The Mental Maximization of Training

RUNOHIO Monthly Newsletter

Sign Up Now


The Mental Maximization of Training

Written by Richard Ferguson, Ph.D. on 23 May 2014.

It’s a given that training is critically important to running performance. No matter how much genetic physiological talent you may have, if you don’t train then you’re not going to perform up to your physiological potential. All training is about working to maximize your potential and perform well, no matter what the competitive circumstances. Many runners go out and run everyday, but I often wonder how many of them actually train, and for those that do train, just how many get the most benefit from each of their workouts.

            Far too often runners look at mental and physical training separately and this disconnect is usually most evident during training. Sure, you go out and run your workout, but how much mental focus do you put into it? To get the most out of your workouts physically, you must put a lot into them mentally as well. It’s very difficult to just “flip the switch” on race day and suddenly do things mentally different than you did them in training. You need to train your mental skills just as you do your physical ones.


It’s very important to prepare yourself mentally for great training every time you go out, even if it’s just for a short, easy recovery run. Let’s take a look at some things you can do mentally to be sure you get the most out of each of your training sessions, whether that means 3 runs a week or 14 runs a week. First, always have a goal for each training session. Every run should have some meaning no matter the pace or distance of the run.  Every training session should have a purpose! A hard interval workout will serve to build lactic acid tolerance and mental toughness. A light recovery run is just that: recovery. Even a day off should serve the specific purpose of rest and recovery. Each day set a specific goal for that day’s run. Write the goal on a small piece of paper and look at it often as a reminder of just what you are looking to accomplish that day. That one reminder may help you to run harder on your hard days and actually run at a recovery pace on your easy days! The goal may be as simple as just running easy and enjoying the scenery to clear your mind. And always remember, running should be fun, so make that a daily goal.

            To get the most out of any workout you must be excited about it. Remind yourself that each workout is a stepping-stone to a great performance in a race. Never look at a workout as a chore! All workouts are a chance to get better! Visualize yourself running well and having fun! How you think can greatly effect how you feel, so think positive, exciting things about your workout and you will enhance the chances of a positive, exciting workout occurring.

            To help get you enthused and focused for your workout, be sure to develop some type of pre-workout routine. Pre-event routines can help any runner better prepare mentally for upcoming events. Your pre-workout routine should be triggered by a time or particular activity before the workout. May be it’s putting on your running shoes or starting your warm-up routine or stretching. Whatever the trigger is, use it as a signal to clear your mind and put other things, like job, relationships etc. on the back burner and focus on what you are about to do in your workout. Visualize what you want to happen in your run and get yourself mentally ready to go out and do it.

            Once your workout actually begins its time to genuinely commit to what you had planned. Remind yourself of the purpose of the workout and stick with it. If you are supposed to be doing a recovery run, then don’t go out and blaze the run just because you feel pretty good. On the other hand, if you’re supposed to do a hard tempo run commit to running hard, not just simply coasting along in your comfort zone. Know the purpose of each workout you run and then fully commit to following through on that purpose.

            Of course, running is a very, very unpredictable sport. In a nutshell, you have got to expect the unexpected. In races you will encounter bad weather, horribly hilly courses, poor footing, start time delays, illness, not feeling great and even nagging problems like sore toenails or blisters. Sure, you can tell yourself that these things won’t happen to you, but the fact is not being prepared for adversity will make it worse. Learn to train with adversity. Don’t shy away from going out on that 35-degree day in the rain. Run the hilliest, toughest course you can find. On those days when you just don’t feel real great, remind yourself of your goal and keep focused on the purpose of the workout. Learn to use adversity to your advantage. Then when other runners are complaining about things you will simply reply, “bring it on”! Learn to turn a negative into a positive, both in training and in racing.

            Finally, be confident in your workouts and you will be more confident in your races. Each day in training try and think positive and energizing thoughts that will make your workout more beneficial.  Try to eliminate negative, irrational self-talk that drains confidence and increases anxiety. Also, visualize success as you train. Use imagery during training to help you actually experience what you want to happen in the big race you’re training for. See and feel yourself running in the race you’re training for. Remember that good runners see what they want to happen, not what they’re afraid might happen.

            No matter how much physical talent you have, you’re not just suddenly going to become a great runner. To get the absolute most out of your potential, quality training is truly the key to success. No, every training session is not always going to be great, but by making the decision to maximize each and every session you will be that much closer to a great race performance. By committing yourself to quality preparation means you will get totally involved in the process of preparation and the better the preparation, the better the race result. Once you prepare your best there is nothing left do in the race but trust yourself and run your best on your big day.

Richard Ferguson is Chair of the Physical Education, Wellness, and Sport Science Department at Averett University and is an AASP Certified Sport Psychology Consultant. He may be reached via e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it   and twitter at [email protected] 

Read more of Dr. Ferguson articles:

With the Help of a Friend -

Beating the Winter Blues-

Go For It -

Beating Burnout -

A New Outlook -

Expect the Unexpected -

Pain or Discomfort? -

Keep Your Eye on the Prize -

 Running Free -

Running and Role Models -

Current Issue