Court Rules: Staying Strong Mentally Through a Race

We're ready for the next edition of Court Rules and we hope you are, too! In this column, Harvard distance runner and former PA state champ at Unionville Courtney Smith gives her insight on your running-related questions. Last week, Courtney discussed how to stay strong mentally during a long season. This week's column is along that same vein, but she takes a different approach.

New to the column? Read Courtney's introduction, learn about her resume and passion for running, and find out what Court Rules is all about. Courtney is answering the second part of last week's question this week, which deals with staying strong mentally during a race.


A reader asks... 

How do you stay motivated throughout the long season of training and how do you push through the pain in workouts and racing, staying strong mentally?

Courtney says...

One strategy for pushing through the pain in workouts and racing is to try to make a given pace feel as easy as possible.  You can do this by controlling your thoughts and emotions, finding a distraction or checking out, repeating a mantra, or just focusing on doing what you can in the moment.

Our thoughts and feelings can dramatically affect how we feel during a run.  Positive thoughts can make the same pace feel much easier.  During a workout or race is not the time to be humble or doubt yourself.  Try to be as confident as possible.  Think back to all the hard work you've put in.  Think back to your favorite or most impressive performances.  Think back to other times you have pushed through pain and how happy and accomplished you felt after.  Try to spin everything as positively as possible.

Another way to deal with pain is to try to take your focus off it.  Pain is not actually a physical thing.  It is our bodies' interpretation of our current state and neural signals.  When you are not conscious of it, then it is not there.  If your toe was hurting because it was a little sore, it would immediately stop hurting if someone broke your arm.  This is because your focus would be on your arm instead.  So you can take advantage of this by changing your focus away from the pain during a workout. This can be something as simple as counting to 100 as fast as you can, or repeating a few lines of your favorite song.

Photo by Don Rich

You can also plan ahead of time some thoughts to say to yourself when the pain starts.  It can be your favorite quote, a motivational phrase, or anything that you think will help.  Just repeating it over and over again in your mind can be an effective distraction, as well as a helpful reminder to be tough and confident.  You can think of different things to think of for each lap or one phrase to repeat over and over.  Anything to get your mind off the pain will help you stay strong and hold the pace for longer.  Almost always we give up mentally before we physically need to.

Also, a good distraction that can make the pace feel easier is focusing on relaxing your body as much as possible.  Try to maintain good form. You can even run through a little checklist in your mind: shoulder down, face relaxed, arms not swinging across your body, etc. You can focus on your breathing, keeping it calm and even.  These thoughts help you mentally because they take your mind off the pain and physically because they help you run more efficiently.

When the pace in the workout or race is feeling really painful or unsustainable, try to avoid thinking about the future. Focus on taking this one step right now, now this one, now this one. Don't worry if it's already starting to hurt and you still have far to run.  Trust your coach and the plan and be confident that you can do it.  Don't look for that moment when you are going to fall off pace.  Just focus on maintaining the pace right now. Nothing is ever that painful in the moment; it's just the intimidation of the future that causes us to panic and give up. If thoughts about slowing down start to enter your mind, tell yourself "okay that's fine, I can slow down in one more lap" but almost always when you finish the lap, you can convince yourself to wait one more lap again and again.  And before you know it, you'll have pushed through the pain and it will be over!


We invite you to ask any questions (publicly or anonymously) for Courtney to answer. Send us your questions via email (, tweet us (@PennTrackXC), on Facebook. If your question isn't answered the following week, it may be included in a future column.

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