5 Fun Challenges to Improve Your Running Mind

sports bra with tights and corndogsEveryone knows there are no shortcuts to running success, or at least they should by now. If we want to race our best, we have to work hard training our bodies and our minds. When it comes to mental training, most of us think of things like visualization exercises and mantras. These are great, but they get boring. I want a way to train my running brain that’s fun and effective!

I was inspired to write this post after listening to the Final Surge podcast with Steve Magness. He mentioned a study that compared the pain levels and emotional responses of athletes to that of Buddhist monks. The study found that when both an athlete and a monk were exposed to the same pain variable, the monks’ MRI scans showed a less emotional response to the pain than the athletes’ did. Magness then talked about how he started incorporating little things, like ice baths, into his athletes’ programs to help train their minds. As the Official Salty Running Mindfulness Expert™, I beamed as I pictured all the fun and different challenges we could take to train our brains. Here are five!

The Two to Five Minute Challenge

When pain, discomfort, or boredom occur, stay with it. Label it what it is and observe it instead of judge it. We tend to want to slow down or even stop when we reach these levels. Instead, challenge yourself to get curious for at least two to five minutes. What I mean by “get curious” is to make yourself experience it and see where those two to five minutes take you. Go with it!

This first hack is one that can be returned to when struggling with all of the other hacks below. It serves as a great practice for pushing yourself when your mind wants to do otherwise. Why two to five minutes? It’s short enough to not create damage and long enough to get used to doing. As a result, you’ll likely find that the pain is quite tolerable and may eventually go away.

Pro tip: It’s ok to start slow. Start with some 40 seconds and increase over time. This can be done during workouts or even on easy runs when you’re just not feeling in the mood.

The No-Entertainment Treadmill Challenge

Some of you iron-willed runners may already do this. But for us mere mortals who need a distraction to survive the dreadmill, this can be a great challenge. So far, I’ve made it about 20 minutes of just the sound of my feet thumping against the tread, the squeaking of the under carriage, the heavy breathing of the guy on the treadmill next to me, and the bad 80s rock playing on the gym overhead speaker. Ok, so there’s some music playing but when it’s bad, it makes the challenge even tougher! Learning to continue to run when the conditions aren’t ideal sounds miserable but if we reframe the experience, we can actually gain quite a bit of mental strength.

Pro tip: If you feel the urge to stop, combine this hack with the 2-5 minute challenge!

The Just-Cuz Day-Off Challenge

Not only will taking a day off here and there help you recover physically, it also can help give you a mental rest. However, that’s not what this hack is for. Take a day off when things are going well. Throw a wrench in your plans. Why? Doing so will help you learn to sit with uncomfortable feelings like guilt and fear. The benefit? When there is a real wrinkle in your plans, you might actually experience less anger and frustration because you’ll know that one day off isn’t going to hurt you.

Pro tip: Get curious! Explore what uncomfortable feelings like guilt feel like. Where do you feel it? In your stomach? A case of the sluggies? When the going gets real tough remember the age old internet meme:


The Inappropriately Dressed Challenge

One of the more uncomfortable experiences to have while running is being over- or under-dressed. Sure, when over-dressed we can simply discard the extra clothing. But think of the embarrassment you experience when you unexpectedly run into an old friend while running in your mismatched running tights and sports bra. Unless you’re Kate Hudson, this is no fun. And under-dressed? Even worse! Your hands and feet may go numb, with a freezing wind burning your neck. But what if you intentionally over- or under-dress? Doing so every once in a while provides an excellent opportunity to get curious with different body sensations and teaches you to experience the sensations instead of fighting them.

Pro tip: If you struggle from certain conditions, such as Raynaud’s, you can opt for an alternate challenge – run in plain clothes a la jeans, regular bra, a button up. You’ll still want to wear your running shoes but experiment with how it feels to run in these non-traditional items. Make it fun!

