Mental training and sports



Author: Dr. med. Günther Effinger, Facharzt FMH für orthopädische Chirurgie und Traumatologie, Int. Sportmedizin FMH, Osteologe DVO, Sonographie (SGUM), Manuelle Medizin (SAMM), Schmerztherapie (SSIPM), Leiter Medbase Basel Heuwaage


Mental training helps to consciously use thoughts and feelings to achieve a state of optimal performance. It should be just as much a part of training as physical training.

In professional sport, the mental coach has a well-established place alongside the coach and the nutritionist. In amateur sport, on the other hand, mental training – if at all – has so far only taken place selectively. And usually only when problems arise. This leaves a great deal of potential unexploited.

After all, every training session and every competition is influenced by thoughts and feelings. However, this often happens unconsciously – and this can reduce performance. Mental training helps to achieve and maintain a state of ideal performance.

The “Deming” or “Sports mental training cycle” developed at the Heidelberg Institute for Mental Training comprises four phases:

The first phase is about defining your own values and setting goals: What do I stand for? What is important to me? What do I want to achieve: have fun, find inner peace, receive recognition, find a sponsor who supports me …?
If several goals are important, it means defining a “value hierarchy”, because to want to achieve everything at once is utopian. The goal should be formulated positively and as concretely as possible, for example: “I want to have improved my best time at the end of the race”.

What are the outstanding characteristics of every athlete? In the second phase, when analysing one’s own strengths, it’s all about finding the answer. Which characteristic is the strongest? Which is number two, three, four, …?
Mental training should strengthen the strengths. This includes both mentally going through and improving movement sequences and learning not to be distracted. Because only those who can concentrate fully on the current situation will be able to fully exploit their strengths.
Training mindfulness can help to stay mentally in the “here and now”. Thoughts that wander into the past or into the future such as “I should have made more speed in the beginning” or “I won’t catch up anymore” are obstructive.

With the help of self-motivation strategies, one’s own strengths can be used at the right moment. What awakens the feelings and ideas that are needed in the respective situation in order to achieve the maximum possible? Which own rituals, inner images or experiences inspire and strengthen? For example, let your experiences pass in review: In which situations have you been particularly successful? What was the perfect situation when running in which everything was right? Which gesture or music, which object or smell is connected with this memory? This could be a key for mental training.
A sprinter who has to run away explosively at the start could, for example, motivate himself with the help of Hard Rock. Or you can tell yourself internally: “I can do it” and imagine the clenched fist. Such a gesture, self-hypnosis, relaxation exercises … there are hundreds of possibilities.
At first these processes “only” take place mentally. But the full potential can only be exploited if one “feels” them emotionally and physically.

The third phase of mental training serves to overcome and prevent inner blockades. Suppose a tennis player on rank 70 on the world’s best list makes it to the final of Wimbledon. He now thinks: “I can only lose against this famous top player. The eyes of the whole sports world are on me. Don’t miss the ball!” – then the game is already decided. He will lose.
Because the human brain doesn’t distinguish between ideas that shouldn’t happen and those that are longed for. This is like NOT thinking of a blue elephant. It is quite difficult not to imagine an elephant.
Athletes who want to do it especially well often get into the “overmotivation zone” – they hit balls, become unfocused, waste their energy.
However, the ideal performance condition is achieved when an athlete feels neither pressure nor stress or – on the other hand – boredom and too much relaxation (undermotivation zone). In mental training, effective countermeasures are developed against both.
For example, the tennis player might think: “I’ll show them”. He has built up a healthy self-confidence and mental strength, plays his best techniques meticulously in his mind and visualizes with all details the course of a game in which he plays his strengths to the full and wins.

Finally, the fourth phase is the success control: What was successful? Where else is there a problem? Can mental training be sustained in this way?

– Mental training needs practice. Just like endurance, strength and flexibility training, it should be integrated into every training cycle.
– It is best to start with a mental trainer.
– Rituals or inner pictures should fit the person and the desired goal.
– Do not think in terms of problems, but focus on the solution.


