Running & Fitness

Tips to Train Your Brain

Dr. Doug Nemecek
Latest posts by Dr. Doug Nemecek (see all)

You’ve signed up to run a race. Maybe it’s a 5K, half-marathon or maybe you’re going for the full 26.2 miles. No matter which race you’re running, chances are you’re going to train for it.

When training for a race, most people focus on the physical: going on long runs, lifting weights, doing sit-ups or push-ups to strengthen the upper body.  But many forget one important piece: training the brain.

Cigna was the presenting sponsor of the 2015 Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend and as a result, many of our employees participated in the 5K, 10K, half marathon and full marathon. In fact, some even ran all of the races as part of the Dopey challenge. How did they do it? They trained their brains.

It’s a muscle that many of us neglect, yet is crucial in getting us to the finish line. 90 percent of running is mental. Research shows that it’s not your muscles that make you tired during a race – it’s actually your brain. Your brain produces feelings of discomfort to protect your muscles or other organs from real damage. Having the right mindset before and during a race can make all the difference in how well you perform.

How does one train their brain before a race? Here are some tips:

Practice visualization.

Focus on your goal – maybe you’re hoping to reach a certain time or beat a prior record. Or maybe you just want to finish the race. Visualize yourself running the race and crossing the finish line. This will show you that you have the power to reach that goal.

Explore a new route.

Our minds need variety. Running the same route over and over will lead to boredom, and that’s when our brains start to shut down. New surroundings will help stimulate our minds and keep us on track.

Train with friends.

Find a running buddy that you can train with several times a week. Running with someone else will help keep your mind off of any discomfort you’re feeling (especially as you embark on longer runs). Friends can also keep you accountable and push you to keep going, even when your mind tells you otherwise.

Find your limits – and then test them.

You’re exhausted. Your knees are hurting and your muscles are sore. You’ve reached your limit. Now is the time to push yourself further. Force yourself to finish the run, despite the physical discomfort. Doing so will show you that you can reach your goals and give you the confidence to tackle the upcoming race.

While training is all about pushing past the normal aches and pains most runners face, there are times when you need to see your doctor. If pain ever persists for more than 72 hours, worsens or is limited to one spot, you should make an appointment with your doctor right away. It’s also a good idea to talk with your doctor before beginning a training plan. He or she will be able to work with you to ensure you’re training properly and help protect your body from serious injury.

Now that we’ve covered how to train your brain, let’s talk about the actual race. The day you’ve been preparing for is finally here. You’re ready to tackle this next challenge. You start the race off feeling energized and confident.

But suddenly you begin feeling fatigued. Your pace slows and your breathing becomes heavy. Next thing you know, you’ve hit that dreaded wall. If you find yourself in this situation, here are a few things you can do:

Keep the focus on yourself.

Don’t pay attention to the other runners. Go at your own pace and focus on your surroundings. Pay attention to your breathing and listen to your favorite music. Remember – this is your race, not anyone else’s.

Break the race into chunks.

Avoid thinking about the finish line. Instead, focus on getting to the next mile marker or aid station. Once you’re there, find a new marker to track your progress. Before you know it, you’ll have run further than you anticipated.

Stay positive.

It’s easy to let doubt creep in. You may hear that little voice say, you’re not good enough. Ignore it. After all, you’ve worked hard and trained for this race. Think of all the people cheering you on and supporting you. That will give you the extra boost of energy you need to continue.

One last thing: don’t forget to celebrate when you’re finished your race. Fight the urge to analyze the race and think of the things you’ll do better next time. Allow yourself to enjoy the moment and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with it. You’ve earned it.

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Have additional tips to train your brain? Leave them in the comments below!