As a runner, you may spend hours practicing speed drills, pushing yourself up hills or taking the time to do strength and flexibility work in the gym. But what about your mental health and approach to running?

“Running requires as much mental strength as physical strength, which is why we focus so much on mental preparation before hard runs and races. This is something we call ‘the inner athlete’,” explains running coach, owner and founder of Fitness From Africa, Marcel Viljoen. “The art of developing the mental strength for running is often overlooked but it’s so important to set you up for success and to help you enjoy running more,” he adds.  

Power of the Mind

For centuries, scientists have been fascinated by the role the mind plays in overcoming both mental and physical obstacles. And the truth is, we can train our brains to recognise and handle challenges differently – and, act differently in hard or stressful situations.

According to Dr Alia Crum who directs the Stanford Mind and Body Lab, "Our minds aren't passive observers, simply perceiving reality as it is. Our minds actually change reality.” Psychologist, Dr Beth Darnall’s work in the field has also revealed how the mind plays a critical role in the perception of pain.

“Pain is highly responsive to each person’s psychology and mindset,” she says.  Those who expect worse pain, ruminate on it and feel helpless about it – what’s called pain catastrophising. On the other hand, those who shift to a positive mindset tend to feel less pain…”

A Holistic Approach to Running

“At Fitness From Africa, we concentrate on 8 important factors linked to running success, also known as the “S” factors of preparation. These include:

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  1. 5
  2. 6
  3. 7
  4. 8

“The ‘Psychology’ aspect of running (point 8 above) is where we look at things like goal setting, mental visualisation techniques, as well as a training log and an achievement log which helps to focus on all the areas within your control,” says Marcel.

One of the most important parts of mental preparation is goal setting. The following fundamentals need to be practiced every day, as repetition is the mastery of skill.

  • Set goals that inspire you. Because you're inspired enough, you'll figure out a way to make it happen. A goal that you're not really trying for, isn't really a goal.
  • The goals you set must be big enough to drive and excite you.
  • Not only must you set goals, but also be clear of why you want them.
  • When setting a goal, you must be clear of why you’re doing it, as becoming the person that possess that outcome is rather exciting.
  • You must have a sense of absolute total belief and faith that you can achieve your goal(s).
  • Revise and go over goals regularly.
  • Goals should produce “successful experiences”.
  • Be committed. You can’t attain a worthwhile goal without a commitment to achieving them.

“In addition to goal setting, over the past 20 years, I’ve been observing and working with the elite of the elite, and I find that they tick all the boxes in my PRATISE PERFECTION Model below… and I think it’s important for us, as recreational sportsmen, to strive towards the same,” says Marcel.

Mental Prep on Race Day

Mental Imagery / Visualisation

When you visualise your up-coming hard run or race, you compete only in your mind, but this can have such a powerful effect, that your entire body feels as if you’ve competed physically. Physical performance improves because your mind can’t distinguish between a visualised and an actual performance.

Try these tips to improve yours:

  • Have a vivid mental picture
  • Controlability
  • Believe in the process
  • Practice regularly
  • Seek a relaxed, quiet atmosphere
  • Use your senses optimally
  • Maintain real-life tempo
  • Imagine your competitive venue
  • Imagine from an internal vs external perspective
  • Be realistic and positive
  • Imagine with a purpose

Role of Attention and Concentration

When you’re preparing to run a race, each of your 5 senses plays an important role, explains Marcel. “Think of your attention control as a spotlight, which you can shine in various directions. This can be external like an object or the ticking of a clock, or internal like your breathing.

The spotlight can be narrow to focus on a few things like putting in golf or wide to take in as many things at once as you do when you drive a car down a busy street. The master of attention will consistently perform well because he shuts out the churning of his stomach and the screaming fans, and focuses his attention so that he’s always in the right place at the right time and his response is automatic.”

What things should you pay attention to before and during a race?


Your Internal Bodily Sensations

  • Legs and arms - loose and relaxed, to fend of tightness and heaviness
  • Warning signs - stich, blister, chafing, soreness
  • The rhythm of your run
  • Your temperature
  • Your breathing
  • Your pace
  • Any pain - related to pace, e.g. windedness related to muscle fatigue, tightness, etc.


The Competition

You can use your opponents to draw out your best race effort. E.g. Who your opponents are, where they are, what they are doing, your own position, not to get cut off or boxed in, contact, your opposition’s present condition, etc.


The Race Route

Where does the route go, how far to the finish, running spits, next water station, etc.

Getting into THE ZONE

The idea is to clear your mind of everything and let your body function naturally, undisturbed by thoughts. This is also called getting into THE ZONE!

To help you get more into the zone, try to entertain inspirational thoughts, referred to as “positive self-affirmation”. Before and during the race, repeat the following:

  • I am well prepared
  • I am fit and strong
  • My friends are supporting me
  • I will conquer the hills
  • If I want to, I can!

To stay locked into the zone, your conscious mind will “shut off” as you become absorbed in the task – which is the race ahead.

To maximise your chances of staying in the zone throughout the race, try to

  • Have a well-though-out race strategy so that your decision making is simplified
  • Balance the challenges ahead with your unique skills
  • Perform in the present. Forget about past results or future outcomes
  • Contrate on a small, specific target such as getting to the next water station
  • Concentrate only on the aspects of performance that you can control
  • Eliminate in-race evaluation and self-judgement
  • Enjoy the rhythm and feel of performance rather than focusing on the technical aspects of the run
  • Have fun!!!

As speaker, author, and mind-set coach Allistair McCaw puts it, “You first need to see yourself as a champion before you can become one. It all starts in the mind.”

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What you can expect from the program:

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