Mental or Physical Training First?

When athletes and parents come to me to help them with their mental game; I often get the question “when is the best time to start mental game training”. Should you get in shape first and then add mental game training to polish it off or should you start with mental game training to lay the foundation to proper and consistent physical training?

Let’s start with a basic truth: Mental game training (mental toughness or whatever else you wish to call it) does not replace physical training. It cannot make you do something you have not trained to do. It cannot make you something you are not. There is no such thing as being able to somehow get 110% out of you. 100% is all there is and only if you have a strong mental game can you come close to your 100%. An athlete must do everything they can to maximize their physical preparation to complete. Therefore, you can start with a foundation of physical fitness and add mental game aspect later. You will not “win” without physical preparation.

In order to optimize your physical training you need the right mindset. A mindset that gets you through the tough workouts, bad days, aches and pains. It promotes persistence in the face of barriers. It promotes consistency in training. It’s about possessing the mindset that makes each workout purposeful and focused. Learning mental game techniques and honing these skills lays the foundation to be able to maximize your physical training. So there is no time like the present to learn and practice your mental skills. Don’t wait until you are training (I emphasize this for injured and rehabbing athletes!).

If you read between the lines it becomes obvious that physical and mental preparation go hand-in-hand. If an athlete wants to optimize their potential then you marry the two. They should not be treated as an either-or proposition and trained separately. The ideal approach is to integrate mental game training and techniques all along the physical training route. By the way, there are even well established models for phases of mental game training just like phases of physical training. Mental toughness is a year round pursuit of incremental improvement.

Don’t wait for some arbitrary time to be “ready” to incorporate mental game training. The time is now.

**I’ve designed a special package for runners. A complete assessment, comprehensive game plan, and 4 one-on-one coaching sessions. Drop a line if you are interested in kick starting your mental game for the new year.

Posted in Goal Setting, Mental Game, Mental Toughness, Running, Sports Psychology, Training Effectiveness | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Last Best

Personal Records (PR) or Personal Bests (PB) are the best you have ever run at a particular distance, race, or course. Here’s your question:

When did you realize that you would never run faster than your PR?

Logic, physiology and statistics all clearly indicate that humans cannot continue to improve indefinitely. Somewhere along the way we stop improving. Many age group runners when faced with this prospect move to new distances and for awhile may set some PRs in the new distances. Data and common belief suggests that  most runners will not continue to improve after about 7 years of dedicated training. [My perspective is to only start counting those years during college age.] Take some years off and maybe you skew the time frame. The basic question remains.

Of course we can set age group PRs. But, if you think about it, you’re never the same age as you once were so every single day and every single run could be a PR. Good for motivation perhaps but it avoids the core question.

When did you realize you were never going to run faster?

Whenever we run a PR it is faster than we have ever gone before. Most runners will tell you in the wake of these performances that they think they can run faster yet. Even runners who set world records (their own PR of course) commonly state that they can go faster. And so the cycle is set. Higher goals. Better training. Improved consistency. Optimal cross-training. We just know we can go faster.

And then it happens. Somewhere along the way we look back and realize, that was it. That was the day we ran our fastest. We are never going to run faster.

As I look back at my PRs I never thought those would be it. I have all my races and running logs (57134 miles now documented since high school.) I always thought I could go faster. I see workouts and patterns that indicate I could’ve run faster yet; but never did. Throughout my 30s I believed I could run faster than in college. Even at 40 years old I was pursuing PRs. In my early 40s I was not pursuing age group wins but outright victories. (I have just a little bit of a competitive streak.) I clung to the belief that I could do it. I could still set records. It is only in retrospect that I can see and know what I do now.

For me, the essence of life is in the pursuit of something (AKA the journey). I love great outcomes (PRs) but the excitement, self limit testing, and thrill of competition were the payoff. PRs are a bonus.

Bonus Questions

Had you known at the time that you would never run that fast again – how would you react? What would you do next? Would you change anything?

Posted in Challenge, Goal Setting, Mental Game, Motivation, Running, Sports Psychology, The Running Life - Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Finishing Last

“I’ll be the slowest one out there.”

“I’ll be last.”

In every race, someone has to finish last. True. And no one actually has it as a goal to finish last. Like Jennifer’s friend in this article I have often said “Chances are, that’s not going to happen.” I mean, come on, if there are 1000 runners in the race it is a 1:1000 chance right?