Runners High – The Flow Experience while Running


Some runners regularly experience a “runners high”, others never experience it. Which conditions are most likely to lead to a blissful “flow-experience”?

Author: Dr. med. Sibylle Matter Brügger, Allg. Innere Medizin FMH, Sportmedizin SGSM, Manuelle Medizin SAMM, Sonographie Bewegungsapparat SGUM – Stv. Leiterin Sports Medical Center Medbase Bern Zentrum

Great, awesome, an incredible feeling of happiness – more than 25 adjectives are used by runners to describe the “runners high”. This proofs how hard it is to grasp this flow-experience.

There is no common definition for this – not to mention a guarantee that you will experience it while running: “I have been a runner for 25 years and can train as much as I want, but the “runners high” is unknown to me, a runner confesses. He is certainly not the only one. Some even doubt that the runners high really exists.

But psychologists agree: the flow experience exists. Not only during running, but also during many other sports and activities. In sports climbing as well as in “diving” into a book where you forget the world while reading. The decisive factor is that it is a continuous activity, without interruptions. Volleyball players, for example, who alternate intensive playing phases with short breaks, therefore hardly ever get into the “flow”.

The first person to investigate the phenomenon in detail was the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Tschiksentmihaj). He described the flow experience as a state of “unified flow”, in which action follows action and humans merge into their activity, fully focused on what they are doing. Time flies by most of the time. Playing children “master” how to get into the flow. In such moments adults can feel feelings of ecstasy, euphoria or deep inner contentment. Sometimes it even lasts for one or two hours after the run.

But how do runners reach this blissful state in which running becomes effortless? It’s not that easy, and it certainly can’t be forced. But: You can create the conditions for the runners high to appear sooner:

Neither under- nor overstraining yourself
It is important that the current training and one’s own goals match the current performance. For example, if you are dissatisfied with your pace or have unrealistically high expectations, you have a lower chance of getting into the flow experience. Performance-oriented people who set their goals well, on the other hand, have good chances.

Run with your head free and relaxed
If you are tired or chewing on a problem, the probability for a runners high is small. The thoughts should not be focused on a particular thing and the overall attitude to life should be positive.

High training intensity
The flow is almost only reached by those who are both well trained and train at 80 to 90 percent of their maximum heart rate. Beginners can only keep up with this training intensity for a maximum of two minutes. But that is too short. They will therefore hardly ever get into the “flow”.

Schedule sufficient time
The flow experience comes at the earliest after 20 to 30 minutes of running.

Running in a pleasant environment
When running through a city where constant attention is needed to avoid overlooking other traffic participants, switching off is impossible (and not advisable). Some runners are best off on well known routes, such as a route through nature without abrupt changes. Others succeeded for the first time on a route that had not been mastered for some time.

Run alone
When running in a group, the flow experience occurs less often than when running alone. If you are not on your own, you have the best chance of a flow experience if your training partner is similarly well trained.

How the runners high exactly is achieved is unclear. It is triggered by the heart rate, which reaches a certain height. During this almost meditative state, the concentration of endorphins in the blood increases. These substances produced by the body have a pain-relieving and mood-lifting effect similar to morphine. However, they are not the cause of the flow, but rather a (pleasant) side effect.

Not so for the endocannabinoids. They are probably partly responsible for the flow experience. These are various cannabis-like molecules which the body produces and which have an effect on various organs. Endocannabinoids can, for example, protect brain cells from hyperstimulation, relax the soul or have an anti-inflammatory effect in the intestine.

Researchers have also found evidence that the nerve cells in the frontal cortex reduce their activity during runners high. However, what exactly happens in the brain is still unclear. But for those who are able to experience this feeling of happiness, this is probably of secondary importance.


The limits of the human endurance performance: is it all in your head?


There are limits to the human endurance. But what role does our brain play in it? As Alex Hutchinson, a Canadian scientist and journalist for renowned American magazines, will tell us in this interview: a big one!

