I think anyone who starts running knows that the biggest battle is with your head. It’s a never-ending argument between the part of your brain that wants you to stop, and the part of your brain that wants you to keep going. So much of what we do achieve or don’t achieve is mental. Yes, you need to have some kind of a training base to get you into the position to take on those challenges but once you have a base, you can do far more than you think you can.

In the beginning, the best way to develop that strength within yourself is to always go for a run, when you say you are going to go. Don’t leave that decision to ‘see how you feel’ on the morning. Decide how many times you are going to go every week, on what times and on what days and do that. If you need to move things around, do that. And only cancel if you are sick, injured or have some kind of unforeseen emergency. You will try to talk yourself out of it, and you can notice that conversation but you can’t pay any attention to it. You can play around with that too. I used to do a thing where if I almost gave in to that conversation about not wanting to go, I’d add 20% on to the end of the distance, just to prove to myself that I could.

The next step is to recognise that things that are good for you, won’t necessarily feel very good at the time. I hate cleaning the house. I LOATHE IT. But there is no better feeling of happiness or accomplishment than when it’s done. Stop thinking about you right now and start thinking about future you – what are you going to do for your future self to help them feel happy, accomplished and healthy? Step away from immediate gratification land and start making choices that are going to benefit your future self. I find it really helpful to have a coach for this reason. Although I’d be quite capable of writing my own training plan, I’m far more likely to do something and not question it – if it’s set down by someone else. I can know that my coach is looking after what is good for my body and then go and do it. If I’m guiding my own training, it’s too easy for me to talk myself out of it, or choose a workout that isn’t quite so hard.

Understand that a huge part of the benefit of really hard workouts is not how fast you go or PBs you set but it’s your ability to push through when you think you’ve got nothing left. High intensity workouts or intervals do amazing things for you strength, respiratory system and fitness but that’s not where I think the biggest benefit lies. I think the biggest benefit is in teaching yourself that you can keep going, that you can do hard things and that you won’t give up. It’s those workouts that you completed that will keep you going when you are at the tail end of a race and you are struggling – because you know you can gut pretty much anything out if you need to. Because you know that if you keep going, eventually you’ll get to the end.

I’ve never regretted a run, have you? I think that’s what it comes down to. Sometimes runs are good, sometimes they are great, sometimes they are even transcendent but sometimes they are awful, hard, or a struggle when they have no right to be. But at the end, I’d rather have the achievement from having done them, than not.

The more you exercise mental toughness, the more you have of it. I don’t even really think about whether I’m going for a run or not anymore. I might wake up and not feel like it, but I’m kind of on auto-pilot. A bit like having a shower or brushing my teeth – I just do it. That is about five years of exercising my choice to run. After awhile it becomes second nature. I was reading this thing about how our thought processes literally change our brain. So if I regularly face a choice or running or not running, if I choose running – that connection in my brain will move closer together, so quite literally each time I choose running it makes my future choice or running more likely. You can read more about that here.

Conversely, it has been shown that the more decisions you have to make the less will power you have. So starting a new habit is all about removing the decisions you have to make – from when you are going to go to what you are going to wear to what the session is.

There are no limits. You just have to decide to start and then show up, no matter what.

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Zoey Dowling

Written by: Zoey Dowling

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