Most runners put a lot of thought into the physical training needed to race or finish a marathon. So it is puzzling at times when, despite all of the miles, interval workouts, tempo runs and hill sprints, a runner performs below their capabilities in the goal race. Certainly there are physical reasons for such performances, but just as often the cause may be a lack of proper mental preparation. Mental ability in athletics is just like physical ability: some people have more of it naturally, but everyone can improve with training. Your body and mind won’t do anything in a race that they haven’t been taught to do in training. Mental ability needs to be trained daily, just like physical ability.

All runners create images in their minds related to upcoming workouts and races. Unfortunately, many times these images are negative, inspiring anxiety rather than confidence. Mental training is the use of positive images to more consistently raise the level of training and racing, and ultimately achieve full potential as a runner. Here are a few strategies to improve your mental game:

1. Create a picture in your mind of the kind of runner you want to be. If you can’t see it in your mind (the conscious level), you won’t believe it in your heart (the subconscious level). This deep-down belief in your abilities is confidence. Once you can picture the kind of runner you want to be, break out the characteristics of that runner, and make those characteristics your strengths. As you physically and mentally visualize and practice these strengths in training, the picture in your mind goes from being an idea of what you want to be to a belief in what you are.

2. Reinforce your vision with positive self-talk. Positive word cues, especially during the tough parts of workouts and races, keep negative thoughts and doubt from creeping in and sabotaging your effort. The body follows the directives of the mind. Running is a direct feedback system. Whatever thoughts are in your mind are immediately felt in your body. No voluntary action on our part can take place without a preceding thought, so it’s important to have the right kind of thoughts to make your body perform the way you want it to.

3. Stay in the present. Don’t worry about what might happen later in the race. Think about what is happening right now, and do your best right now. As the workout or race progresses, concentrate on doing your best only in the current situation. Focus on the little things necessary for success and the end result will take care of itself without even thinking about it.

4. Do your best. This may sound obvious, but many times our thoughts actually prevent us from doing our best. Your race plan needs to be flexible. You want to visualize your perfect race, but also anticipate challenges that may arise and visualize yourself successfully overcoming those challenges. Unexpected things that happen during a race can elevate anxiety and create negative thoughts. Anticipating things that may happen, and having ready-made solutions, will lower anxiety and give you confidence that you are prepared for anything that may occur.

5. Don’t dwell on the negative. All runners at all levels have bad workouts and races. Learn what you can from those, then move on. Focus on the things you can control and let go of the things you can’t control.