How To Train Your Brain For Better Running


When I first started running I had to overcome the physical challenges. I was out of breath. I was sweaty. My legs felt heavy. My feet ached. Was I done yet? As my lungs and legs got stronger, I realized that running poses mental challenges that can be just as difficult to overcome.

Running Is A Mental Sport
Often the first mental challenge is getting out the door when I’m tired. Or when it’s cold outside. Or too hot. Or psyching myself out to face the tedium of running on the treadmill. Then there are the challenges of sticking with a training program, pushing myself beyond my comfort zone at the track or trudging up that hill again.

On race day, I know I’ve done all I can to prepare for the physical challenges of the course, but I still need to get my head in the game. I think about my goals, visualize myself running strong through the finish, and remind myself that I’ve got this.  

The Runner’s Brain

While there are hundreds of books the will help you train your body, I haven’t seen many that teach you how to train your brain for better running. Through Runner’s World I was given the opportunity to review a new book that does just that:

(Click through to see on Amazon via my Amazon affiliate link)

In The Runner’s Brain, Dr. Jeff Brown explains why the brain is so important to running performance, and explains how you can think your way to better running. (Really!) Dr. Brown is a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist specializing in sport and performance psychology, and the Boston Marathon’s lead psychologist. 

Like other Rodale Books I’ve reviewed (such as Bicycling’s Big Book Of Training), this book is organized into topical sections that make it easy to read and digest the information:

  • Running and Your Brain
  • Brain Strategies
  • Training and Racing
  • Challenges
  • Resources (including worksheets and a training plan)

Using Your Brain 

The night before the Army Ten Miler I skimmed through The Runner’s Brain to see if I could find any tips for tackling the 14th Street Bridge, and I did. Dr. Brown identifies four ways you can use your brain during a run:

  • internal association (focusing on how you are feeling as you run)
  • external association (focusing on something external but related to your run, like the sound of the gravel crunching under your feet )
  • internal dissociation (focusing on something internal but not running-related, like puzzling over a work problem) 
  • external dissociation (focusing on something external and not running-related, like chatting with your running partner or getting lost in your music)

In the chapter on “Hitting the Wall,” Dr. Brown explains that while elite athletes seem to do better with internal strategies, the rest of us do better with external strategies, and with external dissociation in particular. I can certainly vouch for the fact that long runs can seem effortless when I am running with a friend, even when my Garmin tells me I wasn’t taking it easy.

The next day, as I ran across the bridge, I noticed what my brain was doing. Each time it veered toward internal association (I’m hot! Am I breathing to hard?), I tried to deflect it externally. I found myself mostly in the external association category, trying to stay within the shadow of the guardrail, avoid potholes, and catch up with the next runner in front of me, although I know I also relied on my music to keep me going.

I plan to put this strategy tip to the test!  ðŸ˜‰

Runner's Brain

Working The Boston Marathon

The Runner’s Brain is not all science–although I love those parts. It also includes anecdotes and, because Dr. Brown was working the Boston Marathon in 2013, he shares about his experience that day and how he’s seen the Boston running community come together with kindheartedness and resilience. 

I’m joining Wendy’s Book Review link up at Taking The Long Way Home.

How do you get your brain in the game for a big race?

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25 Responses to How To Train Your Brain For Better Running

  1. Carla says:

    as a reader I find this REALLY interesting as well.
    I dont struggle to walk my half-marathons BUT BUT I do struggle with a few things in life which, like running, are largely mental.
    as a reader Im gonna read this–runner or not :0)
    Carla recently posted…My search for hygge.My Profile

  2. Marcia says:

    The mental side of running fascinates me. It can make or break a race for sure. This may sound nuts but before every race I say out loud “I came to win”. I know it’s over the top but it truly sets me up to do my best.
    Marcia recently posted…Run10Feed10 Race ReportMy Profile

  3. This is really interesting! I love delving into the psychological side of exercise thanks for sharing
    Deborah Brooks @ Confessions of a Mother Runner recently posted…Peanut Butter Oatmeal Protein BarsMy Profile

  4. Sounds like an interesting and helpful book. I love the mental strength of elite athletes. It’s amazing. recently posted…BOSUStrong Fit FamilyMy Profile

  5. I’m such a nerd and I love learning more about stuff like this. The mental side of things is definitely where I think I have a lot of work to do. I have to find this book!
    Christine @ Love, Life, Surf recently posted…4 Productivity Tips + Tools to Help You Get Stuff DoneMy Profile

  6. Chaitali says:

    Sounds like a really interesting book! I heard the author on a podcast not long ago and he definitely had a lot of great points to talk about.
    Chaitali recently posted…Wine and Dine Half Marathon training – week 15My Profile

