Now as a trail runner, I’m sure you’ll agree that there’s nothing quite so uplifting and gratifying as one of those runs where it just feels right. Where you glide along the trails totally in the zone, light on your feet, totally immersed in your surroundings, the sound of bird song in your ears, feeling like you could run forever.

But what about the other runs? Those runs where it feels like bloody hard work, where you’re slogging away and those hills just seem to grow beneath your feet. Where your legs are screaming, you can’t get your breathing right and your head is telling you to go home.

Now imagine how it would feel if hitting the trails and feeling invigorated instead of exhausted was your normal. If you could become so absorbed in your experience that you simply didn’t notice your aching legs. Those hills felt like an exciting challenge instead of a necessary evil. Well that’s exactly how you can feel when you master the trail runners mindset!

As a hypnotherapist and trail runner I work with runners to help them to achieve just that! So here are my top tips on how you can master the trail runners mindset.

  • Performance in any sport is hugely driven by expectation, which simply means if you expect to struggle and find something hard, then you probably will. So if you find yourself slipping into negative self-talk, then take action as it is proven that negative self talk leads to a sudden and substantial drop in energy levels and a drastic increase in our perception of effort  - meaning that it will just feel harder. On the other hand if you tell yourself something positive as if you’re really feeling it right now, such as “I run strong”, “I’m light on my feet” or “I’m in control now” then the opposite is true!
  • Harness the power of your mind with visualisation. For years professional athletes have known about the power of visualisation but it’s not just for the pros. Visualisation is a powerful tool that we can all use. Each time you visualise yourself in a certain situation feeling or behaving in a certain way, a new neuropathway is formed. This means that when you actually find yourself in that situation that it will seem like a much more natural way to behave or to feel. This is in part because it will feel familiar to you and if something is familiar, then the brain perceives it to be safe and so will go there again and again. By visualising yourself climbing hills effortlessly feeling light on your feet for example or going a longer distance feeling focused and strong, then your brain will simply expect to feel that way and what the mind believes, the body achieves! The important thing to remember here is that for visualisation to be effective you must keep doing it as each time you visualise a certain situation those new neuropathways become stronger and the old unhelpful neuropathways begin to fade meaning that you will naturally feel and behave just as you visualised in your chosen situation. When you visualise, be sure to use as many of your senses as possible, imagine how you feel light on your feet, think about what you can see and hear, notice your breathing and focus on what you’re thinking and feeling. This helps to make those new neuropathways even stronger and more effective.
  • Tear down the wall! This is really effective visualisation technique which is fantastic for getting rid of mental blocks. Picture a wall that represents whatever is holding you back. Perhaps self-doubt, a negative voice, a memory of a previous run or race where you struggled or an unwanted belief of some kind. Now imagine a wall that represents all of these and when you have that image clearly in your mind, imagine destroying the wall. And this is where you can get creative! Blow it up, tear it down, do whatever feels right for you! And when the wall is destroyed imagine how you feel and behave differently now that there is nothing holding you back! Running up that hill effortlessly or crossing the finish line feeling incredible. Simple but effective!
  • When the going gets tough, the tough dissociate!! Dissociation is a technique where you focus outside of your body and it is a great way to reduce discomfort, reduce perception of effort or to increase energy and power and the options are endless. You can focus on your immediate surroundings, become aware of what you can see and hear, notice the temperature of the air around you, you can allow your mind to drift off to a happy time and re-experience all the feelings you had back then, or listen to some music or a podcast. When I ran the Hever Castle Marathon last year on a scorchingly hot day, I focused on how I felt when I crossed the finish line of a previous race and how strong I felt, playing it over in my mind again and again. By dissociating I was able to stop focusing on the discomfort I was feeling and instead felt all the excitement of crossing the finish line!! If a part of body is feeling particularly fatigued perhaps, then focusing intently on another part of the body will greatly reduce your perception of the discomfort that you are feeling.
  • Be aware of cognitive distortions! Cognitive Distortions are a form of problem thinking that effects how we feel about ourselves and the world around us and they’re a slippery slope down to a negative mindset. Here are some of the most common and what you can do to change them.
  • Emotional Thinking. As human beings we have the tendency to believe that if something feels true then it must be true! For example we might focus on a run that didn’t come together and then form the belief that we’re losing our edge or rubbish at hills whilst ignoring other factors that adversely effected our performance. Perhaps it was especially windy, muddy underfoot or you were feeling the effects of a late night. However, by challenging that mindset using a process called Socratic Questioning, you will be able to stop thinking emotionally and start thinking rationally instead. Simple Socratic Questions are “Is this fact or my opinion?” “How do I know this to be true?” “Where’s the evidence?” and “Will this run still matter to me in two years time”!
  • Should'ing! Now should'ing is a where instead of focusing on the reality of a situation, we come up with a magical idea of how things should be. It’s also the big stick of negative thinking because when we don’t achieve these magical expectations, we beat ourselves up for it and our confidence and self-belief plummets! We might say to ourselves things such as, “but I should be flying up that hill”, or “I should be running faster than this” or some other negative self-statement. So if you find yourself should'ing, remind yourself that “should is shit or silly” and let it go!

  • Taming the voice in your head! We all have a voice in our heads and great runners know that to really excel that there’s no point in paying attention to a negative voice. So if a little voice pops into your head, take action! Change the voice, make it something ridiculous, the voice of someone you could never take seriously. So simple but really effective! 

Try these techniques for yourself and if you’d like to know more about how to train your mind to become a better runner, then please get in touch.

Louise Phillips is a Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapist and Trail Runner who runs a thriving Hypnotherapy practice in Tadworth, Surrey. She works with athletes from all arenas of sport from amateur athletes to Paralympians and in her spare time can be found exploring the trails of Surrey!