Pro runners aren’t superhuman. Yeah, the gene fairy blessed them physically, but otherwise they’re just like the rest of us. Their couches are as comfy, their beds as cozy, their kids as cute. But one thing sets the elites apart: their killer mental game. They know how to stay focused and motivated to dominate year after year. Lucky for us, that’s a teachable skill. We talked to four pros at the top of their sport about their tips and tricks for sticking with it every day, because you can’t be your best without being consistent.
Your advisers: Olympian Kim Conley, who competed in the 5,000 meters in London; Jared Ward, who qualified for this year’s Olympics in the marathon; Asics pro Becky Wade, who competed in the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials and studied the habits of elite runners around the globe for her upcoming book Run the World; and David Laney, Ultrarunning’s 2015 Ultrarunner of the Year.
Set a Ton of Mini Goals
“I focus my energy on mini seasons throughout the year,” Ward says. “Even as my coach is writing a plan to gear up for those long runs for the Olympics, mentally I’m focused on the season before the Olympics.” Ward’s racing the USATF 25K Championships on May 14 and the Bolder Boulder 10K on May 30.
“I have seasons that last three or four months apiece. I focus on what I’m peaking for in those little seasons,” Ward says. “I’m never looking too far ahead. I think you get burnt out when you’re never getting any closer to that big goal or getting any rewards along the process.”
Conley says, “It’s all about having goals so I feel like my training has purpose. For every season, I have a goal sheet, a dream goal, and intermediate goals along the way to give structure to the training cycle,” like hitting a certain interval pace in training or placing well at races leading up to the main event.
Make Your Dream Goal Huge
“My one dream goal is usually pretty far out there,” Conley says. Maybe yours is to qualify for Kona or Boston. Whatever your big goal, it can help keep you jazzed about your sport, even if it takes years to achieve. “The only time I’ve ever accomplished mine,” says Conley, who’s been competing for more than a decade, “was in 2012, when I made the Olympic team.”
Get a Running Buddy
“Accountability is a huge thing in distance running,” Wade says. “It’s probably one of the easiest things to get out the door and do, but it’s also one of the easiest things to not do.” Wade meets her coach for all of her hard workouts and checks in with him a few times a day.
Don’t have a personal coach? Try joining a club and going to group workouts or meeting a friend for the runs you just can’t psych up to do alone. “I love to do long runs with people, whether it’s my boyfriend or training partner,” Wade says.
Don’t Be a Slave to the Clock
“Sometimes I move away from time goals because I think I end up running faster trying to compete for something,” Conley says. In a race, try going for the age group or overall win. Or pick off that guy who’s been two steps ahead of you the entire time. In training, skip the track and run tree sprints instead. Pick a tree, run fast to it, recover, repeat.
Obligation Can Substitute for Motivation
“I’m never motivated,” Laney says. “It’s not like I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m inspired to go running today!’ This is just something I have to do or I lose my mind. It’s gonna suck if I don’t do it.” So if those gauzy videos about lacing up to watch the sunrise don’t speak to you, don’t worry. You can still accomplish a lot through a sense of obligation to your mental and cardiovascular health. Just make sure to incorporate the other tips to avoid burnout.
Strive for Balance
“It’s almost counterintuitive, because you think the more intense and the longer I can be focused on running, the better I’m going to be,” Wade says. “But balance is huge for long-term, continued success.” In other words, don’t waste your running focus thinking about running when you’re not. Save it for your workouts, and then move on. Sweet words for those of us with day jobs.
When Wade isn’t training, she’s working on her book, due out in July. Ward is also a statistics professor at Brigham Young University who talked to us between student meetings during his office hours.
Yes, you’ve got goals. But that doesn’t mean you can’t run for fun. Laney says he does a workout specifically designed for a race two days a week. “Those are really focused efforts,” he says. “The other five days a week are easy runs. I might not be focused on preparing for the race, but just daydreaming, on a relaxed run, and my mind might wander to the details of my training and how I hope race day’s gonna go.”
Believe in Your Plan
“Creating a plan that I feel is going to bring success is how I stay focused,” Laney says. Whether you make your plan yourself, hire a coach, or use an online service, make sure you trust in it. Bonus: You’ll save brainpower not creating workouts every day. “Just having a good plan and a good goal creates focus,” says Laney.