There are many runners at many levels who have expressed that fear to me. Beginning runners fear being last. Freshman college and freshman high school runners fear finishing last at their new competition level. Many runners racing a new (i.e. longer) distance fear being last. Runners coming out to a new running club fear being the slowest (aka “last”) in workouts. Masters runners (40+ years old) dropping down into an open track meet fear being last against all those young ones.

Let’s break this down a bit. Fears are borne out of illogical and disproportionate emphasis on the negative impact being last will have. Fears are also based on an emphasis on what “others might think”. And fears are about protecting our egos.

Think about this. If everyone gave into that fear then one by one the last person in a race would drop out to avoid finishing last. This would domino its way up the field until – there is just one person left – the leader of the race. Only one person can win. Only one person will be last.

To temper that fear of finishing last (however you define this) we need to change perspectives or reframe the situation. Stop. Take a deep breath. For a moment suspend your image of finishing last. Now reflect on the following questions.

  • Why do you run, for others or yourself?
  • What REALLY is the worst that would happen if you did finish last?
    • Do you really think you’ll be marked for life and everyone will point at you at Starbucks each morning whispering about how you were that last runner in this weekend’s race?
  • What would happen if you purposely finished last?
  • What do you gain – how do you grow – or what might you learn about yourself by racing (finishing last or otherwise)?
  • What if joining that running club/team (even if you are currently slower than others) is in fact the very thing you need to improve your running?
  • Is it possible that you will be seen as someone who dared; someone who dared to do something instead of sitting on the sidelines?
    • By fighting your fear you not only become your own inspiration but an inspiration to others as well.

It’s not a huge, unspeakable embarrassment. In fact, no one cares. Not one of the other runners remembers I was the one who finished last. And all my friends and family remember is I said I’d run a 5K and I did it… A couple of days after the 5K, when my aching legs felt better, I laced up my sneakers and went for a run. Because I’m a runner. And, fast or slow, runners run.- Jennifer Hudak


Posted in College Running, Excuses not to run, Goal Setting, Mental Game, Motivation, Running | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Bargain Runs

Bargain runs aren’t something you seek out on Black Friday. You could have a bargain run any day.

Ever have a workout that you:

  1. Loathe doing but know you need it, or
  2. Fear doing because you may not complete it, or
  3. Are stretching yourself beyond your current conditioning, or
  4. Just do not feel like doing the workout.

Bargaining is a mental technique to try that might just get you through it and keep you on target for your goals. I find that it works especially good on out-and-back courses because if you commit to just one more segment then you have really doubled the outcome since you have to return.

How it works:

Establish your ideal workout outcome goal. I recommend doing so in tiers. I might set them like this:

  • Gold Medal – 6 mile run
  • Silver Medal – 5 mile run
  • Bronze Medal – 4 mile run
  • Honorable Mention – got out there and didn’t skip the workout entirely

The idea is to maximize make mental bargains with yourself breaking down your workout into what is most tolerable so that even on a bad day (regardless of reason – physical, mental, environmental) you get the most out of the workout.

  1. Put your workout outcome goal out of your mind. Sometimes it is just too much to focus on and too distant.
  2. Focus only on the current segment of the workout you think you can handle – right now. (i.e. next mile, next lap, next stop light, next intersection)
  3. Make a deal with yourself to finish this next segment that you can handle and then you will figure out what you will do next. It takes the form of: “If I can get “X” done, then I can turn back if I want or, I can see what I can handle next.” But no commitment is made to complete your entire workout.
  4. Your bargains can be in the form of rewards for yourself (“If I get through “X” I can take a break, slow down, turn back, have dessert, …”)
  5. Once you complete that segment, you strike your next deal in the same fashion. (Or head home.)
  6. The objective is to get you – one way or another – just to the next part of your workout, one step at a time.

How I Use It:

Getting back in shape after time off (forced or otherwise) is seldom fun. I notice that it takes at least a mile to even upgrade how I feel to crappy. Knowing this, I suspend thinking too much about how many miles I would really like to get in. At this point at least I want to move, burn some calories and loosen up – if nothing else than for tomorrow’s effort. Only then do I think about what I can handle for the day.

