In her book 'A Life without limits', triathlete and four times World Ironman Champion Chrissie Wellington discusses the importance of mental training in athletics: 'You wouldn't go into a race without any physical training, so why would you go in without any mental?'.
One of her recommended techniques is spending time mentally rehearsing races in advance: ''Visualisation is a hugely important tool... Close your eyes, relax, then go through each stage of the race in your mind... Visualise each situation and rehearse your response'.
She also suggests that you 'Develop a mind bank of positive images and thoughts - family, friends, previous successes, favourite places, a bag of chips. You need to build it up as you would any collection, but soon you will have a range of thoughts to flick through when next your body and soul are screaming out for relief'.
The latter reminds me of a meditation technique I was once taught by Adrian Harris called 'Strawberries' (I believe he picked it up from William Bloom's Core Energy Management approach): 'Your strawberries are whatever gives you a tingle of pleasure; the people you love, your favourite food or the sport that gives you a buzz. Strawberries can be activities, places, people, animals, specific moments or things'. The basic idea is that in times of stress and difficulty you can draw on intense good memories as 'positive triggers': And just as Chrissie suggests, this works best if we actively build up a mental library of 'strawberry moments' by savouring them at calmer times.
When I first started long distance running I used this approach quite a lot. When it feels like the pain is never going to end it can definitely help to shift the focus from tired legs to fond thoughts of loved ones or Mediterranean sunsets. There are also a whole lot of meditation approaches that involve the visualisation of energy centres at different points in the body (e.g. chakras, the sephirot in Kabbalah, internal circulation in chi kung) and working through any of them can pass many unhappy minutes. Mind you, so can trying to remember the names of all English league football teams or going through any kind of list. Actually probably the biggest mental distraction technique used by runners is endless mental arithmetic - juggling speed, times and distances in our heads.
Others visualise images to help them run. In 'Chi Running', for instance, Danny Dreyer suggests imagining a bungee cord from your chest pulling you towards the finish.
But there is a danger in getting carried away with visualisation while running. As Wellington also notes 'If your mind wanders, so does your body'. When your head's in the clouds your feet tend to slow down. If you are chasing times or race positions I think you should really only be allowing your mind to be somewhere else in moments of genuine desperation - as far as possible you need to be mindfully present and making sure that every step counts. Too many distractions are... well, a distraction.
Chrissie recommends building this power of concentration into training: 'The best way of improving your capacity to endure boredom is to endure boredom. Spend time training on your own and challenge your mind to stay focused... You should maintain the same level of concentration in training as you would when racing. It's no use imagining you will miraculously develop that focus on race day'.
A few months ago I made a concerted effort over several months to reach my target of a sub-20 minute 5k. I did lots of physical training on the track and elsewhere, but in the days before the run where I hoped to do it I also did some serious mental exercise. I have studied tai chi/chi kung in the past and still practise sometimes, and on the night before the run I made myself hold a static chi kung pose for 19:50 minutes. On the run itself, I stayed as focused as I could on making sure each step was at the right pace. It worked - 19:42 at Burgess parkrun - and I haven't done it since, partly because I immediately started playing other mind games with myself - 'well you're training for the Marathon now, don't push too hard and injure yourself' etc etc. Truly as Funkadelic once sang 'Free Your Mind... and Your Ass Will Follow'.