The Sloshing Belly Challenge

When I think of this hack, I think of the wisdom once shared by the legendary ultrarunner, Jenn Shelton. In an article for Outside Online, she explains that no one likes running on a full stomach, but the reality is we need to take in fluids and food that often don’t sit well with us during endurance races. She suggests training the stomach just as we would train our bodies and minds for racing. One way to do this is to eat all the crap and just go for it. Go out for a run after a few bowls of pasta, bread sticks, and tiramisu. Chomp on some late night Taco Bell and hit the ‘mill. One of my personal favorites was eating two Ballpark hot dogs before a workout. I burped a lot but survived without any stomach issues. The benefit is that when you do find yourself facing stomach troubles during a race, you may be more likely to weather the discomfort as a result of this exercise.

Pro tip: To the best of your ability, try not to assume how you will feel after eating such a feast and going for a run. Doing so may fulfill your prophesy. Instead, treat it like an entirely new experience – I wonder what will happen? What will it feel like? Then, as the moment happens, observe, observe, observe!

Do you have any mental hacks that you use in your training? Would you use any of these? 

I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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  1. I love number 5. Jenn Shelton is my girl crush (after Ellen and Shonda Rhymes) and what she says makes sense. I think I’ll try that in my run commute from work today. Down a smoothie and then hoof the two miles home 🙂

    1. A few weeks ago I decided to run at lunch … after I had already eaten part of my lunch! It was just an almond butter sandwich, but it was the entire sandwich, and I was running 10 minutes later. No issues! But, I once had a turkey sandwich before a track workout and that did not work. Starting with easy runs and easy foods is probably wise!

      1. Yes! Easy runs are a perfect place to practice all of these. In fact, one of my 2017 goals is to try to be more present on easy runs, where I tend to dread getting out and get caught up in counting down the minutes until it’s over. But there’s so much magic in easy runs that we can learn to use when racing and doing workouts!

  2. Love these, Ginger! I practiced the first one during my 10 mile race on Sunday. Get uncomfortable and stay there. And I’ve done the no-entertainment situation once when I forgot my headphones. I think I made it 6 miles. But, it was also in the gym so I had people to look at.

    Definitely the hardest for me would be the day off challenge. It’s the same type of uncomfortableness as the others, but in some ways it’s exactly the opposite. I don’t know if I’m at that level of sati yet!

    1. Yes, my boyfriend said he didn’t like that challenge out of all of them and said it didn’t make sense to take a day off if you felt good. Worse case, you can practice it when you are forced by nature, illness, or time to take a day off.

  3. Brilliant! I love these, especially Jenn Shelton’s ‘train your stomach’. >.< The toughest thing for me would be the dreadmill challenge. Rain is coming down in sheets today so I'm thinking I'll be starting with that one…

  4. These are great! The hardest for me will definitely be the treadmill one, with nothing to think about but how sweaty and uncomfortable I am. I am going to work on the first and the last. The first will be helpful for hill repeats, and the last is good ultra training. Thanks!

  5. I definitely think that people are too quick to treat pain, rather than endure for a moment. I had surgery two years ago, and while I usually find it easy to deal with pain, the surgeon stretched a nerve and it was raw and reactive. Rather than gulp a bunch of pills, I practiced breathing through it, and found that it was much better in a few hours – in fact, I could fall asleep. It was fine in the morning. Those little experiences can increase tolerance for discomfort.

    1. Good insight, Gracie! I noticed I’ve tried to do similar things when it comes to headaches or menstrual cramps. I’ve gotten a bit better at not automatically rushing to pills!

  6. I had to leave my love here instead of just Slack! <3 I practiced the discomfort one yesterday because it's too cold for me in France. Brrrrrrrrr! So the running itself was not uncomfortable, but the cold was. In turn, the running *felt* uncomfortable! I reminded myself of how good I would feel when I was done and that a hot shower was on its way. When I go back to sunny Spain in two days, I'll have to practice the others! Thanks for the tips!