Recently, after about three weeks of running I planned on doing a “long” run. I figured that I could handle 4-5 miles. Secretly, I really wanted to go 6 miles (Gold Medal). I had run 4 miles already but had to stop several times and was not what I called fun.

I did not feel especially strong or fresh and knowing that first mile really does not feel good, I made a bargain to just get the first mile done and if I had to, I’d stop stretch and then assess what I could handle for the day – maybe even just head home. At the end of that mile two things happened. First, I was already a mile from home so at least I automatically was going to be able to slug out a 2-mile run (Honorable Mention goal but at least my journey to getting back in shape was still moving forward – albeit slowly). And second, approaching the mile mark I actually felt looser and my breathing was fairly comfortable. Onward I went.

I shifted my focus to my next goal. If I could just relax and go out one more mile I could stop and regroup at that time and I would be guaranteed a 4 mile run (Bronze Medal goal; or two miles plus a very long walk home to dwell on things).

By mile two I was surprisingly fresher than in past days. But I didn’t want to jump too far ahead. I knew that my conditioning was fragile and at any moment I could crash and burn. So I felt like another half-mile was reasonable and it would make for a 5-miler (Nice Silver Medal goal). Deal – I’ll only commit to another half-mile.

As I approached the traffic light at that 2.5-mile mark on my run I was fatiguing but it was manageable and I looked up in the distance to see the 3-mile mark traffic light. Ok, if I make it to three then I could just go four and walk home but I’d have a decent run and a nice cool down. Deal.

Turning at the midway mark I then felt buoyed by my success. I figured I could do this. At four miles I was fatiguing and decided to change my route so that I would pass closer to home. If my body wouldn’t carry me to 6 at least I would have a solid 5 under my belt. But motivation to get my Gold Medal workout kicked in. Nearing the turn-off to my house, about 4.5 miles in, I realized I didn’t feel all that bad and if I just ran this loop around my neighborhood I could get my 6th mile in. Once in the neighborhood I could even just back off on my pace and jog easily to get it in. Deal.

I averted doing the 5-miler (which would have been my longest run anyway) and completed the six. It also demonstrated that it was as much mental as it was physical in pushing forward in my comeback.

Bargaining doesn’t always get you the gold, but it will certainly get you farther along your journey, one step at a time.


Posted in Challenge, Goal Setting, Mental Game, Mental Toughness, Motivation, Running, Sports Psychology | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Real Challenge

I really think people take on the wrong challenge.

You’ve heard someone say he/she wants to run a certain race for the challenge of it? They love the challenge. Right? It’s actually an interesting claim and one that is misplaced. Follow me for a moment.

  1. If you love a challenge then you enjoy things that are difficult not easy (comparatively) to attain. Right?
  2. The bigger the challenge the more gratifying it is to pursue. Right?
  3. If you can make that challenge even more challenging than the reward is even greater. Right?
  4. So, stop training. Enter your race. Just go for it. Now you have optimized your challenge and increased your pay off. (Not to mention you saved a bunch of time you would otherwise waste on training.)

It is in the everyday challenge that people fail.

The irony of course is that the challenge of some race is not the real challenge for most people. I meet many people in my business who love setting a “challenging” goal. (Some whom are in fact urged to do so by so-called motivation gurus or in seminars.) But they completely miss the boat. Why? Because they are not willing to take on the real challenge.

  • The challenge is in fact doing the training.
  • The challenge is in following a training program and not skipping workouts.
  • The challenge is in maintaining sound nutrition through out your training program.
  • The challenge is in doing your exercises, drills, and cross training to stay healthy along the way.
  • The challenge is in not making excuses.
  • The challenge is in finding ways to get everything done that will optimize your conditioning for race day.

And if you are pursuing the challenge of running PRs, winning age groups and the like, you aren’t exempt!

  • The challenge is in doing the workouts you need instead of enjoy.
  • The challenge is in doing all the things to stay uninjured for continuity of training and progress.

It is in the everyday challenge that people fail. It is this challenge that we should embrace. The race should be graduation day. The race should be a celebration of taking on all the challenges along the way to arrive at the starting line fully ready to take on the race and be successful.

Need help with overcoming the REAL challenge? Trouble committing to doing what you need to do to reach your goal? Drop me a line. I can help.

Posted in Challenge, Excuses not to run, Goal Setting, Mental Game, Mental Toughness, Motivation, The Running Life - Philosophy | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Lucky Headbands and Lucky Socks = PR!

