Break Through Mental Barriers to Make Longer Efforts Easier

Your first 5K? Making the leap from marathons to ultras? These tricks can help you anticipate and overcome any hurdles.

erika kemp running barriers
Kevin Morris

After two disappointing races—in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters—at last year’s Bored on Your Long Runs? Heres Whyand What to Do, pro runner Erika Kemp had to take a step back in order to move forward with the rest of her season.

She took a week and a half off from running, and her coach, Mark Carroll, issued a challenge that he hoped would reignite Kemp’s spark for competing—a jump up in distance to 20K for her next race.

With a refreshed mindset, Kemp not only took the top honors in the USATF 20K Championships in New Haven, Connecticut, but also placed second at the 25K championships the following month, which was the longest distance she’d ever run or raced. “It was nice because whenever you do a new event, there’s just nothing else to compare it to without a previous benchmark,” Kemp says. Another bonus: It’s an automatic personal best.

Whether you’re eyeing your first 5K, upping your training volume, or making the jump from marathons to ultras, getting over the mental hurdles of attempting something that’s longer and more physically demanding is just as important as improving your fitness.

Here’s how you can anticipate and overcome those barriers, with the help of top runners and coaches who’ve taken the leap to new distances.

Practice proper pacing, visualize the unknown

While she may have found her sweet spot in racing longer distances, Kemp says she has to mentally break those longer efforts into chunks based on how she typically feels over 2 miles, 5K, or 10K.

Dakotah Lindwurm, a professional runner with Minnesota Distance Elite who also coaches recreational runners, shares that sentiment. Longer-​than-normal runs shouldn’t hurt if you’re pacing yourself properly, she says.

You’ll probably still enter an unfamiliar pain level when you creep up in distance, though, which is why visualizing how you’re going to feel in those later tough parts is important even in your ordinary runs.

“Everybody’s been extremely tired when they’re running, whether they’re a brand new runner or not,” Lindwurm says. “I use visualization every day while training for my marathons by thinking about how exhausted I’m going to feel and how I’m mentally going to overcome that.”

This can also be key for figuring out where you usually start to hurt physically or mentally, a process that should begin prior to your longer event, says Lennie Waite, 35, a 2016 Olympian in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and a Houston-​based sports psychology consultant. Waite says it’s rare to feel amazing for the entire duration of a race, but it’s possible to identify where things usually go south so you can work on your mental toughness when you need it.

That way you’ll be less shocked if it happens and less likely to question whether you can finish, Waite says. Then you can shift back more quickly to a positive mindset and focus on the final miles ahead.

Test yourself when the pressure is off

With a lack of racing in 2020, CJ Albertson, threw together an event to attempt to break the world record for a 50K on the track. It was his first attempt at the distance, and while he wouldn’t have had it on his race calendar during a normal year, Albertson managed to break the previous record with a time of 2:42:30. The run also served as a confidence-boosting workout for the Marathon Project Socks for Runners.

Veering from your scheduled plan can be beneficial if you’re in a good spot with training. For example, running 13 miles several weeks before your first official half marathon can break up your routine and prove you can do the distance.

Albertson says that once he does a trial run in practice—even if he’s unfamiliar with it at first—it allows him to look forward to a race of that length when it fits into his schedule.

Find a distraction

If you watched this year’s Boston Marathon, you probably saw that Lindwurm led for much of the first 10 miles. You may have also noticed the smile on her face while she was doing it.

“Even if I may not be smiling on the inside,” she says, “I’m smiling on the outside because I’m tricking my brain into thinking that this is great, even when it hurts.”

According to a new study published in the Journal of Motor Learning and Development, tactics that draw your attention away from negative internal thoughts—how much longer you have to run, for instance, or your legs feeling heavy—may help you improve your endurance, performance, and even running economy.

Any type of external distraction could help you get out of a funk in a race. Try looking at the cheering crowd or funny race signs, or chat with the person next to you to take your mind away from tough moments.

Embrace your goals

Waite says it’s easy for recreational runners to minimize goal setting if they run strictly for pleasure. And she’s found that when this kind of person starts striving to run better at a distance or reach a new milestone, this mindset can sometimes become a mental roadblock and make it difficult to find success.

If this sounds like you, working with a coach or sports psychologist can help you identify what might be holding you back—mentally or physically—and give your training added purpose. Because even if you aren’t running for a spot on the podium, the work you put in is still important.

And you can empower yourself by repeating positive affirmations, such as “This is important to me, I trained for this, and I belong out here,” the next time you lace up for a longer run or race that seems daunting.


Bust Out of Your Rut

You can shift your mindset before or during a long, hard workout or race with a mantra or fun mental distraction. Here, some top runners reveal their favorite fixes.

→ Dakotah Lindwurm writes “strong, fast, and last” on her hand before a marathon to remind her of her motto: “I am strong, I am fast, my speed will last.”

CJ Albertson tells himself to run as if he’s looking good, even if it’s not true. He says this helped him after the pack caught up to him at the 2021 Boston Marathon, where he led through 20 miles.

Before those challenging long runs, Erika Kemp reminds herself that training is hard, but racing is the reward, and sports are supposed to be fun.

Lennie Waite encourages runners to do a quick body scan—from head to toe—
to make sure they don’t waste energy by holding any unnecessary tension in their brow, jaw, shoulders, or hands.

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