We’ve all had a bad run at one time or another, whether it was a race that didn’t go to plan or a jog around the park where your legs felt like lead. You know how it starts – you focus on that niggle in your calf or worry about the hill halfway through your route, and when you finally drag yourself out of the door (if you manage to at all), you can’t seem to find your stride, let alone enjoy it. In short, a lack of confidence can hamper your physical ability.

According to life coach, Jacqui Cleaver, positive thinking is vital. “The body is physically capable of so much – it’s people’s minds that prevent them from achieving their running goals,” she says.

“The formula for elite achievement is Potential – Interference = Performance,” she explains. Put simply, remove the obstacles your mind throws in your path, such as fear and worry, and you’ll be able to achieve your full potential.

Need some help to boost your mental strength? Here are four confidence-zapping scenarios and how to push through them.

1. Get Out There

If you’re new to running, getting out of the door in the first place can be a huge challenge. “One of the biggest issues I see in my clients is their utter conviction they ‘can’t’ run,” says Cleaver. “The first step is to erase the word ‘can’t’ from your vocabulary. There’s no ‘can’t’ about it – you simply don’t want to.”

Next, set achievable goals. “Many people start training with a specific goal in mind, whether it’s a 5km or a half marathon,” says life coach and personal trainer, Karl Frew.

“However, when you first start running, there might be such a big gap between your current ability and your end goal that you end up feeling demotivated.” The key, explains Frew, is to break your goals into more realistic chunks. “Set yourself a small, manageable target each run, even if it’s as basic as trying to run a few more metres,” he says. “These small goals will give you a sense of accomplishment at the end of every session.”

Reader Susan Thurgood proves that, when it comes to race-day achievement, it really can come down to mind over matter… “As a fairly new runner, I signed up for a half marathon last year that I had nine months to train for. My training started well, but then my mum fell ill and needed ongoing care for several months. I was working full-time too and my training had to halt overnight. Before I knew it, the race was a week away and I hadn’t run for several months – my longest training run had been just 7km. I nearly pulled out, but in the end I decided to walk/run the race and see what happened. I’m so glad I did. Once I’d made the decision that a) I could do it and b) it would be fine to walk, the pressure was off. All I had to do was finish. On the day, I ended up jogging the entire race without stopping and I had a fantastic time. I felt so proud for completing it under such difficult circumstances and realised that, with the right mindset, anything is possible!”

2. Go The Distance

As a regular runner, it’s likely you have set routes of a certain distance that you can complete comfortably. But what if you want to up your mileage and are struggling with the extra distance? According to Cleaver, this is a common mental block. “A regular runner’s mindset tells them they’re already pushing to full capacity,” she says. “The key is to break those personal boundaries by setting new, attainable goals.” So, if you currently run 5km three times a week, but want to complete a 10km race, add 1km every two weeks. “It’s imperative that you pre-plan your new routes, so your new mindset is in place before you head out,” says Cleaver.

Cleaver also points out that it’s important to breathe easily while you run, in order to keep your mind on track. “The brain needs oxygen to stay focused, but it’s common for runners to hold their breath when they start to feel fatigued,” she says. “This results in the brain shutting down all but essential life systems. It will stop you thinking clearly, which will limit your performance.” So, if you start to feel tired, focus on your breathing to stay in control. “A good mantra to run with is, ‘My lungs are relaxed’,” says Cleaver.

3. Keep Calm

So, you’ve made it to the start line of your race – but what if race-day nerves set in? “A fabulous mechanism to calm nerves is ‘anchoring’,” says Cleaver. “Anchors can be set at any time and will help your mind stay grounded and calm.” Cleaver suggests that music can be a great race-day anchor. “It’s a good idea to create a playlist of calming music that you can listen to before your run,” she says. “If it’s music you’ve listened to before in a relaxed, happy setting, your brain will acknowledge the calming influence and subconsciously bring you back to that time.”

Life coach, Rita Jeffery, ran her first 5km in November. Here, she explains how her job helped her… “Having never run before, I realised early on that before I could do it I’d need to start walking. It sounds simple, but because I was so unfit, trying to run straight away was demotivating. So, I began to get fit by going for walks and built up from there. To mentally prepare myself for race day, I used visualisation, picturing myself at the finish line waving my medal in the air and seeing my finish time of 45 minutes. I also used a technique called reframing. This involved me realising I was comparing myself to others and thinking I should be more like them – going to the gym and running every day. By reframing my thoughts and realising what was right for me, it put my training plan in context and helped me get exactly what I wanted out of it.”

4. Back on Track

If you’ve had a bad running experience, whether it’s a race you failed to finish or a training run you struggled with, it can be difficult to get past your feelings of disappointment. But a little brain training will go a long way. “Try ‘visioning’ to mentally prepare yourself for success,” says running guru, Justine Swainson. “This involves creating a detailed mental picture of how your next run or race will look, sound and feel – it’s like mentally rehearsing your success.” So, picture yourself running with the perfect technique and – if your goal is a long-distance run – mentally rehearse breaking through that wall. “The more perfect you can make your vision, the better,” says Swainson. “That way, when you come to physically running your race you’ll be perfectly prepared, as you’ll have mentally achieved your goal many times.”

Words By Claire Chamberlain