The issue of mental preparation is very interesting. It definitely plays an important role, even though it is often overrated. I would like to share a few thoughts about building mental fitness with the goal of maximizing performance within the given limits of time for training and opportunities for recovery.
Some of the principles below are perhaps self-evident to those who participated in competitive sports at a serious level at some point in their lives. Which perhaps is why I have never bothered to write a post of this kind about it before. But lately I realized that we have a lot of bloggers that are not reaching their potential because of poor understanding and/or application of those principles.
The Limits of the Body Should Not Limit The Mind. You have been given a body that has its limits. This is true for every runner. For example, I do not expect to see anybody running a 1:30 marathon any time soon, although I would be delighted to be proven wrong. Everybody has hard physical limits, and no amount of training or mental exercise will get you past them. However, those limits are kept secret, and often lie in areas above your expectations. They are kept secret perhaps because they are special, maybe even of sacred nature, they are not to be seen and felt unless you've earned it. Runners at top level seem to understand it intuitively. Paula Radcliffe was asked once if she thought 2:10 was her limit. Her current best is 2:15, and in all honesty she lacks the 10 K speed for a 2:10, 10 K speed at her level is next to impossible to improve by a few seconds, much less a minute she would need, and she knows all of that. Yet her response was that she did not want to talk about limits. Why? Think about it for a second, it will hopefully come to you. You have to feel it, it cannot be explained in words.
Know Your Potential and View Your Performance From That Perspective. This can be challenging. Because you have not done it yet and you are so far behind. Because as of the moment you may find it difficult to keep your potential marathon pace for just one mile. Because most of your actual races will fall below the potential, and many far below. You need to learn to view them as stepping stones. This can be hard when you've run a PR and you feel like celebrating. Celebrate for a second or two, then say, what do I learn from it? Or if you've run a mediocre race, learn to face it. Sure, others may say you've done a good job either to console you or because to them it is still a great performance because they cannot run that fast. The mediocre performance might even win the race, or qualify you for the Trials, if you have a whole lot of Quality X maybe even for the Olympics. It might even win the Olympics, although rarely since you will have to beat your match. But when you know your potential deep down you will know what that performance was worth. Develop the strength to take it for what is was worth without adding sugar to alter the taste and lessen your learning opportunity.
A story. Jenny Spangler runs a 2:43 to qualify for the '96 Trials and she is in tears afterwards, and those are not tears of joy, she is disappointed because deep down she knows she is not a 2:43 girl. She enters the Trials with a B qualifier, nobody considers her a factor. She runs away from the field early on, they ignore her thinking she is a rabbit seeking some TV time, cannot keep the pace, and will come back. She does not come back winning with a 2:29. Had she not known deep down she was a 2:29 girl she would not have been in tears over 2:43. Had she not been in tears over 2:43 she would not have run 2:29.
The Will To Win Means Nothing Without the Will To Prepare. This quote is attributed to Juma Ikangaa, a Tanzanian marathoner with a 2:08 PR who won or placed in a number of major US marathons in the 80s. You can come to the starting line believing that you could run a great time, and that could be very true, you could indeed have that time in you with some preparation. You could be willing to run that pace until you drop dead. But you cannot defy the laws of nature. Wanting to win on race day without a preparation to back it up is like jumping into a battlefield without a weapon. You are going to get killed by a better armed opponent. You might be a better shooter, but you do not have your weapon. To improve you need to have the will to get out the door every morning and do what is optimal for building your fitness that day. Every day. No exceptions. No excuses. This is where a vision of your potential can help. When you see yourself in that light, you do not want to act below it by skipping runs just because you were not motivated, it was not fun, it was raining, your training partner did not show up, you got too busy, you got home too late, etc.
Faith Vs Positive Mental Attitude. There is a difference. "Just believe that you can it do, and it will happen" is not faith, it is PMA. Miracles happen by faith, not PMA. Faith is to believe in things which are not seen but which are true. When you have faith, you fully realize where you are, and how far away you are from your goal. You feel the pain of the gap. Yet in spite of that pain and the apparent difficulty something deep inside of you tells you that gap can be closed. You keep searching. You are ready to fail 1000 times, learn from the mistakes, and try again, so that you can succeed once.
Become a Lover of Truth. In order to know where to go you need to have a clear vision of where you are and why you are there. It is common for runners to struggle with that. Sometimes we do not want to race because we are afraid of underperforming. Sometimes we might even not want to time or measure our runs fearing the pace might end up being slower than we think and the distance shorter. Often we offer and accept explanations of poor performance that blame random factors outside of our control rather than addressing systematic failures in the training and recovery that were the true cause. Sometimes we race downhill or short courses and accept the times as legitimate PRs with no adjustment. Sometimes we exaggerate the difficulty of the course and the conditions thus receiving an inflated idea of our current fitness. This needs to be overcome. We need to not only be accepting of the truth, but we need to learn to love it even when it is unpleasant.