We all look for an edge – the edge. You know, the one that will get us that cherished victory, a new personal record time or distance. We will even create that edge when it doesn’t exist. Don’t get me wrong. I want athletes to think in ways of tilting the playing field to their favor. However, the key is to do it in a manner in which:

  1. It fosters consistency in performance.
  2. It is something that you control (or predominantly control).
  3. There is a tangible, objective relationship to performance.

This is where we need to differentiate between pre-performance (aka pre-race) routines and superstitions something I need to clarify with many of my athletes (especially youth).

A superstition is a belief, half-belief or practice for which there appears to be no rational substance. In the July/August DesertLeaf Dr. James Griffith (Tucson folklorist) states that a superstition a psychological attempt to control what you can’t, but to tip the playing field to your side.  It is trying to control what we can’t possibly control. I will add that superstitions are also fixed, rigid and unrelated to your activity/sport.

Special (read: lucky) headbands, socks, colors, numbers, shoes; running 2.5 laps counter-clockwise followed by 2.5 laps clockwise before a race; other special practices or rituals like a secret handshake with team members or lining up in a certain order are all examples of superstitions.

Contrast that with a pre-performance routine which includes a specific sequence of thoughts and actions – directly related to the task at hand – performed leading up to competitive performance. These are highly individual yet are established with similar themes. Among those are:

Physical warm-ups such as skipping drills, range of motion drills, 4 hard 100m strides, visualizing race tactics, reinforcing positive self-talk, affirmations, identifying key competitors, reviewing split time goals and predetermined race cues, even double-knotting your shoes so they don’t come untied.

Note how superstitions do not fulfill the three-point requirement but a pre-performance routine does.

Here’s how to get your edge next time you compete.

  1. Develop a pre-race routine that includes both physical and mental preparation. Most age group and youth athletes only have a physical warm-up routine.
  2. Do not copy someone else’s routine. What works for one person may or may not work for another.
  3. Practice and perfect it during training. It doesn’t wait until race day to try it out.
  4. Create effective and viable alternatives if you are not able to complete your usual routine. This is especially true if you are traveling to races and you have less control over your routine – like standing in corrals with 1000 other runners.
  5. You must be consistent! If you are constantly changing your routine – it is not a routine. It requires discipline. [This does not contradict #4. When you create Routine A and alternative Routine B, those stay the same and are practiced exactly as created. An example is having a short and long version for a track meet because event schedules can change.]
  6. Evaluate the effectiveness and tweak it if necessary.

Athletes who hone their pre-performance routines increase their chances to perform to the level that they have trained. That is the edge. And you don’t have to worry if you left your lucky headband in the dirty wash.


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Top 3 Reasons: You’re Just not Getting Faster

Often I’ll have discussions with runners who state that they just can’t run “fast”. Or, better yet, that the runners who are faster than him or her are “natural” runners. The problem is not that they are not fast or not “naturals”. The problem is in their training.

Though there is an upper limit to how fast someone can run (even for the world record holders) it is also true that we will never really know what that limit is. Therefore, if we do the right things we optimize the chances of getting faster. And, faster is a relative term. So it is not fair to compare your fast to others’ fast (even though we are all prone to do so). The key focus should be on your fast.

Reason #1: Your training is stagnant.

This is by far the leading reason for runners not improving. They run the same routes at the same paces day after day, week after week, month after month and even year after year. A key to improvement is adaptation. Once your body adapts to the training load (distance, surface, pace, effort, etc.) you are not going to improve. This is true for runners of all abilities, but especially true of the middle of the pack age group runner. The #1 problem is also the easiest to fix.

Solution: Get variety in your training. Stop running the same 3 or 4 mile route around your neighborhood at the same pace.

  • Change your route. Up your distance one day (i.e. 5, 6 miles) and drop it another day (i.e. 2 miles).
  • Change your paces. If your daily run is 8:45-9:00/mile then on that short day push it faster by 30 seconds per mile and that longer day back off by 30 seconds per mile.
  • Change environments. Get on trails to build strength and a little foot agility. Become adept at changing paces with terrain changes. If you always run on trails then get off them and on roads and smooth out your stride and pace.
  • Run some hills if you are always on the flats and if you are always running hills then get on some flat ground and stretch it out a bit.
  • See Reason #2 for not getting faster.

