by Mike Lohre MS, HFI
As runners we are all searching for new training techniques that will allow us to become faster and stronger. A sure method for lowering your race times is to focus on improving running efficiency. One means of accomplishing this is through strength training, especially of the core musculature. However, a more overlooked form of training, but of equal importance, is to improve efficiency through visualization and mental relaxation. More than one pro-athlete has stated that their successes can be attributed more to their mental training than to the physical components. For a runner this may seem difficult to believe seeing how much time must be devoted to accumulating miles. However, our mental state determines how motivated we are to train. If running is rewarding and fun than we are more likely to run and be successful. If we are constantly stressed and anxious about our running, we are less likely to train and even stay healthy. Having a relaxed mental state also relieves tension from the body conserving a substantial amount of precious energy.
While running if you are anxious or self conscience, the musculature of your upper back is flexed and tense, arms are held high and pace becomes inconsistent. In short, your form goes to hell and you want to avoid this at all costs. Your aim should be to run relaxed, confident and efficiently. Different forms of mental training can help alleviate these symptoms and can be utilized throughout the day. Meditation, mindfulness and visualization can be practiced while lying in bed, crossed legged on the floor, or washing the dishes. However, I want to share a technique that I use while running, which has helped me keep a consistent and relaxed stride.
I love the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and the adjacent Quetico Park in Canada. There are millions of acres of wilderness without roads and the only means of transportation is feet and paddle. You must carry your canoe and any supplies over what usually equates to miles of portages from lake to lake. On my trips, I usually travel for 8 to 10 hours a day and besides short breaks for meals, I’m constantly paddling or portaging. During these long bouts of exercise I find that my mind falls into a very relaxed and energy conserving state. I have no other worries and I get into the rhythm of my movement, life becomes very simple. There is no rush because there are hours and hours to go, so I don’t push the pace. I usually move quick but at a relatively constant energy conserving pace.
I try to bring this mindset to all my long and easy training runs. It is common for my mind to wander to undesirable places especially when fatigue starts to set in. I begin to doubt the value of the current workout, my abilities, and I may become anxious about an upcoming event. Before I let my thoughts ruin my workout it is important for me to go to a simpler more peaceful mindset. Snap! I’m back in the boundary waters. I picture my relaxed paddle stroke, the calm water passing under the canoe. If other thoughts sneak back into my mind I dismiss them and focus on the natural rhythm of my stride.
Another visualization technique I use is to pretend that I am a rural resident of the African savannah. Living far from civilization and without a car or bike, I must run to get from place to place. Running switches from a form of training to my sole means of transportation. I try to use as little energy as possible because I imagine having to run all day and then having to get up and do it again the next day. So I adopt a pace that eats up miles but also doesn’t use much energy. I picture the grasses waving in the breeze and the sun beating down upon me. I focus on my breathing and relax my whole body to conserve energy.
Remember, the specific visualization isn’t important. Maybe my two examples will work for you or maybe you need to come up with your own (please share any suggestions). The important point to remember is that your visualization brings you back to a relaxed and mindful place. When your mind is at peace your body will follow. Your pace need not be overly slow either. In fact I often use visualization during a race and keep the quickest pace possible where my body and mind can stay relaxed. If you practice these techniques all the time you will become a more efficient runner and therefore a better runner. If you can bring this mental training technique to your events, where stress and anxiety usually peak, it will certainly benefit both your time and overall experience.