Mindset: Sport Psychology for Runners

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mindset sport psychology
What goes through your mind when you run a race? How do you perceive yourself as a runner? And how could you benefit from sport psychology? We chat with Sport Psychology consultant Helen Davis to find out more about mindset for performance…

During races, do you sometimes find it hard to focus, or feel overly anxious before the race, or worry about people watching you? Do you struggle with negative thoughts when the effort gets tough? Or during training periods, do you get low on motivation?

Whatever happens inside your head when you run, sport psychology can be a useful tool. The main ideas and techniques used in sport psychology can help athletes of all levels to understand their mindset and improve their performance.

Helen Davis became increasingly fascinated with the subject as a competitive swimmer. She realised how harnessing certain techniques really helped her in swimming races, and was intrigued by the ideas. Now qualified with a Masters in Sport and Exercise Physiology and working towards Chartered status with the British Psychological Society, she works with recreational and elite athletes to help them benefit from using these concepts.

As Helen explains, sport psychology helps people to build confidence, develop coping skills for pressure situations, and mentally “get ready” for competitions.

What’s your inner voice saying?

Helen explains that the first step in benefiting from sport psychology is to understand your internal dialogue. Instead of blocking out the “voice inside your head”, start listening to it. What messages do you tell yourself?

She says:

“It’s important to start by understanding your inner voice. What do you say to yourself before a race? What do you say to yourself when the going gets tough and the pain is kicking in? And what do you say to yourself afterwards?

“Really listen to that voice. Notice the actual words you use. It’s important to pay close attention to this, because it’s the basis of your mindset. You can begin to spot patterns and habits.

“When you have a clear understanding of your own mindset, you can then start to address elements of your thinking that may be holding you back.”

Challenge or threat?

Your usual mindset can change when you are in a pressured situation. Imagine a professional footballer stepping up to take a penalty kick, or a tennis player serving at match point. Tasks at which they are exceptionally good, and that they have practised thousands of times, suddenly become much harder to do, because they perceive them as being much more important on this occasion.

Helen explains that in pressured situations, our perception of things greatly impacts our thoughts and behaviour, and therefore affects how we perform.

“Athletes who view things as a challenge instead of a threat are more likely to perform better. A confident athlete will perceive a challenge and embrace it, while a less confident athlete will see all the reasons why he or she won’t be able to compete successfully.”

The start of a race can feel like a pressured situation for runners, and can make you feel completely differently about running. It changes your perception of the actions you need to undertake.

mindset sport psychology
Helen adds:

“If you perceive something as a challenge rather than a threat, you are more likely to be physiologically and psychologically ready to perform well.1

“If you learn how to think yourself into a challenge state in a pressured situation, you have better mental processing and decision making, as well as better control over thoughts and emotions. It also helps you with physiological performance, because you are calmer and more in control of your physical requirements, giving you better execution of movements and skills.

“So it’s all about your appraisal of a situation. How do you judge the situation you’re in? How do you feel about it? The mental resources you need to meet the demands of the situation come from your perception of what you’re facing.”

Demands and resources

So what helps you to weigh up a situation as a challenge or threat? How can you switch your mindset to perceive things more positively?

mindset sport psychology

The MAPP for Success (Turner & Barker, 2014)

Helen explains the diagram shown here.

“Imagine a ‘performance situation’ such as a 10k race.

“Each person will have a ‘philosophy’ about the situation, and about what will make it a success or failure in their perception.

“They will also have certain psychological ‘demands’. These are things like uncertainty about the situation you’re facing (in a race, this may be your lack of course knowledge, the conditions, the standard of your fellow competitors), the required effort (physical or mental) and the ‘danger’ it may pose (this could be physical danger or psychological danger- such as danger to your self esteem).

“To address those demands, you have mental ‘resources’. These include self-confidence, control, achievement goals.

“How well you are able to handle the demands and resources will affect your mind and body reactions. Finally, you’ll perceive the consequences of the situation to present a challenge or a threat, depending on whether your resources meet the demands.”

In the example of a 10k race, there may be certain messages that go round in your head which reflect your fears about the demands and consequences of the situation. For example:

  • In the build up to an event, I worry about everything that might go wrong.
  • I feel sick with nerves when I race.
  • The first race of the season has to go really well. I know I will be absolutely gutted if it doesn’t.
  • I find it hard to concentrate, my mind is all over the place.
  • My family are coming to watch. I don’t want to let them down by running badly.
  • I haven’t done a 10k race in ages as I’ve been injured. I’m worried I haven’t done enough training.

You can imagine demands and resources as a set of scales. If you have the resources to meet or outweigh the demands, you can tip the scales so that you are in a challenge state. If the scales are tipped so that the demands are greater than the resources you have available, then you’ll perceive it as a threat state.

mindset sport psychology

(Turner & Barker, 2014)

Tipping the scales: Getting into challenge state mindset

There are three main areas to work on to tip the scales towards the challenge state2:

1. Self-confidence
Where does self-confidence come from? Ask yourself what makes you feel more self-confident, and understand where it comes from for you. It’s different for everyone.

Helen says:

“Self-confidence can fluctuate in all athletes, but research clearly tells us that it plays a significant role in delivering your best performance. Low self-confidence can be detrimental to performance.”

She explains that actively working on your confidence can help your confidence to become more robust. There are techniques you can use to train yourself to feel more self-confident, such as:

  • Practice and praise: Actively practise positive self-talk about your running. Find the things that make you feel more self-confident, and things that have gone well in the past, and practise focusing on praising yourself for those things when you think about your race.
  • Reflect on preparation and effort: Think about the whole process of getting to a race and all the work you have put into getting there. Even if training hasn’t gone to plan, you can feel resilient about your willingness to rise to the challenge despite the obstacles.
  • See it, feel it, do it: Visualise yourself being successful, by imagining the sights, feelings and sounds of your upcoming competition.
  • “Remember the time…”: Recall times when something went really well for you. Think back and relive it. Just putting yourself back into those moments can make a huge difference to your positive thinking.
  • Body language: How you walk, move, present yourself sends signals to others and makes you feel differently about yourself. Hold your head high!