  7. This sounds like a good book to read! I’ve been told by my running friends that I am “head case” – it would be interesting to learn more about this!
    Janelle @ Run With No Regrets recently posted…Running Club Roundup: Philly RunnersMy Profile

  8. Debbie says:

    Working out is such a brain thing. It all comes together to improve results and well-being. You got me curious about that book now.
    I’m not a runner, but I love running. I’ll be adding it to my to-read list.
    Debbie recently posted…How To Lose Weight In A Healthy Way With Strength TrainingMy Profile

  9. I got this book too and I’m just finishing it. Love this stuff – I find it all so fascinating.
    Michelle @ Running with Attitude recently posted…Recovery – Week 1 Done!My Profile

  10. We are taught early on to dress for success and the same holds true for running. If I wanted to be a bowler I would walk around in a bowling shirt, right? It is crazy how many thoughts go thru my head during one run!
    Mary Beth Jackson recently posted…The Hunting Widow WeekMy Profile

  11. this is such a great topic! I was just thinking that during my half marathon on Sunday there were times during the race that I wondered if I’d be able to finish without walking. then other times I felt like I could run all day! This sounds like a great book.
    Wendy @ Wholistic Woman recently posted…Grand Rapids Half Marathon RecapMy Profile

  12. So very mental.
    I find the biggest reasons I skip runs is because I am stressed out and worried that I am too busy, so mental even with that.
    Abby @ BackAtSquareZero recently posted…My Journey to Become a Running Coach: Part 2My Profile

  13. Wow, this book sounds awesome. I totally think your mindset and cognitive patterns have SO much to do with performance. I also think that I do better with external focus. One thing I did for my marathons was have friends and family send me emails with little notes of encouragement. I had someone print them out, cut the up, and fold them up for me and then I put them in my fuel belt. Each mile, I got to take out one and read it. I really looked forward to that each mile and it helped the time go by faster.
    Chrissy @ Snacking in Sneakers recently posted…Hearty & Comforting Beef StewMy Profile

  14. Farrah says:

    I am so with you on it being a mental challenge as much as it is a physical challenge! I don’t really run anymore (one o’ these days, I’m thinking of picking it back up), but I definitely noticed a difference in the quality (and the duration) of my runs back in the day in how my mindset/internal thought process was affecting it!

  15. This is good info! After reading this I realize that when I “internally dissociation” and think about something unrelated to running, my runs seem to go easier or i’ve already made it to another mile marker without noticing! I love those types of runs!

  16. Very cool. Thanks for those tips, I could use them over the bridge this weekend!
    Sue @ This Mama Runs for Cupcakes recently posted…Stocking up my Protein Pantry with the Vitamin ShoppeMy Profile

  17. My coach was a huge help getting my head ready for Chicago. And as you know, it was a tough race, due to the weather. I had to dig deep to meet my B goal, but I did, and finished smiling. I’m going to buy this book, and I think it will be a great book for the book club! I’ve got a spring marathon to train for after all…
    Wendy@Taking the Long Way Home recently posted…Loving/Not Loving: The Friday Five EditionMy Profile

  18. Coco says:

    It is really intriguing — and it would be great for book club. It’s an easy read, but something you’ll want to go back to as a resource.
    Coco recently posted…Five Things I Love About The Friday Five Link UpMy Profile

  19. jill conyers says:

    There are times when the mental aspect of running is so much harder than the physical. I’m checking out the book now. I might need to add it to my must read list.

    Thanks for sharing with friends at Fitness Friday!
    jill conyers recently posted…7 Ways To Run FasterMy Profile

  20. cheryl says:

    I’ve been teaching for 40 years and running for 44 – doing triathlons for 33. If you have passion for what you do and love it to death, then there is reason and motivation to DO it. I’ve never had a problem getting up and out to do the things that I love doing!
    cheryl recently posted…Embracing 60+ TWOMy Profile

  21. Candelle says:

    Interesting article and interesting book. I’m not a natural runner and don’t particularly like it, but I do it for the health benefits. So for me, running is a total mental game, especially now that I’m training for my first marathon – which I said I would never do. This past weekend, I had to get through 20 miles when I was feeling tired and sluggish in mile 1. Many of the above dissociation techniques came in handy as I pushed my way through my first 20 miler. For me, it was helpful that I ran in a park with a 3.5 mile out and back, because although I was seeing the same stuff, the scenery changed as people came and went, softball games were being played and finished, and there was even a dog walk event while I was there. All of it kept my mind off my task at hand and kept me going.

    Additionally, when I have to get in mileage on the treadmill, to keep my mind occupied, I bring my kindle and read a book that captivates me. Before I know it, I’m into the book and my run is done. There are times when I’ve gone longer on the treadmill because I’m so into a book and I just need to read what happens next before I get off, so I’ll keep going until I reach a good stopping point. Really wish I could do this while running outside as audio books just don’t produce the same results.

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