Paul Northup – VLM Training

All in the mind. Well, not quite all …

So, you have a training plan and you’re sticking to it. You have the running experience and endurance. What else? What else do you need to run a good marathon? To run a good race of any distance, for that matter?

Well, I’m no expert, but the older I get, the more I realise that – once you reach a certain level of fitness – there’s a large part of running that goes on not in your legs and lungs but in your mind.

One of the things I’ve always treasured about running is that it is largely a battle with yourself – and no one else. That’s always suited my mindset (confused and challenged as I get around the politics, emotions and power-plays of team sports). At the end of the day, at the end of each race, you look yourself in the mirror and you ask yourself: did I do my best? And, if you’re truthful with yourself, you’ll always know how to answer that question. Running, and the training it requires to improve, is largely about self-discpline. And like so many acts of self-discipline it is won or lost in the mind.

There was a time in my life when I had an intensive bout of singing lessons (don’t ask!). I didn’t have the best of vocal ranges but I was content with the way I could use my voice within that. Still, in an effort to stretch my range – especially in the upper register – my singing teacher used to say something to me that in any other context I would have dismissed as New Age mumbo jumbo. She used to say: “Imagine yourself parachuting onto that note.” In other words: picture yourself singing that note (you think you can’t reach or haven’t reached until now); and then sing it. I’ll never forget that intensive vocal training, because I found myself singing notes I never thought I’d ever reach – by thinking myself into them before I opened my mouth.

Now, I’m no fan of self-help books and make-yourself-better stuff and 10-steps-to-a-better-this-or-that. But I do recognise that there comes a point in running (perhaps in any physical programme) where you’ve established a bedrock of resource to draw on with your fitness and you start to need more than just the physical regime in order to make those improvements you want to see.

And that’s where your mind comes in.

What I’ve started to do since belonging to the CLC Striders club is to embed certain target times and aims in my mind as I prepare for a key race. I’ll look at my training times, I’ll chat with others in the club and I’ll be honest with myself about the way I’m feeling and running and then I’ll name a time to my inner self, in my mind, and I’ll make that time my story. I’ll internalise it and repeat it until it’s ingrained and hard-wired. To start with, it was a sub 40-minute 10k, then a sub 1:30 half marathon, then, to try and run a cross-country race at a sustained average pace of 6:30/mile. Most recently, I did the calculations and decided I would run the Linda Franks in 32 minutes (and then surprised myself by running 30:49!). The exact times aren’t important – and, of course, they will vary widely for each of us across the club. What’s important is the principle (which is what I think it is now): that you have to name a target for yourself internally and inhabit it until it becomes true.

It’s different than purely setting yourself a target time. It’s making a time your mindset, your mantra, something you whisper to yourself in quiet moments. Until it becomes real.

I realise that this might sound really fey and mystic (perhaps it is!). And like I said, I’m no fan of self-help, self-improvement theories which usually see someone getting rich off a combination of a charismatic personality and a neat idea that, when boiled down, distils to plain, old-fashioned commonsense.

But what I am saying is that – especially on the roads and especially over the longer distances (so, especially in the marathon) – there’s an awful lot of the preparation and race that goes on in the mind. I’m starting to train my brain to think of running the London marathon within a certain time frame now. And, as the race gets closer, I’ll refine that window down such that I engrain the idea of a particular time in my mind. That will become my mantra. My circuits will be wired for it.

For me (and forgive the confessional here), it’s a bit like prayer. Prayer for me isn’t pleading to change God’s mind. It’s about a habit and a disposition that, when practised regularly and repeated, gradually changes and conditions your mind – such that you start to see things and act differently. For me, thinking yourself into running a particular time is very similar. (That’s why I’m interested in running as ritual, running as reflection, running as prayer.)

But I’ll stop there, as I’m sure you’ll all run away from me next time you see me at training if I’m not careful!

Just remember: there’s only so much you can train your body to improve; don’t forget the vital part training your mind can play, too.