2. Control
Our biggest anxieties often come when we don’t feel in control of something. Maybe there will be bad weather on race day, maybe your supporters can’t make it after all, or maybe you’re concerned about running up the hills on the course.

The way to deal with this is to remember that you can control your own response to these situations. How you feel and respond is under your control. You can allow yourself to feel really miserable and anxious about the weather, or you can decide that you will be resilient and do the best you can in the race conditions.

Helen explains that areas you can control can be thought of as five main things:
a) Psychological state: You are in control of how you feel.
b) Preparation: Remind yourself that you have control over your preparation and training.
c) Effort: The effort you put in is up to you.
d) Communication: You are in charge of what you say to yourself.
e) If-then: You can prepare yourself in advance for situations where things don’t go to plan. “If this happens, then I will do this.”
For example, “If I get a stitch going round, then I will stop, lift my hands in the air, take three deep breaths and continue slowly…”
Preparing what you will do in these scenarios gives you a much greater sense of control.

3. Achievement goals
Stay focused on success, not what might go wrong. Think about what you can do in order to be successful. Helen says:

“Think simple. Plan three simple things you’re going to do in your race to feel it has gone well. These are not necessarily about the final finish time, but about what you do to put your best effort in. For example, 1) I will keep myself calm before the race, 2) I will have a steady start, and 3) I will try to think positively in the last mile to finish strongly.”

When focusing on achievements goals, she also advises avoiding “don’t” statements (such as “don’t go off too fast”). Instead, reframe these ideas as positives about what you want to do to perform well (such as “start at a steady pace”).

Smarter Thinking

In mainstream psychology, there is a framework called Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) devised by Albert Ellis3. When applied to sport psychology, this is often referred to as Smarter Thinking.4

Smarter Thinking encourages you to gain perspective, and gives you a feeling of control. This helps you master your mental approach and responses when it matters. Helen explains:

“Smarter Thinking challenges your philosophy and perception of events, and emphasizes self-acceptance. How you interpret things has more to do with your beliefs about the situation than about what has actually happened.

“If you think of a situation which has been challenging to you, it can cause you to have an emotional reaction or consequence. Smarter Thinking says it is what you tell yourself (your beliefs) about that situation that are mostly the cause of your emotional reaction not the situation itself. By working on identifying your beliefs, you can alter how you react to a situation.”

If you have unhelpful beliefs, they will lead to unhealthy negative emotions about the situation. Unhelpful beliefs always contain rigid and extreme demands (such as “I must/I have to”). They can also contain very negative or pessimistic statements (such as “It would be awful/terrible if…” or “I am idiotic/bad/a failure”). In contrast, helpful beliefs contain more flexible thinking, tolerance and acceptance. This rational and logical approach can lead to healthier negative emotions (such as healthier anger).

Smarter Thinking can help you change these underlying beliefs. In particular, the words you choose to use are really important. Using language such as “I must do well” can inflame our emotions unnecessarily and add pressure. To go about changing this vocabulary, Smarter Thinking has a process to follow to help people become aware of their unhelpful thoughts, feelings and behaviours, challenge their thoughts and beliefs, develop more helpful thoughts and beliefs, and then commit to long term change.5:

mindset sport psychology

(Turner, 2016)

Let’s take an example of pre-race anxiety to demonstrate the process:

  • Recognise: What are the underlying thoughts causing your anxiety prior to a race? “I haven’t done enough training, I should have done more” or “What will people think if I do bad times?” or “I should be as fast as… “
  • Evidence: Question the basis of these underlying thoughts. “What evidence says I shouldn’t be at this competition?”
  • Logic: Are they actually true? Often they are not. “Where is logic that friends will think less of me?”
  • Pragmatism: In a practical way, how are these thoughts affecting me? “Is it helpful for me to feel I am not good enough to be racing?”
  • Replace with self-confident statements: “Every time I have been training, I give it 100%” “I will enjoy running with my friends” “I am lucky to be doing this, many others can’t”.
  • Commit: Use the self-confident statements to commit to having a positive mindset and putting full effort in your race.


Working on your mindset can make a significant difference to performance. Learning how to reframe negative thoughts and shift yourself into a challenge state rather than threat state can make a different not only to whether you enjoy your race but also to how you actually perform. Practising these techniques is an important part of learning how to use them during race situations.

mindset sport psychology

Helen Davis is a competitive swimmer, and her own performances and race experiences led her to develop an interest in sport psychology. She has a Psychology degree and MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology and now runs a Sport Psychology consultancy called Think Believe Perform (www.thinkbelieveperform.co.uk) working with recreational and elite athletes.

1. Jones, M. V., Meijen, C., McCarthy, P. J., & Sheffield, D. (2009). A theory of challenge and threat states in athletes. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2, 161-180.
2. Turner, M., & Barker, J. (2014). In Woodcock C. (Ed.), Tipping the Balance  The Mental Skills Handbook for Athletes (1st ed.). Oakamoor: Bennion Kearny.
3. Ellis, A., & Dryden, W. (1997). The practice of rational-emotive behavior therapy. New York: Springer Publishing Company.
4. Turner, M. J. (2014). Smarter Thinking in Sport. The Psychologist, 27, (8), 596-599.
5. Turner, M. J. (2016). Nuts & bolts – the smarter thinking project. Retrieved from http://thesmarterthinkingproject.com/nuts-bolts/

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