Train Your Brain: Building Your Mental Muscle

Dr. Chelsi Day and Dr. Jennifer Carter of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon & 1/2 Marathon Psyching Team share how to exercise one of your most important muscles and train your brain for race day.


If asked how much time, energy, and effort one spends physically training for a marathon of any distance, I am sure little time would pass before the runner responded with an emphatic “A LOT!”. But as many well know, training for a race is not a purely physical demand. In fact, a popular saying in the running community is that “running is 90% mental and the rest is physical”.

So…how much time do you spend mentally training? It may be easy to overlook the mental component of training, even in an activity that is frequently described as 90% mental. Are you willing to risk the hours of long, hard, physical training as a result of not being mentally prepared on race day? 

What is Mental Training?

Mental training is the practice of mental skills such as goal mapping, imagery, and relaxation techniques that are useful during practice and competition. Regularly practicing mental skills can help athletes respond to adversity and reach peak performance. Athletes of all ages, skill levels, and sports have found mental training helpful. Mental training really does work! But it is important to remember that, like physical training, mental training requires practice. When coupled with physical training, mental training can help put you in the best position to perform to your potential.

How to Get Started

If mental training is new to you, knowing how to start or what to do might be overwhelming. Here are some quick tips on how to begin building your mental muscle as you move forward:

  1. Make sure you engage in mental training regularly—think of it as another training run. You wouldn’t skip many training runs at risk of being unprepared on race day. Treat mental training the same way!
  2. Become more aware during training. Recognizing how you typically behave and think while exercising can help identify where you may need to start implementing mental skills. Notice your breathing, your thoughts during training runs, or how you set your goals. How would you answer these questions when you performed your best? What about when you performed your worst?
  3. Keep it simple! Trying to do too much, too soon may backfire with mental training. Start with incorporating a few basic mental skills, like goal mapping. Think about your ultimate goals for race day, ways to check your progress to that goal, and strategies you can implement every day to help get you there.
  4. Don’t be afraid to seek out more information. There are many people willing to help with mental training! The Columbus Marathon Psyching Team will be there as race day approaches to aid in answering any questions you may have.
  5. Have fun! Mental skills training should be fun activities that enhance your performance. If something isn’t working for you, don’t be afraid to change up your mental training routine!

The Pysching Team – Dr. Chelsi Day and 20 volunteer psychologists and sport performance consultants offer you mental strategies before, during, and after the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Marathon & 1⁄2 Marathon.

 
Launched at our event in 2013 by Dr. Chelsi Day, the Psyching Team has worked with more than 600 individuals, groups of athletes and workshop participants. Runners and walkers have expressed specific interest in learning about relaxation and setting realistic goals as well as ways to mentally prepare for race day.

Running and Sleep

Because sleep is an essential part of any training regimen, Dr. Chelsi Day and Dr. Jennifer Carter of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon & 1/2 Marathon Psyching Team share how to put common sleep-related issues to rest. 


With the physical demand of training for a half or full marathon while still fulfilling family and employment obligations, we often let sleep be the first thing to suffer. The two work together in that, at times we sacrifice sleep to get that training run done without disrupting our schedule while at other times we are so worried about getting it all done without dropping the ball that our mind races, keeping us awake. For some of us, we struggle with true insomnia which impacts it all. What we know is that inadequate sleep can cause significant negative impact on both physical and psychological functioning. Use these tips from Clinical and Sport Psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Carter of OSU Sport’s Medicine to help establish a good routine during training and increase the quality, and maybe quantity, of your sleep.

Five Tips to Catch Some ZZZs

1. Establish a Bedtime Routine While it is difficult to fall asleep and wake up at the same time every day, experts recommend this routine to help sleep. If you have insomnia, try to keep your wake-up time constant but go to bed one hour later for a few nights. Some people enjoy a nighttime routine that includes a warm shower, a hot non-caffeinated beverage, reading, or writing in a journal. Avoid watching TV or using electronics right before bed, because blue light suppresses melatonin.

2. Chill Out – Disrupted sleep is so frustrating. And tensing up or trying to force sleep makes it more difficult. Use diaphragmatic breathing and muscle relaxation techniques to unwind after a long day. Sport psychologists can make a relaxation audio file for you (many can also be found online). Trust your body to slip into sleep when you’re ready.

3. Think Accurately About Sleep – There are myths that interfere with sleep, like, “I have to get 8 hours or tomorrow will be ruined!” Realistically, many people function quite well on less sleep. Our bodies will eventually catch up on sleep if we don’t worry about it too much. Look at insomnia as a gift, allowing you to get things done or attend to a pressing issue. Keep a notepad or journal near the bed to write down worries to be addressed while awake.

4. Interfere with Ruminations – Do you have worrisome thoughts playing in a loop in your mind? Dr. Marsha Linehan advises interfering with those ruminations by counting 1-10 ten times. The first time through, pause after one. The second time through, pause after two, and so on. This technique makes it impossible to worry by occupying your mind. Another tip is to splash cold water on your face. Or, label your worry as solvable or insolvable. If insolvable, go deep into the worst thing that could happen and imagine coping with it.

5. Other Sound Strategies – Get more balanced exercise. Limit caffeine later in the day. Keep your bedroom cold, dark, and quiet to enhance some good zzzzs. And, avoid using alcohol to fall asleep (alcohol actually interferes with REM sleep).


The Pysching Team – Dr. Chelsi Day and 20 volunteer psychologists and sport performance consultants offer you mental strategies before, during, and after the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Marathon & 1⁄2 Marathon.
 
Launched at our event in 2013 by Dr. Chelsi Day, the Psyching Team has worked with more than 600 individuals, groups of athletes and workshop participants. Runners and walkers have expressed specific interest in learning about relaxation and setting realistic goals as well as ways to mentally prepare for race day.