When someone hears about running any distance from 5k to 100 miles the comment is often shared, “Wow, that requires mental toughness!” Wait a second. What does this statement mean? Asking someone to clarify on this comment usually renders something along these lines, ” You just have to tell yourself that you can do it.” This piece of advice is one small strategy that can maybe pull a runner through for a couple of moments. In reality, the level of mental involvement in running is often underestimated and misunderstood. One of the most fundamental mental activities to work on is focus. On what does a runner focus? When do you focus on what?
Let’s focus on two very useful strategies that move beyond simple self-talk strategies. I want to describe (1) dissociation and (2) association, compare the two, and look at when to use them.
Simply put, focusing on external things. Anything that is not going on with your body or mind is to be considered external. The thought underlying dissociation is that if you focus on everything going on outside of yourself you will not feel as much pain, not realize how much you have left, and perceivably allow time to pass by more quickly.
How does a runner dissociate? Here are some ideas:
One of the most popular techniques is listening to music. Whether you are a high intensity runner or like calm music, the beats can be a distraction.
Running in groups of people is a simple way to distract. Maintaining conversation is a good way to make sure you are not running faster than you would like, keeping a good pace. If it is hard for you to answer questions, or carry on conversation, while running you may want to consider answering peoples questions with questions. For example, they say ” Where do you like to train?” You say, “Ahh nowhere too fun, I was looking for training ideas. Where do you train?” You can learn a lot, save your own energy, and stay distracted.
Observing the environment in which you are running can be a helpful form of dissociation. Often times I am running in the mountains and becoming lost in the beauty of natural surroundings is easy. However, some runs are not so extravagant. Running on paths or streets you may pass many houses and people. I will often think what could be going on with people out and about, or think of why all the lights are on in a house at 3am. Let yourself become very aware of the environment. Be inquisitive about the landscape.
Changing routes is very important and can be an effective dissociation technique. I will often change my route in the middle of a run and try to figure out how I am going to make it back to my house within my time limit for training.
Overall, there are several techniques that can be used to take the focus off of your body and become distracted, find what works for you!
Association is incredibly effective! Think of this skill as ‘being right here right now’ or being in the present moment. Be aware of pain, sensations, gait, and form. Association can be extremely helpful in preventing injury. Locating pain will help you understand how to adjust your gait, or form. Paying attention to your foot placement can help you adjust for speed and fluid stride. Being in tune with your body helps prevent a bonk. It is essential to be aware of when your body needs fluids and fuel.
As you can see, both association and disassociation are very useful. Research appears to support the idea that experienced runners should use more associations techniques. Less experienced runners should use dissociation techniques. As for my thoughts, I think it depends more on distance than experience.
When I run a 10k I have no time to disassociate. I am focused on form and how I can improve my step to be fast. Even when I run marathon distance I am focused more on association, of course with some distraction thrown in. When you talk about ultramarathon distances is when this become an art. There is no way that while running 31, 50, or 100 miles, or any ultra distance you can stick to all association or dissociation techniques. Running for 12 hours needs to shift between the two. I like to dissociate the first 20 miles of any ultra race. I try to talk to as many people as possible during this time and get to know the landscape. I will then turn attention to how my body is feeling and what adjustments I need to make (association). The remainder of the race goes back and forth between the two techniques. When I notice pain, I do not ignore it. I tune in and feel all sensations and adjust what needs adjusting. If I begin to self-doubt I dissociate, chill a little! When it is all said and done I argue against the idea that it depends only on experience. Find a balance and what works for you!