Running as a Mental Game
You’ll have to excuse me if this article seems scatterbrained or incoherent. I planned on writing it before I delivered my second child, but instead I chose to nest like crazy — to the point of reupholstering an ugly chair we pawned off of my husband’s friend. And now as I’m trying to type out this article, my newborn sits on my wrists, and my typing technique would be condemned by Mavis Beacon. But regardless of the state of life we’re in, we do what we must to take care of ourselves and to carry out our goals. That’s what running is about, right? In injury, in pregnancy, in depression and anxiety, in good times and bad, we stick to our running goals because we know we wouldn’t be ourselves without them.
I’d like to focus on the idea that running is mostly a mental game and not solely a physical one. I’ll explain what I mean by this notion, and I’ll give some practical tips for keeping your mentality on the right track to achieve your running goals. I’m by no means a running expert. The longest race I’ve run is a 10K, and if you had told me a few years ago that I would one day write for a running blog, I’d be curious to know where specifically my lobotomy had taken place. However, I am here to report that my current enjoyment of running comes not from operative intervention, but instead from a sounder mental approach that I’ve acquired over time.
Running is about the mind. This isn’t the most groundbreaking idea, but it’s also not something I’ve always understood. Yes, running is physical and should challenge our bodies; it should push us to fight, to work hard, to sweat. But the hardest part of ourselves to train is the mind. St. Augustine writes in his Confessions, “The mind commands the body and is instantly obeyed. The mind commands itself and meets resistance.” Since the mind requires more attention when we want to perfect ourselves in the spiritual life, the same must be true with our approach to running. Ultimately, if our minds aren’t ready for the challenge, we will remain mediocre in our exercises, which fails to enhance growth in body, mind, and soul.
Our bodies and our souls are connected in such a way that they were never made to be separated—that’s why death is such a harsh and painful reality in our fallen world. When our minds are not in the place that we expect our bodies to be, we can’t perform well in our running.
Let me give you an example. For a long time I would run about 5-6 miles every other day, but I hated running. In fact, when I knew I had to run on a particular day, I would be extra cranky all day leading up to the run. Of course, I felt great after the run (as one usually does), but I would essentially waste the opportunity to grow in virtue most of the day leading up to it because I kept dreading the idea of running 6 miles in the stifling New Orleans summer heat. I was just a bit (extra) grouchy. Only recently did I realize these two truths: first of all, running is a gift, and not everyone is fortunate enough to engage in this gift; secondly, I don’t have to wait all day to run. I can run in my favorite part of the day when my mind is in its clearest state — the morning — and actually start enjoying running rather than seeing it as a huge obstacle that I have to overcome in order to stay in shape.
It’s all about perspective. If we view running as a burden, we’ll never enjoy it. If we see that the ability to run is itself a gift, we can start enjoying aspects of running and seeing the beauty in it.
So how do we maintain a perspective that makes us excited to run, even on days when it’s super hot or rainy or our favorite track is closed? I have a few tips listed below:
1. I already mentioned this, but we first have to recognize that running is a gift. If we have the resources and the health to do it, we are extremely blessed. If you’ve ever experienced an injury or had to be on bedrest for anything, I’m sure you understand the itching desire to get out of the house and hit a trail. Go back to that place if you forget the joy of running. Refresh your memory and your understanding with the idea that you once yearned for this (or if you’ve never had an injury, that there are many who do yearn for this and can’t experience it).
2. Pick a time of day to run when you’re in your best mood. I love the morning, and it works best with my kids’ schedules to get up before them and start the day off with a run. But honestly, even if it didn’t work best for my kids, I’d find a way to run in the morning. You deserve this time for yourself, and your mind and body need it.
3. Pray before you run. Think of an intention (or 2, or 25) for which you can offer your run. This helps me so much. I have specific intentions for while I run, and when I get to mile 3 of 6 and am getting bored or frustrated with the intensity of the run, remembering my intentions keeps me going strong.
4. It is of the utmost importance to have a good soundtrack while running. If it helps you to pray the rosary in your head, do it. If you love the sounds of nature, listen to them. Maybe you like audiobooks and/or podcasts. Find some you know you love so that you’re not distracted by trying to download better ones while you run. If you’re like me and can’t run without the best 90s and early 00s rap songs blasting in your ear drums (clean edits, thank you), don’t deny yourself that Nelly song on repeat. If you don’t have a good soundtrack, your mental game won’t be sharp, and neither will your physical one.
5. Take care of your body leading up to the run. One time I ate crawfish the night before a race. If you know anything about crawfish boils and requisite grams of sodium consumed, you can maybe understand why this was a bad idea. Instead of enjoying the after-race party, I sought the companionship of many port-o-potties. If you’re going to run, do it right. Eat and drink well before you do.
6. Get a good running app to track your run. Mine updates me at each mile and lets me know what my pace and overall time is. If these apps distract you or take you away from your novel/Nelly song, don’t use them. Do what works best for getting your mind right to run.
I’m sure there are other tips and tricks for supporting your mental game while running. If you think of any more, I’d love to hear them. I know these are the things that work for me. Remember: if your mind isn’t ready for running, your body won’t be doing its best during the run. You want your mind and body to be ready for the challenge, so do what you can to get your mind prepared for it. It will be worth it because your runs will be more intentional, more enjoyable, and will allow you to grow more in virtue.
Katherine Finney is a high school religion teacher turned stay-at-home mom to her daughter Miriam (and one on the way!) A New Orleans native, she loves cooking (especially creole dishes), dancing, and doing karaoke with her husband. Kat originally started running because she was inspired by her husband's zeal for running. Now she loves it herself and has discovered many spiritual, emotional, and physical benefits to it. Kat's primary goal in life is to become a saint with God's grace. She hopes that through this online community God can make her a vessel to both give and receive wisdom about what's truly important in this earthly life.