Living My Dream in SA

Train Your Brain to Run


Many runners line up for a race fit and fuelled to run, with the training mileage done and a solid nutritional build-up, but often they forget an equally important part of race preparation, the mental side. If you haven’t got your head right, all that training and preparation may just be left alongside the road, so Modern Athlete asked sport psychologist and runner, Maretha Claasen, how to get your running mindset right.

We’ve all done it in our running careers. We’ve stood on the start line of a race, talking to fellow runners, saying that we hope we get to the finish before the cut-off, or that we haven’t trained enough to go for a good time. Even worse, we talk about a ‘niggly’ little injury that may flare up again, and that we’re just going to see how it goes but will probably bail before halfway… All negative thoughts, and a sure sign that our heads are not in the right place for that race.

So says Pretoria-based sports psychologist, Maretha Claasen. Maretha is a runner herself, with finisher’s medals from the Comrades Marathon, several shorter ultras as well as the London Marathon, so she knows what goes through a runner’s mind in the lead-up to a race – and what it takes to line up in the right frame of mind to run well.

“Athletes often stand at the start of races and ask each other what time they are going for, and quite often the answer is followed by, ‘But I don’t think I will make it.’ What they should be saying is, ‘I am looking forward to it. I want to enjoy myself.’ There is a mind-body connection here. If your mind is right, it will send positive messages to your body, but if negative, your body will receive negative messages. If you focus on what you are afraid of, it will happen, but if you focus on what you plan to do, you will achieve your goals,” says Maretha.

People should practise being in control of their minds, explains Maretha, to stop breaking themselves down. “I hate it when athletes say, ‘I hope I make it.’ Those thoughts can completely override all their training and preparation. It’s like standing on the Comrades start line, having done all the hard work for months, but suddenly you break down your strength and motivation by having negative thoughts and doubts.”

“That’s why mental training is just as important as physical training. Most people focus on the body – all their training is physical – but never train their minds to race. You can have the best coach in the world and read hundreds of books on running, but on race day it’s the power of your mind that is important. A positive mind can give you the mental edge.”

Maretha says that sport psychologists work with athletes to enhance their performance and wellbeing. “A sportsperson comes to me complaining about a problem, for example anxiety or stress, saying that they don’t know how to cope with sport on top of daily life and work, or they come in injured and feeling negative. I help them to overcome these barriers to achieving their goals, and also lead a balanced and healthy life. The main focus is performance enhancement – to help athletes harness their natural ability to perform to their true potential, whether they are elites or just somebody who takes up running to stay fit and healthy.”

One of the big stumbling blocks, however, is that people don’t understand what a psychologist does – or how seeing a psychologist can benefit them. “A big misconception is that sport psychology is only meant for elite or professional athletes,” says Maretha. “Another misconception is that sport psychology is only for athletes who are performing poorly or have problems, and is only a last resort. I believe it should be an integral part of everybody’s training programme.”

One of Maretha’s elite clients is Annerien van Schalkwyk, current SA women’s half marathon champion, who represented South Africa at last year’s World Half Marathon Champs and World Cross-Country Champs. When she was injured recently and unable to run, she continued her mental training with Maretha. “To me the mental aspect is a very important and integrated part of my training, and even when I am in physical rehab because of an injury, I work mentally to keep my positive mindset and inner motivation,” explains Annerien.

As a member of the Ace Eagles running club, Maretha uses her psychology training in her own running. “I mentally prepare for all my races and training runs. I think beforehand of what I am going to do, set specific goals for myself, then visualise it. I use self-talk to give myself positive messages, and I block out negative influences, like people complaining about a difficult course. This has helped me from Comrades right down to the short races.”

Naturally, even a sport psychologist has days when it is harder to find the motivation to run, or to overcome a disappointment. “Recently I picked up an injury and my doctor said no running for a week, and this is where the mind plays a big role. All right, my body was resting and recovering, but my mind was still running. I was planning ahead, imagining running again and achieving my goals.”

However, she adds a note of warning: It’s important to psych yourself up with goals, but sometimes this can also psych you out, because your goals and expectations may be unrealistic. “Sometimes the mind wants one thing, but the body can’t keep up. I’ve seen runners fly away from the start of a race because they are so psyched up and the adrenalin is flowing, but then they become tired and wonder what is happening to their bodies, and immediately the self-doubt creeps in. Just like that they go from being psyched up to falling off the bus.”

When asked if she could give every runner one piece of psychological advice, Maretha immediately responds with, “Keep your mindset positive, enjoy what you’re doing, then go for your goal. From the frontrunners to the very back of the field, everybody should have a goal – and the confidence and the satisfaction of achieving that goal, of discovering strength in yourself, will reach through to all aspects of your life. Whether you are a frontrunner or a back of the pack runner, you start to think and act like a winner, because you are a winner!”

Runner’s Guide to Mental Strength

In 2006 Maretha co-authored The Runner’s Reference, a Practical Guide for Runners and Walkers with Dr Jacques Rossouw, which was filmed for SABC 2’s Tseleng running programme. She has developed this work into a step-by-step guide to developing mental running skills. Here is a quick look at her programme.

STEP 1: Think Differently
If you want things to be different in your running, you have to think, talk and act differently. Remember, you are what you think you are, and you can only achieve what you think you can! Talk and think in a way that will enhance rather than inhibit your performance. Condition your mind to expect success.

STEP 2: Set Goals
Your goals must be realistic, specific, a bit challenging and your own. Having goals to work towards gives you direction, so be clear about what you want to achieve and how you plan on achieving it. Reachable and specific goals should be set for every training session and every race, and the more you talk and think about a goal, the more it becomes a reality to you.

STEP 3: Winning Attitude
Run and train with desire, commitment and enjoyment. Never ever think of yourself as a bad runner… even if you come in last! Start now to develop an image of yourself as a top performer and work on your winning attitude. Use positive self-talk and goals to do this.

STEP 4: Imagery
This is the most important mental skill; a powerful mental technique using all the senses to build confidence and enhance performance. Create vivid, positive mental images of yourself achieving your goals, running with enjoyment, overcoming fatigue, completing a race, etc. This is the way to programme your mind for what you want to happen. What you ‘see’ in your mind is what you get in real life.

STEP 5: Relaxation Training
If you want to run a great race, relax your breathing, relax your body muscles, relax your mind, let go of the doubts and the worries, and enjoy what you are doing. You can train your body and mind to achieve this by doing controlled breathing and muscle relaxation exercises.

STEP 6: Pre-Race Preparation
Do the physical preparation for a race, but develop your own specific pre-race routine to prepare emotionally and mentally as well. Experiment to see what works best for you. And remember: Every thought and emotion, and every word you say before the start of the race can have a major effect on your performance.