In 2016, I set myself a goal: run a sub-25-minute 5K. This was the holy grail of running goals for me. Being able to sustain this pace over 5K was something I felt would set me apart. It would make me a real runner.
Every Saturday, I put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve this goal. I would head to Parkrun with a feeling of anxiety. I had somehow turned this beautiful, friendly, community event into a daunting task and it stopped being fun. Worse, I couldn’t do it. I got close, but I couldn’t sneak in under 25 minutes.
Finally, in February 2017, I did it. I ran the Highbury Fields Parkrun in 24:43.
Looking back now, that almost seems slow. I now routinely run Parkrun in under 25 minutes, without really even thinking about it. This past Saturday, I ran my 61st Parkrun. I hadn’t been in over a month, and really haven’t been doing that much running. I finished in 24:34.
I started thinking about running and mindset. I used to tell myself and others about what a slow runner I was. And guess what? I remained exactly where I was.
As soon as I adjusted my mental dialogue a bit, things started to change. I went from saying things like, “There’s no way I will ever run that fast,” to “Of course I can run that fast.” And in the past six months, I’ve run my fastest 5K and 10K times ever.
Mindset and Athletic Performance
The research around mindset and athletic performance is well documented. One study split cyclists into two groups and had them complete time trials to exhaustion. For the next two weeks, one group was given education in positive self-talk and instruction to help keep them motivated. The control group was given no instruction.
Guess what happened?
When they returned to complete another bike test, the positive self-talk group lasted 18 percent longer than they originally did, while the control group’s performance didn’t change. The self-talk group also reported lower perceived exertion than the control group, meaning the task felt easier, even though they cycled for longer!
A 5K race is psychologically challenging. They are short enough to run faster than a comfortable pace, but long enough to require stamina and endurance too.
Before, I used to focus on how hard the effort felt. I’d find myself wondering if I’d even make it to the finish. If my breathing felt too laboured, I’d pull back. I’d use downhills as recovery, and be mentally preoccupied with any sense of pain. With every stride of a 5K, I’d be deciding whether to speed up or slow down based on how hard the effort felt compared to how hard I expected it to feel. My watch was also a dangerous distraction. If the pace was faster than I was used to, I’d suddenly panic, convinced I’d never maintain it.
But here’s the thing: your sense of effort is indeed influenced by signals from your body, like muscles fatiguing, BUT it also really depends on how your brain interprets those signals. Your mindset can be tremendously influential.
Focusing on how hard the effort feels makes it worse. Thinking about how well you’re doing makes it better. This is the power of a positive mindset.
I now routinely leave my watch at home. I try to be kind to myself. I focus on good things. My mindset is positive. And you know what? My running has never been better.