Keep It Simple. They say that genius is inspired simplicity, or something to that effect. The two most important improvements in the history of training systems are aerobic base, and interval training. They did not come from a lab, they were not created by a multi-mullion dollar project with a team of world-leading scientists, or anything like that. They were created by runners who paid attention to their body signals, and thought about those for long enough to end up with an inspiration. Aerobic base training comes from Arthur Lydiard who observed that you cannot use the speed in a long race if you lack the endurance to maintain it. The interval training comes from Emil Zatopek who said - "For speed you run fast. For endurance you do it many times."
A story. At a start of a local marathon I overheard a conversation between a 2:16 marathoner, and a 2:52 marathoner. That was around the time when there was a whole bunch of hype about diet-induced carbo-depletion a week before the race. The 2:52 runner asked the 2:16 when he did his carb fast, exactly how far out from the race. That was the 2:16 runner's introduction into diet-induced carbo-depletion, turned out he had managed to run 2:16 completely unaware of this "revolutionary" method.
Simplicity does not sell, and our free market has noticed it. So they sell what sells. Fancy training schedules. Shoes with motion control. Sophisticated GPS-based distance measurement systems with magic target heart rate zones. Gels. Protein and carb drinks. Training secrets marathon coaches never tell you. Revolutionary speed workout, doubles your 10 K speed. Do not fall for that, they say a fool and his money are easily parted, keep your mind gimmick free, avoid fads, focus on the essentials. Aerobic base first, a couple of years of it. Learn to run injury free. Race once in a while to know where you are. Once you have the aerobic base, work on speed. Listen to your body, use common sense.
Tame the Ambition to Increase the Diligence. We live in world of ambition. We feel the pressure to be person X, do thing Y, follow schedule Z, etc to prove our worth. We are taught to have ambition, but we are not taught to view reality in plainness. We are also not taught the principle of humble diligence. This is a bad setup.
Many runners fall victim to this. We start to run high mileage while our sleeping opportunities are reduced. Or we feel we need to prove something by running a particular marathon even though we are not fit or even healthy. Or we planned a speed workout, something happens, our recovery from a previous one was disrupted, but the magic training schedule says we have to do it, so we do it anyway and get injured, sick, or overtrained. Or we might feel if we need to run at race pace in every single run for its entire length.
Of course, some pushing of the boundaries is necessary in order to grow. But it must be controlled. It must be driven by the right source. Your body, not your training schedule, should say "I am ready for this". The ambition should be tamed and channeled into training consistency. There are certain musts. Must schedule time to train. Must get out regardless of the weather. Must cover the planned distance unless there are health reasons not to. Must go to bed on time. Must eat healthy and in abundance. Those are diligence driven musts. Must run faster than a certain pace in a recovery run, must do intervals even though I got no sleep are examples of ambition driven musts.
Visit the Upper League. Once in a while it is a good idea to run with somebody faster than you in training or in a race while they are putting in their normal effort. There are times when your body is ready to run faster, but your mind is not. If it is one of those times, such a visit could result in a breakthrough.
Develop a Healthy Competitive Mindset. We live in competitive world. Our culture teaches us to be competitive, but unfortunately the principles of healthy competition are not absorbed. We compete to be ahead of the competitor at any cost rather than for excellence. This type of mindset brought into running will limit your development, and needs to be corrected.
Some examples. "I hope runner X does not come or is not in my age division so I can with the prize" vs "I hope runner X does come so I can push myself harder and know what my effort is worth. If I cannot beat him he deserves the prize" or maybe "I hope the race directors come up with a system so that my performance is still rewarded according to what it is worth even if the outclassing runner X does come". "It is not fair that runner X does not have to work so hard to beat me when I am busting my rear end" vs "I will encourage runner X to train as hard as I do so we can see where his talent can take him." "It is not fair that men are faster than women" vs "I realize God made men faster, but I do not have to race them for awards or prize money, and it is fun to chick a guy when I can". "It is not fair that runner X has already finished and is running backwards for a cooldown" vs "I will ask runner X to turn around and pace me to the finish". "I take consolation in the fact that runner X that beat me is 23, while I am 30" vs "Runner X demonstrated that he is faster, so I need to train better to run at 30 as well as or faster than I did at 23".