Reason #2: You don’t do speed work.

There are simple well-known laws of training. The law of specificity of training is simple: you will race how you train. If you train slow you will race slow.


  • To run faster you must run faster.
  • Infuse your daily runs with harder paces for shorter distances. Even if it means you fatigue and have to stop and rest a bit before continuing on.
  • Do varied pace workouts (Fartlek/Speedplay) instead of a steady single paced run.
  • Do intervals at varying faster paces with breaks. These do not have to be all out sprints. They need to be faster than that daily hum-drum pace you run.
  • *Don’t just start sprinting or doing 2-3 interval workouts each week. Ease into them. And expect some muscles to “talk” to you afterwards. You are exercising muscles and connective tissue in new ways. Allow for some adaptation to take place.

Reason #3: You don’t make running your priority.

This is not bad in itself. If you want general fitness then it is OK to do your spin class, aerobics class, Pilates, yoga, P90x and weight workouts. If you spend more time cross training than running then you’ll be good at your cross training and not your running. If your goal is to be a faster runner, it will not happen by doing everything but running. This does not mean you need to abandon what keeps you healthy or injury free but if you want to be a better runner cross training won’t do it.


Replace a couple of those cross training workouts with a running workout. However, see solutions above. Don’t just add more of the same. And make changes gradually.

Posted in Goal Setting, High Intensity Interval Training, HIIT, Motivation, Pacing & Running, Running, Training Effectiveness | Tagged , | Leave a comment

RunTime Episode 2

Episode 2 — Running and Travel with RunWestin Concierge Chris Heuisler

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Run Time — Four Mental Barriers Runners Face & Overcoming #running #marathon

Do any of these ring true to you?

Running Advice and News

running-advice-bugWe are so excited to announce our new video series: Run Time, The Discussion Place for Runners. That’s right, we’re producing a new talk show just for you runners. We plan to have all kinds of cool people on the show: coaches, doctors, industry insiders, authors and lots of runners!

We’re kicking off the series today with a conversation with my friend, Mental Games Specialist Coach Dean Hebert. On this episode, I talk with Coach Dean about the four mental barriers that runners face in their training and how to overcome them. This includes dealing with discomfort, pushing ourselves, and why it is important to do these things in training rather than on race day.

Run Time — Four Mental Barriers Runners Face and How to Overcome Them (Episode 1) from Joe English on Vimeo.

Future episodes will dive into running topics, including mental strategies, picking the best…

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Stop the Presses – This will kill you!

As many of you know I have a  hard time joining the bandwagon for fads, poor science and bad research studies/interpretations. Alex Hutchinson writes some pretty good stuff for Runners World. Most recently he wrote about a controversial study that has been bandied about in the press over the past couple years. The study used flawed statistics that lead them to the conclusion that basically stated very little running is bad for you and that running can shorten your life. Study conclusions have to be closely scrutinized. Just a few considerations…

  • What population is studied? (i.e. results of sedentary adults may have no relationship to active adults)
  • Was it a study of non-runners (other sports)? (i.e. basketball or soccer as related to distance runners)
  • Is there a built-in bias from the researchers? (i.e. almost all studies end up finding what they are looking for; sponsored research by-product manufacturers find their product “works”)
  • Has the study been replicated? (i.e. sometimes anomalies happen even with controls – replicating minimizes that chance)
  • Are there controls or control groups? (i.e. the Placebo Effect is alive and well)

Sometimes studies are well designed, use proper statistical and control techniques to show valid results which can indeed guide us to better training. Even then it is the over-reaching application of results that can be in err. Here is a good example of that big research revelation about sitting too much that has a balanced view (see his summary paragraph if you don’t want to read his entire evaluation of the data and corroborating studies). And here is another balanced take on the static stretching pre-workout research. Note in the end he owns his interpretation while substantiating his reason.

I know that media sources and the advent of electronic media and media sharing get a lot of the blame. But media – no let me rephrase that – reporters and writers love cool things to report on. It’s like a popularity contest. So before you take the next exercise research revelation to heart – consider not only the media source but the author as well. I will tend to buy into someone’s point who has knowledge and balance. I think Hutchinson has it right when he states, “The cooler and less probable the result, the more we should suspend our judgment until others can verify it.”


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