Goal Setting And
by Dr. Rob Udewitz
Your Mental Tools Can Boost Your Running Performance
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During most runs the road is laid out in
front of us and we can see where we are at and where we want to go.
I often do my most challenging runs on the
Reservoir in New York Citys Central Park. There is a spot Ive
noticed at the Reservoir where the path turns and I can see only a few feet
ahead. However, if I look to my left I can see clear to the spot where my hard
run will end in about 400 meters.
It is at this moment where my mind has a
choice. I can keep my gaze forward and see only where Im at, or I can
look to my left at see where I want to be. On the surface, my first choice
promises nothing more than limited scenery, my own heavy breathing and the pain
of lactic acid buildup. The second choice holds the promise of a beautiful view
of the water and the place I want to be
the place where all the pain
Initially, the better choice seems
George Sheehan (Running to Win, 1992)
wrote, "Of all the lessons sport teaches us about life, perhaps none is more
dramatic than the danger of focusing on the outcome."
This statement is most closely associated
with our tendency to focus solely on success or failure and winning or losing.
Most of us know that when these factors become our primary goal, performance
and pleasure usually suffer. During a strenuous workout or challenging race, a
primary focus on the finish line (even if youre not worrying about your
time or place) can also put you at a disadvantage.
Goal setting and quieting your mind
Runners sometimes wait to "figure out" goals
such as distance and pace during the actual run. They can fill their minds with
thoughts like "run hard to that lamppost" or "just one more lap around." The
mental chatter of goal-setting and goal-shifting during a run can detract from
the pure pleasure of your run.
Setting a goal prior to your workout will
allow you to quiet your mind of these thoughts and allow you to focus on your
run. When setting your goal for a run, account for variables like
cardiovascular conditioning, workout schedules, weather conditions and how you
feel that day. If your training calls for a harder workout, try setting a
moderately challenging goal before the run based on these factors.
Then make modifications, if necessary, after
youve warmed up. If your schedule calls for an easy day, try to keep your
mind on making your run as comfortable as possible. Setting a goal while
allowing for flexibility will put your mind at ease and reward you with more
Distraction and running
There are many places to direct your
attention during a run. Running is a great opportunity to experience nature,
people-watch or just review the struggles and triumphs of your day. Others
prefer to listen to music that inspires them to persevere or distracts them
The problem with distraction, however, is
that it leaves little room for awareness to experience what you are actually
Its possible that we freely place our
minds on everything else because running can come so naturally to us. Running
is easy and most people can do it with minimal instruction, but it can also be
very hard, requiring great effort. As the distance and intensity of a run
increases, the simple mechanics of your stride begin to change and break down.
Maintaining some focus on these elements will help you stay efficient, more
comfortable and are guaranteed to bring you more pleasure during your run.
Staying in touch with your mind and body
during a run will help you reduce negative thoughts and physical discomfort.
Youll also be better able to avoid injuries by differentiating between
types of pain. When you are unable to maintain your form because of discomfort,
you are at a greater risk of injury and are better off slowing down or
Checking in with your body also allows you
to warm up better and get into the flow of the run more evenly. If you are
listening to a Walkman, the intensity of your run is more likely to be dictated
by the tempo of the song rather than how you actually feel. Subsequently, you
may go too fast before youve sufficiently warmed up and leave yourself
prone to injury.
Body awareness on the run
You might think that running comes so
naturally to experienced runners that they freely allow their minds to wander.
Actually, elite runners often use a flexible style of focus that changes with
the demands of the run. When the going is easy, they may pay attention to other
things, but they continuously "check in" with their bodies. When the going gets
tougher, they pay particular attention internally, to their minds and
Focusing inward gives you greater control of
your run. Our tendency is to try to ignore the pain that can come from a tough
run; but when we ignore, we ultimately lose control.
Becoming involved in the rhythm of your
breath choosing a specific breathing rhythm like "three steps in; two
steps out" can help your lungs more efficiently exchange oxygen for
carbon dioxide and flush lactic acid from your muscles. Maintaining awareness
of your form can help relax your muscles, reduce pain and allow you to run
faster and farther.
Our first inclination is to distract
ourselves from negative thoughts when we feel their weight bearing down on our
minds. If we consistently ignore a persistent thought, we often end up fueling
its power and pull. We are telling our mind that it is too scary to "go there,"
and our fear subsequently grows.
Paying attention to these thoughts might be
another path to managing them. If you really follow your thoughts, you may
notice that they are more associated with how you might feel in the
future, rather than how you actually feel in the present.
We may think, "Wow, how will I ever finish
this run if it feels so tough now?" Even though the future could be as short as
a few seconds away, you really cannot know for sure how you will feel
down the road.
During a tough run, we may worry that we
cannot maintain intensity or even make it to the finish. But these thoughts,
although very real, often have no basis in reality. We do, however, have
control of the present moment.
If we remain aware of our thoughts we are
better able to understand their basis in reality and connect with how we
actually feel in the present. Finally, you leave yourself open to the very real
possibility that you might actually feel better down the road!
If you keep bringing your mind back to the
moment you will be better able to manage how you feel during your run. You may
notice that you feel pretty good or you may be able to change your breathing
and form to help yourself feel better.
Many runners successfully manage negative
thoughts by noticing them while detaching from them emotionally. Some effective
strategies might be to think, "Oh, there are my negative thoughts again." Or
you could actually say hello to them and invite them in. Much like an annoying
houseguest, these thoughts are often less emotionally draining when you welcome
them and take them lightly.
If you really are having difficulty
with negative thinking, you may experience a great sense of power in knowing
that you can maintain the intensity of your run while feeling so lousy.
Let your mind flow
The beauty of running is that there is so
much time to think. The ability to engage our bodies while allowing our mind to
flow may account for the great emotional benefits of running. There are no
right or wrong ways to think or feel, but having some mental tools to try will
reward you with the most pleasure from your runs.
Dr. Rob Udewitz is a Clinical
Psychologist in private practice at Behavioral Associates in Manhattan,
specializing in cognitive behavioral and biofeedback techniques. A collegiate
runner, he now runs mostly for pleasure. However, he does admit to a continued