How Runners Can Use Psychology to Achieve Success

Before beginning a running program, runners should seek medical clearance from their physician.

People often ask me what they can do to maintain motivation when they decide to commit to an exercise program. I believe that the benefits of exercise are most efficient when integrated as a part of people’s daily lifestyles. I encourage people to develop exercise plans that work for them. Many people I work with want to learn more about sport psychology related to running, as it is a popular exercise people can participate in year-round. The following ideas can help you integrate sport psychology into your own program while you continue to develop your physical skills.

Running Miles: Motivation One Step at a Time

Running presents unique physical and psychological challenges. For some people, beginning a running program might seem like an impossible goal to achieve. Success comes one step at a time. Whether people run one block, one 5K, one marathon, or seven marathons back-to-back, the mindset takes shape when runners make a commitment to themselves to achieve a goal.

Popular social media campaigns exist to help people begin, build motivation, and maintain running programs. For example, Global Running Day (#GlobalRunningDay) encouraged people to celebrate the joys of running and also promoted the Million Kid Run to introduce children to running. Similarly, Runners World Run Streak (#RWRunStreak) was designed to help people continue running through busy schedules and in between racing seasons.

Motivation to achieve success will be different for every runner. A commonality among runners includes participating in an individual sport within a group setting. Runners may be alone in their minds on the courses and roads, but they are assembled as a group with a common goal: safely completing each run. Some may set out to achieve personal records (internal motivation), and others are motivated to beat their competitors (external motivation).

Acknowledge Major and Minor Improvements

Runners will be motivated to maintain their programs when they notice advancement in their daily routines. This can include improved respiration, better running technique, improved mood, and a sense of accomplishment, and pride. Sometimes people will notice big improvements, while others might feel as if they don’t notice anything besides the fact that they ran a specific number of days in a row. It is really important for runners to acknowledge their minor improvements. This can help them realize that, step by step, they are one day closer to keeping their commitment to themselves.

Understand Your Unique Definition of Success

It is also important to understand that success has different definitions for people and can even differ for the same runner day to day. When someone is not feeling well, they might not complete as many miles as they wanted to, yet they still add mileage toward their goal. Success for that day may have shifted from a mileage goal to a completion goal. But getting caught up on absolutes (it is either “x number of miles” or nothing) may not allow room for learning or growth through the training process.

Understand Your “Why”

The secret to successfully utilizing motivation to achieve goals is truly understanding the “why” behind the desire to achieve a goal. This is where sport psychology can help. Having a very detailed narrative explaining the decision to run in the first place can help spark runners’ desires to continue running on days or during miles when they feel minimal or no motivation. That narrative should be written out as vividly as possible, describing emotions, logic, and experiences. Runners will be able to recall this narrative during challenging times to help reignite their motivation to run.

Cultivate a Positive Mindset

Mindset is important, too. Runners should focus on creating a positive mindset and changing negative thoughts into positive statements. Sport psychology consultants call this cognitive restructuring. Training the mind to have a positive statement as a go-to will help runners develop a habit of seeing opportunities instead of problems. An example is turning “I don’t want to run today” into “I will feel successful after I complete today’s run.”

One simple way of shifting mindset: If you enjoy listening to music or podcasts during runs, create multiple playlists that provide motivation and help set the mood to get back on track. This can change a runner’s thinking from “I have to do this run” to “I am going to listen to a cool podcast to start my run.” The simple shift in mindset will get the runner moving and help them move from their minds into their bodies.

Runners should also ditch the “all or nothing” mindset. Some runners will miss a day in their programs and think that they should give up. If this happens, remember to be gentle with yourself, accept that a day was not completed, and start again the next day. There are countless reasons why someone might miss a training day, such as a family emergency or not feeling well. Runners should not let one day stop them from going on. They can recall their narrative (i.e., their “why”) as a reminder of why they made the commitment in the first place.

The Role Habit Formation Plays in Achieving Success

The psychology of habit can set runners up for success. Habits will form with routines and pre-planning, so these behaviors become non-negotiables, similar to the way we view daily things like brushing our teeth. Simple things like getting gear ready the night before, having enough sleep, ensuring that they are properly fueling and hydrating, and developing a strong mindset can prime runners to develop good habits that lead to success.

Pre-planning training and runs will help remove the “what do I do today?” question, which saves psychological energy that can be utilized during the workout. This suggestion is more than just knowing the route, mileage, and targeted physiological zones. It has to do with mentally preparing for the run and learning about and being psychologically prepared to overcome these obstacles. Developing the habit of incorporating sport psychology skills into every training run will help runners have less anxiety if and when they face challenges on the course.

Psychological Pitfalls Runners Should Watch Out For

A primary issue for any athlete is injury prevention. Runners can experience injuries and feel the need to shake it off or run through the pain. There is a difference between feeling sore and having an injury or experiencing pain. It is vital for runners to be familiar with their body’s reactions to training so that they know when to seek assistance from a physician. Many runners hate hearing that they should take a break if they are injured. But continuing to run with an injury can result in permanent damage that will prevent them from running in the future.

It is important to recognize the difference between being focused on a goal and an unhealthy obsession. Committing to a goal is wonderful. But if runners notice that they are ignoring other aspects of life (e.g., work, family, health) to remain on track with training, they may be developing a clinical problem. The time commitment for some running programs can be enormously intense. However, other areas of life cannot be neglected. Developing an exercise addiction is a risk to committing to a running program, so individuals should be sure to understand their limits on a given day and understand their individual expectations. Successful planning, even for intense athletes, will include time for rest, life responsibilities, and socializing, which can help to prevent burnout.

Read more about how to identify an exercise addiction.

Appreciating the Community of Runners as an Individual Athlete

Runners should also remember not to do this alone. Even though runners are solely responsible for the actual running portion of the event, it is important to have social support. Having other people—including family, friends, and other runners— to talk with about training is a way to increase and sustain motivation. Runners who might feel isolated should make it a point to reach out to others and have actual in-person contact in ways that do not include running. Finding balance in life, in addition to reaching training goals, will help runners create a well-rounded training plan.

Citation for this content: Counseling@Northwestern, the online Master of Arts in Counseling program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University.