Mind over matter – How much of running is in your head?

During a recent cross country race I found myself second to an athlete who historically has performed better than me across many distances.  I hadn’t entered the race expecting to be in contention of winning, but as it progressed I drew closer to her and over a technical section I actually had a lead. I’ve never taken the lead in a race before and instead of using the advantage and trying to pull away I talked myself down. Had I pushed on at that point would I have maintained my lead?   Had my head limited my heart on this occasion?

As runners we all have these instances in our running careers. Could I have run that tempo run more quickly if I’d had stronger resolve? Would I have got that time if I had practiced more positive self-talk during that race?  If I had better willpower could I have motivated myself to do that session?

Let’s look at what the scientists are saying;Books shot

Dr. Tim Noakes says that the brain acts as a Central Governor[1] when racing, limiting our ability to push beyond perceived fatigue to ensure self-preservation. Noakes believes that the point in the race when you think you’ve given everything is actually a signal or response from the brain to slow down to preserve health, rather than your body saying you’ve got nothing left. Noakes believes you have more to give physically when this happens. As runners, we know that often a third of the way through a hard session or a race we have that feeling of defeat or impossibility. Yet as the end draws nearer we have the energy for that last effort or home sprint. Noakes says that once your brain realises it’s nearly over it opens the biological pathways to run faster.

Sports scientist Steve Magness draws in the concept of willpower to the mental aspect of running. He states that willpower is a finite resource which we pull upon each day. As your willpower is used up our ability to resist and use self-control diminishes. For example, research has shown that resisting the same temptation, like chocolate, early in the day is easier than resisting later in the day. Our willpower is also affected by the amount of sleep we get – researchers found that in subjects who had 6 hours or less of sleep per night, they saw a decrease in willpower.[2]  Willpower is also affected by glucose. Magness cites that taking a hit of glucose has consistently been shown to increase willpower and research shows that a drop in blood glucose to the brain might be one of the causes of willpower depletion.

Dr Steve Peters is well known for his Best Selling book – The Chimp Paradox – which describes the human brain (machine) and what he labels the ‘Chimp’ – an emotional machine that can act both for and against us.  Not only has his approach made psychology accessible to the masses but he’s specifically worked with the British Cycling team and high profile riders like Victoria Pendleton who has triumphed over her fragile mental state to perform well.  He cites Sir Chris Hoy, as “A man who was fully with it. But he recognised he could get an extra bit out of my training by using mental skills. He learnt those skills, he moved from 85 per cent to 100.”[3]

Peters explains that the Chimp can be unhelpful and sometimes result in making bad decisions – for me not pushing on whilst I had the lead in the race, or by sabotaging your commitment to training. Peters argues that we need to resist the urge to fight the Chimp instead, listen to it and acknowledge it’s there, accepting it’s a normal part of our thought process makes it easier to listen to our human brain.


So how can we develop our mental strength for running?


Speedwork and intervals are great for the physical preparation of a race, but because they have regular planned breaks they don’t rehearse overriding the Central Governor.  A suggested workout to practice mind over matter is the hammer interval session. Take a classic interval session and on the third or second to last interval, focus on running that specific repeat as fast as you can – ‘hammering it’.  eg 8 x 800 meters at 5K race pace w/2mins rest, hammer numbers 6 and number 7.

Magness believes that if you make your training automatic you bypass the need for willpower. For example, build your schedule around your running, so it’s a given that you will do your training as opposed to an option. By removing the decision element, you save your willpower pool for later in the session to complete it more successfully.

To override the Chimp telling you to stay on the sofa instead of doing your strength work,  Peters advocates writing down your goals and stick them somewhere where you will see them each day (eg fridge, mirror), as this will strengthen your focus, rather than letting the Chimp win.


Don’t fool yourself that getting a PB is going to be easy, no matter how fit you are. It is going to hurt. Think through how the run is going to feel in advance and that you are going to need to get tough with yourself to achieve your goals.

By getting more than 6 hours sleep regularly we can strengthen our willpower – be it to get up for that morning run, or to complete the full number of reps, on pace, in an interval session.

During the race

Pace yourself well – Noakes’s Central Governor likes this. If you start too fast you kick in the Central Governor too early and your brain starts to slow you down. On top of this, physically, your body will have to work harder to override the waste products that are produced when using energy – read more on my previous blog.

Use glucose- most coaches wouldn’t advise runners that they need to top up carbohydrate/ glucose stores physically unless they are running for longer than 90mins, however Magness points to the benefits of glucose to boost willpower.

Acknowledge the Chimp but don’t follow its advice – by training your brain in the way that Peters recommends you can allow the machine (brain) to do the talking during the race and focus on the positives instead of a negative downward cycle.

[1] https://runnersconnect.net/central-governor-theory/
[2] https://www.scienceofrunning.com/2014/05/the-psychology-of-mental-toughness.html?v=79cba1185463
[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/dr-steve-peters-from-Chimps-to-champs-7462498.html

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