Alex Hutchinson is himself an experienced runner and regularly publishes articles in the well-known endurance magazine Outside (after several years of writing for Runner’s World), where he covers a wide range of topics in the field of endurance sports. In his book Endure, he looks into the limits of human endurance performance and investigates influencing factors. According to Hutchinson, the role which our brain has in this is underestimated, while it is actually able to influence our performance considerably. We wanted to know how…

You write in your book that the limiting factor on our performance is not physical or mechanical, but pyschological. Do you mean by that that mental barriers prevent us from unravelling our full potential?

That’s a fair summary of what I wrote in Endure, but it’s maybe worth clarifying what I mean. To say that the limits are psychological doesn’t mean there are no physical or mechanical constraints and you can just “decide” to do whatever you want! It’s more subtle than that.

Imagine you’re running a 10K race. Is there any point during the race where, if someone pointed a gun at your head, you wouldn’t be able to accelerate? Maybe very close to the finish, but otherwise you’re always pacing yourself. If so, what is the physical or mechanical “limit” that’s holding you back during the first 9.9K? If often feels like you can’t go faster, but that’s because you know from experience that you shouldn’t go too fast early in a 10K or you’ll pay the price. So when you put it that way, I think pretty much everyone would agree that the limits to endurance are in some sense psychological. Who among us can really claim that their race execution was so perfect that they were right at the limit of their sustainable pace for every metre of the race?

Whether our body’s “full potential” really is a lot greater than we know is another tough question, but we’ll get into that below!

What exactly is the process in our brains tricking us into thinking we can’t go faster and how did you find out about this?

Nobody really knows the final answers at this point, but in the 1990s a scientist named Tim Noakes proposed that our brains act as what he called a “central governor” that prevents us from pushing to our true physical limits, presumably to protect us from serious damage. Since then there has been lots of scientific debate over how and why this might happen, and whether it’s really true.

The current theory that I find most convincing is that we’re guided by our subjective perception of effort. All the physiological signals we hear about—core temperature, lactate levels, heart rate, and so on—contribute to our general sense of how much effort it takes to continue. When that effort level gets too high relative to what we think we can sustain to the finish, we slow down. This is why on a hot day, we slow down very early in the race, long before we’re actually overheating: we’re responding not to the actual temperature, but to the perception of effort that is affected by the temperature.

How can we try and counteract this and learn where our actual limits are?

I think the question of “actual limits” will always remain hypothetical. There’s no such thing as the perfect race. So it’s more a question of learning to fight against our brain’s desire to slow down, so that we can get a little bit closer to a goal that we’ll never reach.

To some extent, I think just knowing the role of the brain in setting our apparent limits can help. In the middle of a race, if you feel that you’re slowing down, you might blame this on elevated lactate levels or something. If that’s what you think, then there’s nothing you can do but accept the slowdown, because it’s an unavoidable physical truth. But if you believe that you’re slowing down because the elevated lactate levels are making the race feel harder, then maybe this helps encourage you to keep fighting.

More generally, I think the type of positive mindset exhibited by runners like Eliud Kipchoge can make a difference, helping to alter your perception of effort. There’s been some fascinating research demonstrating this over the last few years.

So, are you saying that we can somehow “battle” the lactic acid?

You can’t use your mind to change your lactate levels. But perhaps you can change how you respond to those lactate levels. The thing to remember is that during a race or workout, we’re almost never running at a true “10 out of 10” effort. It would be physically impossible to run like that all time. Instead, we’re always trying to sustain a lower effort that gradually increases so we only hit 10 at the end of the race.

Maybe you’re at 8 halfway through the race, and then rising lactate levels make it feel more like 8.5. But maybe that subjective assessment of 8.5 is partly because you haven’t done a lot of anaerobic training this season, so it’s an unfamiliar sensation and you’re overreacting to how it feels. If you’re able to mentally reframe that feeling of lactate in the legs, perhaps your subjective assessment of effort goes back down to 8.3, and you’re able to sustain a slightly quicker pace to the finish.

