Running Mentally Engaged: Keeping your brain in check when the pain sets in

Running is tough. Racing is tougher…downright painful. The brain has a funny little way of dealing with that pain, it gets sneaky and tries to coax us into slowing down.

Runner Brain: “I want to run a PR, dang this hurts, but I’m going to put the work in and stick this out.”
Annoying Tired Brain: “Well, fine, if you’re not going to listen to my complaints and willingly slow down I’ll just find other ways to trick you into it!”
your brain on running
Oh the brain, you slippery little eel, you.

* Self-Defeatist Thoughts: This would be when you’re running and your mind starts screaming in your ear, “You seriously can’t keep this pace up for any longer.”
* Dwelling on the Future: This is when your mind has on repeat, “Umm, and HOW much further do you think you’re going to be forcing me to do this? Think again buster, you CAN’T last that many miles more!”
* Bargaining: When your runner brain and your sane tired brain get into a war, your lame-o brain argues, “C’mon, just ease up a little, trust me you’re not going to feel guilty or regretful about it, just ease up.” This is also known as a lie, because your runner brain knows you’ll feel regretful.
* Wandering: This is when your brain full-on goes on vacation, if you catch yourself mid-race thinking, “Wow, I really like the zebra print on that lady’s shirt, you see her, the one sitting on the 20th row of in the stands.”

A Wandering Mind = A Slowing Body

See, when the mind decides to check-out and wander like that what inevitably ends up happening is the pace starts to lag. Running through pain takes a special kind of focus, focus on forcing yourself to relax, to keep pushing, to stay ENGAGED in the race.

When your mind wanders it is sneakily distracting you from the battle race at hand. My latest article at Competitor.com is all about staying focused during a race so you then, race your best: “Got a Wandering Mind? Here’s How to Stop It”

Read the article, but I’d like to add that a wandering mind is much different from zoning out during a race.

tired runner

Aww, c’mon, I’m only joking…kinda. ;)


I’ve talked about how zoning out is a mental trick to pushing through the pain. Zoning out:
* Locked Eyes Ahead:
Find a runner ahead of you, stare at a single spot on their back and refuse to let any distance open up between you and the spot.
* Breathing and Form: When you zone out you think only of the tangibles you can control and NOT the pain from lactic acid. Thinking about standing tall, keeping your form in check, and breathing controlled are all tangibles to think of.
* Think Relaxed: When you zone out you want to let go of any tension; don’t have your fists and jaw clenched, don’t have your shoulders in your ears.

Finally, zoning out is the epitome of being ENGAGED in the race, you’re single-mindedly in it.

A wandering mind is where you’re brain is anywhere but in the race. It is, in reality, just a backwards trick that your tiring brain is using to get you to slow down.

Don’t fall for it. Running often comes down to mentally ‘beating’ your own brain. Push past the pain, get through those intervals, drive for the finish line, and stay present in your race…because THAT is how you improve as a runner. THAT is how you set those wonderful PR’s. ;)

1) What is an example of a trick your brain has tried on you to get you to slow down?

2) How do you one-up that slippery little eel of a complaining tired brain?

3) What is an aspect of zoning out? How do you stay zoned during a race and stay ENGAGED throughout?

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18 thoughts on “Running Mentally Engaged: Keeping your brain in check when the pain sets in

  1. You’re spot on about a wandering mind being different to zoning out. I love zoning out. I do not love my mind wandering! When that happens, I’m aware of my thoughts being all over the place, and I struggle to get into any sort of rhythm or ‘zone’.

  2. You’re very right about staying in check with your mind vs. having a wandering mind. People ask me what do you think about when running or racing, and when running I think about a lot, but when racing, you try to divert all your energy to your legs rather than your mind (yep, that’s how I explain it). I try to think about being DONE- and really that’s what makes a longer distance hard, not so much the actual mileage. You have to be “on” longer.

    I really like the tips. One thing I do occasionally do in a race, if I find my mind wandering, is I think about my mom or my grandma or something for a few seconds, just how what I’m doing makes others proud (bc when they were young, they couldn’t run like this- women just didn’t!). That really helps :).

    • i think the thought of people u’d like to run for and make proud is a part of channeling confidence and certainly helping motivate u to get to the finish line faster!

  3. Thinking about my goal time has been enough for me to stop being a slacker and pick up the pace when I get tired. I am not sure how long that will work but I am going to keep at it for now. I do have a problem if I get close to the finish line and see that I am going to make my goal. I don’t push as hard as I could at that point because I know that I will make my goal then. I need to work on that. Every second counts!

  4. My struggle is always with my brain telling me to stay slow and steady so I don’t run out of gas at the end. So that means I never push myself out of my comfort zone!!

    I nominated you for the Liebster Award. Happy Easter!!

    • but u know wat, that is a sneaky way of ur brain having too little confidence in urself…prove it WRONG! and so wat, maybe one time u DO wind up petering out towards the end, that’s okay, u learn to find the line between pushing it just a bit more but not going out so fast u burn up. all a learning process.
      and thanks!!! :)

  5. I am laughing that you posted this yesterday as I had a real test of my ability to over-run my mind and keep going through a rough long run. I posted about it yesterday lol. I never let my mind rule, but it isn’t easy to keep going sometimes! During races, I never really zone out but I can during my usual runs. Yesterday during my 13 mile run, everything was going wrong from tangled ear phones, laces tied “not right”, socks slipping around, lower legs feeling dead, a shirt riding up and the need for a pit stop. It was bad and it was challenging! But, I set out to run 13 miles and I was not stopping. I override my mind by remembering I do not quit, remembering the fabulous feeling of accomplishing what I set out to do and one more important technique – I switch up how I calculate my remaining miles. For example, sometimes I calculate by saying – ok only X amount of miles to go. When the mileage number seems draining to me, I switch to ok, it’s only another X amount of minutes to get those miles done. And when the minutes seem draining, I switch to OK, it’s only another a few laps. I switch between all 3 depending upon the day and what seems the “easiest” to me. lol. It works for me every time!

    • i think it is important, especially on those runs where literally things keep going wrong, to remember u are NOT a quitter! :) great job!

  6. My brain tells me it hurts too much and I don’t have anything left to give. Then to combat that, I have to take it mile by mile, or sometimes half a mile by half a mile. Focusing just on that little piece helps keep my mind off of the big picture.

    I also zone out by chanting mantras over and over in my head like “can’t stop, won’t stop” and “how bad do you want it”.

  7. My brain has tried telling me that if I ease up a bit now, I can try to make it up later in the race. This never works since if I let myself slack off early in a race, it’s easier to do it throughout the remainder of the miles. Instead I try to tell myself racing is supposed to hurt!

    • ah-ha…great calling out on that lie! common one…the problem becomes when the brain keeps pushing off WHEN later actually comes to push it. great way to refute!

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