Running Psychology and the Modern World

Updated: Jun 5, 2021

Today there is a huge emphasis on the physiological and biomechanical aspects of training for running and endurance sport as a collective. These parameters can be measured today with heart rate, lactate profiles, power meters, and so on. Sport Science has accelerated our training practise knowledge greatly. However, the most important discipline of performance when an athlete competes against similarly conditioned athletes is often the psychology of the athlete. This is what allows runners to push through their own boundaries and realities of what is possible.

So what is sport psychology? And how does it relate to running?

By definition, sport psychology involves the study of how psychological factors affect performance and how participation in sport and exercise affect psychological and physical factors. Sport psychologists teach cognitive and behavioural strategies to athletes in order to improve their experience and performance in sports.

In the context of running, this could vary from coping strategies at the later stages of a race to how to cope with an injury; it could be how to cope with an unforeseen circumstance in the middle of race or it could be how to use visualisation to prepare for competition. It is a multifaceted and interdisciplinary area. It is hard to measure, but it is crucial for the runner. It is something that we can all improve on.

I have observed a number of modern-day constraints that negativity affect the psychology of the modern day runner in training and on race day, some of which I indulge in and am actively trying to counter. These include:

1. Self-imposed limits:

In comparison to the golden era of non-East African running in the 1980s, modern western runners have set themselves self-imposed limits and often don’t realise it. This is because of comparison culture and the developments of technology.

For example, it is all too easy to look on the internet and compare your performances to the world rather than the competition you are in. This can detract from your journey as a runner. Additionally, you can go on social media and see a runner’s training being depicted as consistent and that every session goes to plan and that they are on top of the world. When coming to the start line a runner may already be thinking that their competition are a level ahead and won’t put themselves in the position to compete. They have created self-imposed limits.

Furthermore, GPS watches provide a number of benefits, however, they may be more damaging than beneficial to many runners. If training with a GPS watch then many runners follow the pace beeping on their wrist rather than listening to their internal system in their body. This can cause easy runs to not become ‘easy’ which damages performance in the long term all because they don’t want to look slow on Strava. Additionally, being too reliant on watches means you may not be aggressive in racing and may hold yourself back from achieving your potential.

2. Obsession with numbers:

“What is your weekly mileage? What were your splits? What is your marathon time, your 5k time?” Sound familiar? In today’s world where society thrives on comparison and status, the concept of being a ‘high mileage runner’ or have an ‘easy’ run pace of no slower than 7 minutes per mile or having a sub 2.30 marathon are examples of categories that many runners aspire to be in. This is fine, but I perceive performance running to be about competitiveness. It is not about average miles or average training pace but it is about winning or trying to win. Winning in this context, means doing something that goes beyond your comfort zone. It means doing something you have never previously done on the day of competition. If a runner does this, then these accolades naturally come whilst striving for a greater goal than a category.

Obsessing with numbers can lead to training without necessary recovery, striving to get that mileage marker. Obsessing with pace on training runs can lead to under-recovery and poor racing performances. Obsessing with a time can detract from the nature of racing against your fellow competitors and hold you back.

3. Lack of creativity and flexibility:

Interval training is a hot topic. Be it 6x1k at 5k race pace or 4x8mins at 90% maximum heart rate; running literature and sport science places a great deal of emphasis on hitting hard sessions. Many runners believe they need to improve week on week with hard interval sessions, or need to hit a certain number of hard sessions a week in order to improve.

However, most runners would be better being a bit more flexible and allowing a two or thee day gap between harder sessions in order to truly recover and adapt. Having overly prescriptive training plans with no flexibility can lead to under-recovery and a loss of confidence due to the unsustainable nature of the program. It is fundamental to develop the confidence to back off or have another recovery day in order to maximise performance in the long term.

Being driven in running means realising that the training formula is a result of stress + rest = adaptation. It does not mean training through injury, maintaining a run streak, or following a training plan to the exact detail if it does not optimise performance. It means trusting the process and going for the long term approach.

4. Not being present:

Today there are many distractions in life and being able to focus intently is a valuable skill fewer individuals have. The beeping of a phone, checking social media first thing in the morning, people expecting replies instantly etc. In modern western culture people are not truly present. This is observed when running on the local hills and seeing people sat down, on their phones like zombies, rather than truly enjoying the views. At music concerts this has become a problem because people are recording the artists for likes and attention after the event rather than being truly present. For the runner, thoughts of what is this run going to look like on Strava, what will my followers think, what will my family and friends think if I don’t perform can be poisonous. To perform at max capability then focussing on the task at hand and being truly present is essential.

Concluding thoughts:

I am not a sport psychologist, however, over the last few months sport psychology has interested me greatly. It is an element of my own performance that I am actively trying to work on and believe many runners can improve just through minor lifestyle changes. When you get to the race you have sacrificed so much for it is important to not let yourself be your biggest sabotager. As Sir Roger Bannister emphasised: the human body is centuries ahead of the physiology. I believe that many coaches and runners could benefit from simplifying their practises, mastering the basics, and listening to their mind and body. This is something I strive to work on daily.

Just how much of performance running is in the mind? Probably more than we think.