Train Your Brain: Mental Wellness Exercises for the Endurance Athlete

Train Your Brain: Mental Wellness Exercises for the Endurance Athlete

Got athletes struggling with a lack of confidence or anxiety? These mental wellness exercises will help them realign with their goals and focus inward.

Mental wellness is, arguably, more important than physical fitness, as it directly dictates how a person can perform. According to the World Health Organization, depression affects 264 million people worldwide; even more struggle from anxiety disorders. Of course, these are numbers for those who are diagnosed, as even more go through life without putting a name to their struggle.

Mental health disorders cause health problems, sleep issues, lack of motivation and can lead to suicide.

While not every athlete might have a diagnosable disorder, many will struggle with a lack of mental wellness at some point in their lives. For many, this will look like a decrease in enjoyment, lack of motivation, or apathy towards the sport. Though it can be difficult for a coach to work with an athlete who is mentally struggling, if you are in a position where an athlete is comfortable discussing their mental health, be grateful—there are many steps you can take as a coach to help your athlete train their brain, along with their body.

For Athletes Struggling with Self-Doubt

Often, the loudest criticism that an athlete faces is their own internal negative thoughts. No matter the encouragement and acclaim a coach might provide, for those who are struggling with low self-esteem or doubt, it will fall on deaf ears. 

Positive Affirmations

It is common for athletes to fall into “negative storytelling” or repeating a negative phrase which they eventually cling to as the truth. You might hear an athlete say, “I am just not doing as well as I had hoped,” or “I failed that workout.” These statements can be flipped on their head by using a simple formula:

  • Use an “I am” statement to take ownership.
  • Write the statement in present tense.
  • Either state what is going well, or what your hope for the future.
  • Make sure the statement has a positive connotation.
  • Use either an action or emotion in the statement.

Examples: 

  • “I am happy that these workouts challenge me”
  • “I am working hard towards my goal of completing a Boston Qualifying Marathon.”
  • “I am proud of myself for completing this workout.”

Positive affirmations come from the Self Affirmation Theory, promoted by Psychologist Claud Steele in 1988. The idea behind this theory is that individuals will act in accordance with what they already believe about themselves. So, an athlete who believes that they are failing, will continue to underperform, while an athlete who is telling themselves that they are being challenged, and rising to the occasion, will work harder.

Celebrating Successes

It is common for athletes to only see where they have room to improve, rather than where they are succeeding. While driving to their full potential is not a bad attribute for an athlete, consistently ignoring their successes will lead to negative feelings and burnout. As stated above, humans adapt to believe the stories they tell themselves, so finishing a workout with a statement of success can lead to better self-appreciation while reaching their goals.

As a coach, you can help the athlete with this by writing specific questions at first, then gradually letting them write out their full statement of success.

Examples:

  •  “What are you most proud of from today’s long run?”
  • “How have you improved in your speed work from earlier this year?”
  • “What made you feel strong today?”

For Athletes Feeling Burnout

Burnout is often disguised as physical fatigue or over-training; however, the culprit is the mind, not the body. An athlete dealing with burnout might have the following:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Feeling physically fatigued or tired
  • Apathy towards the sport
  • Difficulty focusing on training
  • Reduced performance
  • Anxiety around training, which can present physically as headaches or stomach aches 
  • Emotional exhaustion

If burnout gets out of control, an athlete might need to sit out a cycle, or take time to crosstrain to regain their enthusiasm. However, if interventions are early, a coach might be able to save the season. 

Reasons Why

Helping your athlete remind themselves why they enjoy training or racing is a great step in reversing burnout. As a coach, you can remind your athletes about their “reasons why” in your next phone call or when things get tough. 

Examples of questions you can ask:

  • “What do you love most about racing?”
  • “What aspect of training brings you joy?”
  • “What positive emotions do you relate to running/cycling?”
  • “What positive feelings do you equate with racing?”

Shifting their mindset to positively remembering why they are investing time and energy into the sport, rather than seeing it as an extra obligation can help lower feelings of burnout.

Listing Gratitudes

Gratitude might be one of the most powerful tools in your athlete’s running vest. Studies have found that practicing gratitude improves physical health, mental wellness and emotional connection. Researchers have even seen a correlation between people who practice daily gratitude and achieving greater personal and professional success. As a coach, you can sneak gratitude practices into your training plan by assigning daily or weekly gratitude check-ins. This is as simple as asking “what are you grateful for today/this week” or “what are you grateful for from this workout.” 

When a person experiences feelings of gratitude, their body releases dopamine and serotonin, hormones that cause sensations of happiness and relaxation. Adding to these positive feelings, gratitude encourages feelings of self-love and empathy while decreasing feelings of anxiety and depression. 

For Athletes with Race/Workout Anxiety

Many athletes deal with race or workout anxiety, where they build up the event so much in their minds that they are unable to perform to their full potential. This can be difficult to witness as a coach, and absolutely frustrating to the athlete who has been working towards a goal only to fall short. Anxiety can manifest itself in numerous physical and emotional responses, which the athlete might not readily identify. Both of the following activities come from mindfulness practice, which encourages users to exist in the present moment and not dwell on the past or future.

Body and Brain Scans

A body and brain scan should be practiced regularly before race day, then practiced the morning of the race. First, have the athlete find a quiet and relaxing spot to lay down. They will then slowly bring their awareness to each part of their body, starting at their feet and working their way up to their head. In each section, they will take a moment to acknowledge any pain, stiffness, or discomfort. While some muscle aches might be from training, tension or uneasiness in other parts of the body can come from stress and anxiety. For that reason, encourage the athlete to identify the sensations they experience. After making their way through their body, encourage the athlete to do the same with the thoughts and feelings they are currently experiencing. It is important that they name the sensations and the reason they might be experiencing it. 

Examples:

  • “The tightness in my calves is from my hill workout yesterday.”
  • “The tension in my shoulders is from stress.”
  • “I have a feeling of stress because I do not know how I am going to fit in tomorrow’s workout.”

Identifying feelings and experiences can help an athlete become more in-tune with their body and take care of dominating emotions before they take hold and ruin a race or workout.

Five Senses

If an athlete is fixating on the past or future, and not staying in their head for their workout, a quick “Five Senses” activity can help restore focus. Encourage the athlete to go through each one of the five senses (sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch) to see what they are currently experiencing. First, have them practice this during the day, then use it in a race or workout if they find their mind wandering to a negative place.

Examples:

  • “I see the runner’s shoes ahead of me.”
  • “I smell the cherry blossoms blooming.”
  • “I hear my playlist in my headphones.”
  • “I can taste gel residue.”
  • “I can feel sweat on my fingers.”

Because there are countless sensations to experience, this practice can be done multiple times to keep the athlete in the moment and grounded.

If you ever feel as though an athlete is unsafe: a possible threat to themselves or others, it is absolutely vital that they reach out for professional mental health help. Encourage your athlete to reach out to an already existing mental or physical health provider for assistance, or provide them with the SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) which will provide assistance 24/7.

Lexi Miller

Lexi Miller is an adult running coach and Community Manager with Lifelong Endurance, as well as a youth coach with Peak Performance Running. Certified through the United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy and a Level 2 Coach with Training Peaks, she works primarily with distance runners (marathon to distance runners) cross-country skiers, and new or returning endurance athletes. Lexi uses her past experience of working in mental health to help athletes develop confidence and strength and confidence through mindfulness and consistency. You can hear her on the podcast, "A Runner's Guide to Mindfulness" or find her on the trails of Colorado.