Of course, no one actually calculates these numbers midrace! I’m just trying to illustrate what sort of calculations you’re constantly making, without even being aware of it, when you race.

How big an effect do you think it has on the performance of people if they get rid of those mental limits? For example, how much faster do you think the marathon World record could be in the future?

To be honest, I suspect the potential improvements are biggest for recreational athletes, and smallest for elite world-class athletes. One of the traits that enables an athlete to reach the top is the ability to push through discomfort. That said, I do think that even the best athletes can sometimes reach another level. When Eliud Kipchoge ran his 2:01:39 world record last year, I think that performance was partly enabled by the confidence he got from running 2:00:25 under artificial conditions at the Breaking2 race the year before. It changed his perception of what was possible, freeing him up to be aggressive in the second half of the world-record race.

Although professional sports people have experience in trying to get as close to their limit as possible, they still have to learn and relearn every season. There’s some great data showing pain tolerance increases in elite swimmers over the course of a season, maxing out as they approach their goal race. It takes constant practice to suffer well.

Does it work only for endurance sports or also for others?

As a rule of thumb, I’d say the longer the event, the greater the role of the mind. But there are some great experiments showing that mental factors do a play a role even in short bursts of activity. There was one famous study from the 1960s where researchers snuck up behind their subjects and fired a starter’s pistol in their ear right before they did a maximal lift. The fear boosted their strength by 7 or 8 percent!

We hope that some of the thinks Alex mentioned here will also help you to improve your performance in the future!

 “The difference only is thinking. You think it’s impossible. I think it’s possible.” – Eliud Kipchoge before he ran his World record in Berlin


Photo: Florence Tsui

Alex Hutchinson is a science journalist who specialises in writing about endurance sports for Outside Magazine and other publications, and he is the author of the New York Times bestseller Endure. In his own running career, Alex ran for the Canadian national team as middle-distance and cross-country runner. His best times were 3:42 (1500m), 8:00 (3000m), and 13:52 (5000m). These days, Alex still runs most days and competes occasionally in road and cross-country races.





Edited by: Marion Aebi

When sport becomes an addiction


For most people, sports is something with which to keep an inner balance and a means by which to invest into a good body feeling. In some cases, however, it can lead to addictive behaviour. This article, written with help of sports psychiatrist Dr. med. Malte Claussen, should sensitise you as a runner for this problem.  

Pacing Strategies: What Runner Type are You?


It’s competition time. The hard training weeks are behind you. Now, it is important to recover well and to turn your training into results. One decisive factor in order to succeed is your strategy for the race. Competitions are all about finding the right pace.

Should I do it or not?


Who is not familiar with the inner voice that says, “I’m tired, today resting would sure be nice”? But running.COACH is telling me to do a 60 minute tempo run. The dutiful runner laces up her shoes and goes out to run the workout regardless. Few others actually listen to their bodies, lie down and take the day off. Maybe those mindful runners are thinking of Alberto Salazar, the winner of the New York City and Boston marathons in 1980, 1981, and 1982. When asked the question about the key to his success, he stated, “My problem was that I was training too hard”. Thus, he built in, on a regular basis, a complete rest day that allowed him to improve his performances.

Sometimes less is more. We should take this to heart. In particular, if it is not the ‘lazy guy’who just doesn’t want to train, but the “true” inner voice. Training and relaxation go together like the tides. Only when one has recovered from a workout, is it time for the next training session. At times this can take longer than normal. Sometimes the last workout was more stressful than usual, or that last training session just was not productive, or there was little time for sleep or rest since the last workout. Whatever the reason, it’s smart to listen to your body.

Here are my tips for you:

  • Rest and recovery is also training. Resting exclusively is not training 🙂
  • When looking at today’s workout, consider your current professional or family demands, social environment, and, above all else, your internal voice.
  • After a rest day, your motivation is usually much greater than before the rest day.
  • Exercising in an alternative sport (Biking, Swimming, Nordic Skiing) adds variety and additional motivation for running.

by Valentin Belz