Jo Davies sport psychologist

Mind over matter: Sport psychology for runners

How can mindset improve your running performance? Sport psychologist Jo Davies explains how to channel your brain power to optimise your final weeks of training and race-day focus.

As you are reading this, you have probably already dedicated hours of physical training for the Reigate half marathon or 10k races. Following a training schedule, improving your technique and stamina, and consulting nutritional and/or medical advice have likely been key ingredients in your race build-up in order to achieve optimal physical fitness. But have you considered your ‘mental fitness’?

In recent years, a major shift has occurred in the application of sport psychology to achieve peak performance. Considering how your mindset can affect – and indeed improve – performance, can make all the difference to your confidence, emotions, motivation, and focus on race day.

Here’s 10 ways to channel your brain power to optimise your final weeks of training and race day performance:

  1. Identify why you’re running. When the going gets tough, either in training or in that last mile on race day, remembering why you’re running can provide an extra boost. Consider your key motivation – be that a special person or cause, to make your family proud, or simply that self-satisfaction when you cross the finish line. Know the reason you are there, and use this reason to spur you on.
  2. Select a range of goals for race day. Some common goals to consider are your race time and your finishing position. However, these goals can seem awfully far away at the start line. To improve motivation and focus throughout the race, it can be helpful to break these larger goals into smaller stepping stones or ‘process goals’. For example, you might aim to hit the three-mile mark feeling a certain way or within a specified time, or have goals around your splits, technique, breathing, or staying with the pacer. One goal might simply be to enjoy the scenery! These process goals will increase your chances of enjoying the race and being satisfied with your performance.
  3. Don’t try to control the ‘uncontrollables’. There are a number of training or race-day elements that are outside of your control. Perhaps the weather will be wet and windy (it will be September after all!), an old injury raises its ugly head, or a busy work schedule gets in the way of a couple of training runs. If you cannot control or change these elements, it is best to simply accept the situation for what it is, and focus on something you can control (another reason why having several goals can be useful). Perfection is not needed to complete the run, and is an unrealistic aim in any case!
  4. But do plan your ‘controllables’! That old adage ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ rings true here. Having a plan in the build up to your race and on the day itself will help you feel in control and confident. From organising your dinner the night before the race, packing your kit, checking the course, to strategising the race itself; these are all areas that you can plan so that you arrive at the start line feeling ready to run.
  5. Recognise your sources of confidence. Think back to previous training runs and competitions… What has helped you to feel confident? The confidence sources that you identify might be anything from great training runs or warming up well, to eating a good breakfast or surrounding yourself with helpful people. Once you have identified these sources, you can put them in place for race day and, in doing so, take ownership of your confidence.
  6. Rehearse your ideal performance. Imagery is a brilliant way to mentally rehearse how you want to approach and react to various challenges within the race. When we imagine performing a specific activity (such as running up a hill), scientists have identified that very similar brain activity occurs as when we physically perform that same activity. Essentially, imagery creates a ‘mental blueprint’ that primes our reaction to a real-life situation. For instance, imagining the senses associated with a hill climb (eg, seeing the hilltop, hearing your feet meet the ground, feeling fatigued) and your ideal reaction to that situation (eg, gritting your teeth, keeping your head up and digging deep) will prime this reaction when you encounter a hill on race day. You can also use imagery to form strategies. For example, imagine how you will react if you find yourself at the front, middle, or the back of the field at various points in the race.
  7. Reframe the pain. Negative thoughts (such as “this is too hard!”) can make your shoes feel heavy! What’s more, wishing pain or fatigue away will only draw attention to it. Build your awareness of your ideal race pace and how your body responds to it in training. It is likely that you will feel discomfort at times. You can then acknowledge these physical sensations during the race as helpful feedback such as: “This is my body’s way of telling me that I am running at my race pace.” Once these physical sensations are reframed as feedback, you can disconnect from them and shift your focus to other things such as your race plan or helpful head chatter (see number 9). Of course, I refer here to the normal sensation of discomfort that comes with prolonged exertion, which should be distinguished from injury pain that needs attending to.
  8. Break the race down. If fatigue takes over, it can be useful to break down the miles ahead into much smaller chunks. Just focus on the kilometre or mile you’re in, or pick a landmark to aim for. However tired you are, you can be confident of running a single mile, and those miles and landmarks will soon add up, bringing the finish line closer.
  9. Encourage yourself. Consider what encouragement you respond best to. Would you rather have a friendly, cajoling ‘inner voice’ praising your progress, or take a straight-talking taskmaster approach? This preference can influence what self-dialogue you use throughout the race to motivate yourself, also known as your ‘helpful head chatter’. During your training runs, experiment with different words or phrases to keep you in a motivated and focused mindset, such as ‘Yes I can”, “What goes up must come down”, or power words such as ‘tough’ or ‘strong’. Gradually, you will find various helpful phrases or words that you can plan into your race.
  10. Debrief. Chances are, the positives of the race will outweigh the negatives and you’ll be back for more! An essential part of debriefing – in both training and competitions – is to recognise: (a) what went well, and importantly why (what were your ingredients for success); (b) what your improvement points are, and; (c) an action plan for your next training session or race (what do you want to repeat or change in order to improve). These reflection points help you to recognise successes, are great motivators and, importantly, can fast track improvement.

Jo Davies BSc MSc MBPsS is a Sport Psychologist based in Reigate. Jo works with athletes across a broad spectrum of sports, ages and levels. Individual and group sessions are available on topics such as building confidence, dealing with nerves, performing under pressure, developing motivation, improving focus and endurance, and recovering from injury.

For more information, visit or on her stand in Run Reigate’s Event Village on 20 September.