five mile mark in a 10k. However, what will pull you through is solid prep with hard hill runs and interval work.
Manciata, in the Truth about Running

  1. Stop The Negative Story-Telling: Runners who tend to whine and complain about how hard running is fall into a very dangerous trap. They begin believing their own negative narrative. This narrative locks them into seeing themselves as weak, powerless and unable to grow and change. You have to give yourself a chance. A negative narrative puts you in mental prison. When people ask you how you did at a race, listen to how you answer. Do you tell a hard luck story? Do you portray yourself as a victim? Do you say others get all the breaks and that you're unlucky? Do you say that you're not sure you have what it takes to be a successful runner? STOP all that. Instead, focus on the positive. If you had back luck, turn it into a humorous story. If someone better beat you, give them credit and vow to beat them next time. In short, the story you tell makes you the person you want to be. Tell the story that will make you great.

The rewards are going to come, but my happiness is just loving the sport and having fun performing.
Jackie Joyner Kersee, Track and Field Legend

  1. There Is No Failure, Only Feedback: In Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) this is a core concept about learning. Whatever happens to you can be used to improve. Be open-minded and grateful for the data life gives you. Be curious about your losses. How can you use what you learned in losing to become a winner? Can you find a success in every loss? Can you make a loss into a "good loss"? You can do this by finding what went wrong, and what you need to do to stop making that error. You don't want to make the same mistakes over and over, right? Einstein said, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." However, there is such a thing as good errors vs. bad errors. A bad error is one that you make again and again, with no insight or learning about it. A positive error is one that at least points you in the right direction of improving. When you make an error like this you can say, "At least I am going in the right direction!" If you make a "dumb error", try making a better mistake. Make at least a "new error" so you can compare this new feedback and make adjustments.

I focus on small mental cues that help with my form. If I am running that would be: Run tall, shoulders back, chest forward, feet under hips, cadence, cadence, cadence. I also try to find ways to relax rather than fight through it. Sometimes a few simple words said over and over can help me stay on task. Some of my go-to’s have been 'be a champion,' 'relax and maintain,' 'I'm not done yet' and'grit and grace'.
Linsey Corbin, Five-time Ironman champion

  1. Picture Yourself Winning: I ask my clients, "Can you picture yourself winning this upcoming race?" I find this to be a very diagnostic question. Many people think for a while, almost agonizing over it. When they say "no" or "maybe", I ask, what would have to happen for you to say yes? The clients who answer "yes" right away already have the image in their head of themselves as a winner. Some people will say, "I really can't imagine myself as a winner", or "I really can't wrap my mind around me being a winner". This is what is holding them back from success. You need to AT LEAST hold the possibility in your mind that you COULD be a winner. This doesn't mean you have to go around bragging to everyone you meet that you're a winner. You just need to see that as a possibility in your own mind. I suggest you open your thinking to seeing yourself on the podium as a winner. You know what they say, right? You must first conceive, then believe. THEN, you'll achieve.

My thoughts before a big race are usually pretty simple. I tell myself: Get out of the blocks, run your race, stay relaxed. If you run your race, you'll win... channel your energy. Focus.
Carl Lewis, Track and Field Olympic Gold Medalist

Running is one the greatest sports ever. To be successful at running you must get your mind into the act. Decide to be mentally tough. Create a positive narrative. View all feedback as positive. Picture yourself as a winner. Do these things and you'll burn up any course you see.

Copyright © Bill Cole, MS., MA. 2017 All rights reserved.

This article covers only one small part of the mental game. A complete mental training program includes motivation and goal-setting, pre-event mental preparation, post-event review and analysis, mental strengthening, self-regulation training, breath control training, motor skill training, mental rehearsal, concentration training, pressure-proofing, communication training, confidence-building, breaking through mental barriers, slump prevention, mental toughness training, flow training, relaxation training, momentum training, psych-out proofing and media training.

For a comprehensive overview of your mental abilities you need an assessment instrument that identifies your complete mental strengths and weaknesses. For a free, easy-to-take 65-item sport psychology assessment tool you can score right on the spot, visit This assessment gives you a quick snapshot of your strengths and weaknesses in your mental game. You can use this as a guide in creating your own mental training program, or as the basis for a program you undertake with Bill Cole, MS, MA to improve your mental game. This assessment would be an excellent first step to help you get the big picture about your mental game.

Bill Cole, MS, MA, a leading authority on peak performance, mental toughness and coaching, is founder and President of the International Mental Game Coaching Association, Bill is also founder and CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a consulting firm that helps organizations and professionals achieve more success in business, life and sports. He is a multiple Hall of Fame honoree, an award-winning scholar-athlete, published book author and articles author, and has coached at the highest levels of major-league pro sports, big-time college athletics and corporate America. For a free, extensive article archive, or for questions and comments visit him at

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