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Mental Roadblocks Runners Face and How to Overcome Them

by Katrin McDonald Neitz
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Runners perform best when their whole body--head to toe--is working in sync. Here's how to get over the four most common mental roadblocks runners face.

Mental Hurdle: You start off your training program with boundless energy, but within a few weeks just lacing up your shoes feels like a chore.

Clear It: Throwing all your energy into the beginning of a training plan is like starting a race at a full sprint. You're not going to have enough juice to finish strong--or finish at all. "Initial excitement is good," says New York sports psychologist and runner Robert Udewitz, Ph.D., "but you need to harness those feelings and divide them up throughout your training." If you're on a 16-week marathon plan, for instance, four months is a long time to wait for a finish-line reward. Schedule a half-marathon midway through your training to help you stay focused and motivated. Also, there's no shame in self-bribery. Promise yourself a massage after your long run. Download new songs into your iPod to help you through a track workout.

Mental Hurdle: You get so stressed out with performance anxiety that you aren't able to relax and enjoy the race experience.

Clear It: "Runners who feel this way are usually caught up in time goals," says Kate Hays, Ph.D., a sports psychologist who leads the "Psyching Team" at the Toronto Marathon. "Don't lose sight of all the other reasons you run--health, sense of accomplishment, connection to others." To ease race-day pressure, Hays recommends setting three levels of goals: your ideal scenario, results that would make you happy, and an outcome that you could live with. And keep your ideal to yourself, so you don't face additional pressure from well-meaning family and friends.

Mental Hurdle: You struggle to balance running, work, and family.

Clear It: You might have been able to devote 15 hours a week to running--when you didn't have three kids and a senior management position. Setting goals that don't reflect your current lifestyle, says Hays, sets you up for disappointment. There's no need to give up running. But switching to a three-day-a-week marathon-training plan, or temporarily focusing on shorter distance races, could make you feel more successful in all areas of your life. Also consider ways in which running can bring you closer to your family. "Some runners isolate themselves and push away others when they are training," says Udewitz. "Make your training more of a team effort by getting your family involved." For instance, ask your spouse to bike alongside you during a long run, or your kids to make you signs for race day, and then treat them to dinner at their favorite restaurant or a movie of their choice. And make sure you're their top cheerleader at their next event.

Mental Hurdle: You're locked into a training plan, no matter what.

Clear It: Runners are notoriously inflexible--and not just in their hamstrings. "Part of the appeal of running is that it's an element of our lives we can control," says Hays. "If other areas of our lives are chaotic, a regimented routine can be comforting." This is fine, but many runners obey their plans over their own bodies, putting them at risk of injury. To loosen this mindset, Hays recommends visualizing a more flexible schedule. Imagine what it would be like skipping a run to rest an achy muscle. Then picture yourself running stronger the next day because you took time off. Or create an internal self-coach. Runners tend to be harder on themselves than a coach would be. A coach doesn't push you when your body needs a break or recommend completely unrealistic goals. "Ask yourself if a coach would approve of what you're doing," says Udewitz. "Or if you were coaching another runner, what would you advise him in this situation?"

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