As many people who are in this community, I read Runner’s World with almost religious dedication. Sometimes an article hits me right when I need it most, and I am able to take the information and directly apply it during my training.
The Racer’s Brain, by Jeff Brown and Liz Neporent dealt with how to handle the mental side of running, something not always discussed at the forefront of the sport. While the article covers the most-often thought disruptions a runner will face, one of them stuck out to me as I read it, especially with the hilly Pittsburgh Marathon at the forefront of my mind.
How many runners do you know that are terrified of hills? Ones that shy away from courses touted for their ascents and the calf burning that ensues. Instead of this, however, the authors suggest that you take those negative thoughts about the hill, and turn them around. Below is an excerpt from the article.
To many a runner, hills are the enemy. They are an obstacle standing in the way of fast times. A burden to be endured. A soul-sapping exercise in pain. Remember, I’m the psychologist for the Boston Marathon, home to Heartbreak Hill, one of the most feared stretches of incline in the world. Over the years, I have watched people of all abilities face Heartbreak with all sorts of emotions and outcomes. I have seen fear, anguish, pain, and rage.
What’s Going On
So many times a runner will come to a hill with a preconception of how horrible it will feel to run up it. Those negative feelings form a feedback loop in the brain, stoking your hatred of hills even more. When you come to the base of a hill with thoughts like that in your head, you set yourself up for a miserable experience.
How to Cope
Love them: Instead of cursing a hill before you even climb it, try convincing yourself how much you love it. Really. Tell yourself that hills are the greatest thing ever. They make you stronger. They make you tougher. They give you amazing glutes. Tell yourself you’re the little engine that could, that slow and steady wins the race, that what goes up must come down—whatever cliche helps you embrace the climb. After a while, this new thought pattern—even if it seems far-fetched—will evolve into an actual belief.
Use your imagination: Mental imagery can help you conquer climbs. One runner told me she sights something along the edge of the road, such as a tree or a car, then throws a mental rope around it that she imagines she can use to pull herself upward. Another runner told me he pretends he is being carried up the hill by a winged horse. As you approach a hill, picture yourself cresting it and gliding down it. Staying calm and positive in the face of a monster incline will help you conserve energy, energy that will help make the actual physical climb easier.
Tune In—or out: Some runners dissociate by going to their happy place to try and forget they are working so hard. Other runners take the exact opposite tactic: They own their pain with a sort of “hurts so good” attitude. Muscle aches and feelings of fatigue only make them push harder. Or they think about their bodies and coach themselves with mental comments like “Relax your shoulders,” “Keep your body tall.” Most runners don’t exclusively use one thinking style all the time. Without realizing it, you may switch between several different mental strategies in different situations, depending on what works for you.
I’ve run both down and up Heartbreak Hill, and it definitely lives up to its name. I wish this article had come across my eyes before that fateful climb in June of 2014 during the Runner’s World festival on the Boston College campus. But, I took the coping strategies and applied them to each of the four big climbs in Manchester, N.H.
I must have been the only one smiling as they approached the incline. I took each hill as a challenge. A time to prove to myself that all of those times I practiced running up the hills in my neighborhood (and cursing the whole way up) was worth something.
I definitely fall into the second category of hill climber, the “hurt so good.” Whatever helps you get up to the top, where all things are awesome and a downhill will surely follow, I implore you to experiment and find the strategy that works best for you. Join me as a vanquisher of hills and leave those who cringe behind. You’ll be stronger for it, not just physically, but mentally as well.