A Chattanooga ultrarunner and world-record time holder shares tips for improving your mental running game

Getty Images / Photo Illustration by Matt McClane

In 2008, my husband, Randy, and I dropped at mile 82 of California's Headlands 100 trail race that I was winning by hours. I felt physically fine, and he was tired but also fine. But I couldn't get myself out of the mental hole I was in, and hopelessness derailed us.

As a runner of 30 years at that point, I had won races from 5ks to 100 milers. I still don't know what happened to me mentally to make me drop during that 2008 race and to take Randy with me. Three weeks later, we finished an incredibly hard 103-mile race with no problems. In the weeks and months after, I won several more and even set a new world record for female runners in the 2009 Umstead 100-mile trail race.

What was different in those events? I've spent years trying to figure that out, and what I know for certain is during that 2008 race, in those miles of darkness along the California coast, I forgot the importance of thinking positive thoughts.

I let my negative thoughts and energy impede my success.

What I appreciate most about running is that each difficult run, whether it's mentally or physically challenging, is an opportunity to grow and learn, to remember that no matter how much experience I have, I can still learn -- and no matter how many tricks I have in my arsenal, they will sometimes fail me.

Here are some strategies for pushing through the hard parts of running.

Mental aids.

Think positive thoughts. This takes a tremendous amount of energy, but it's worth it. Smiling and telling yourself you feel good (even when you don't) will get you through the rough patches. And as my husband says, "Sometimes I laugh at myself for smiling when I feel so bad."

Look around you. No matter where you're running, there's something beautiful or interesting to look at. Flowers, trees, clouds, the shiny mica in the dirt, the bright color of concrete can all help take your mind off not feeling strong or happy or desirous of running. Pull energy from the natural beauty around you to keep you going.

Lean into the difficulty. Instead of fighting against the difficulty or feeling bad about yourself, give yourself permission to struggle and commit to the struggle. If you're breathing hard, running too slow, feeling too tired, try walking for a few minutes. One of the best things about running is that it often gets easier if you stick with the run.

Run with a friend or a community of runners. The commitment to meet others will get you out to start the run, and running with others will keep you going.

Sign up for a race. Having a longterm commitment or goal to work towards helps the not-so-great runs seem less significant. If you're struggling to train through a hot humid summer, or just struggling to feel you're making any progress as a runner, working toward a race can help keep you moving through a rough patch.

Take care of yourself. Keep in mind that all the mental flexibility in the world won't help you if you're not adequately hydrating or eating enough calories. Take some time to learn what you can eat and digest. The energy boost that water and food provides can make an enormous difference to your mental state. Listening to music or a podcast if you need the distraction can also be helpful. Just keep running.

As with most things, it almost always gets easier when you maintain a regular habit.