I’m guilty of something. And I’m pretty sure you’re guilty of it too. Think of a race you’ve done where you followed a training program meticulously during the weeks and months leading up to race day and felt like you were ready to smash your PR while you stood at the start line… only to have something happen during the race that took your focus away from running and resulted in an unexpectedly poor finishing time. We’ve all been there. So what could we have done better?
Something we tend to overlook is running is both a physical and a mental activity. And in addition to the physical exercises we do to improve our speed and endurance, there are also mental exercises we can do that are just as important. If you can train your mind and body to work together, you’ll be surprised at what you’re capable of accomplishing.
Interestingly though, while it’s easy to find information about the physical side of training, we don’t see as much written about the mental side. So when Runners World sent me a copy of The Runner’s Brain to review and also offered me an opportunity to interview Dr. Jeff Brown, the book’s author and psychologist for the Boston Marathon, I was pretty excited.
Before I talk about the book, here’s some information about Dr. Brown:
He started working with the Boston Marathon medical team in 2002. Today, most major marathons have a psychologists on their medical teams, but 13 years ago, hiring Dr. Brown was a groundbreaking move by the Boston Marathon race directors. He was originally brought on to help with one specific task: identifying patients with hyponatremia. Over-hydrating can result in an array of psychological issues and the race directors thought that it would be in the best interests of the participants to have a specialist available to help over hydrated runners on race day.
As early as his first race though, Dr. Brown found himself treating runners who suffered from a variety of other conditions related to running 26.2 miles. This included things like the mental effects of dealing with injuries, anger or disappointment when the race doesn’t go as planned, etc…. As time went on, he became interested in some of the issues that runners deal with related to their brains and thought processes. He also wanted to explore ways that we could develop the mental skills needed to overcome those issues.
One other note about Dr. Brown is that he was working in the medical tent at the Boston Marathon finish line on the day of the 2013 bombing. So he experienced the toll that the bombing took on participants and spectators firsthand. There’s a chapter in the book about his experiences that day and how he and his colleagues were able to help people come to grips with the situation even though they weren’t entirely sure what was going on themselves.
As far as the rest of the book goes, The Runner’s Brain is divided into five sections:
The first section covers the way running benefits our brains in general. We’ve all had days when we weren’t able to get in as many miles as we wanted to and found ourselves feeling crabby and lethargic for the rest of the day. This section covers things like that and also how running can improve your memory and keep your brain young compared to your actual age. It also talks about the different physical parts of your brain and how understanding the way information is processed in different areas can improve the way you think about yourself as a runner.
The second section covers some of the strategic aspects of mental training. How do you pick the right goals to set for yourself? How do you improve your focus and train your brain to respond to different situations more effectively? How do routines and superstitions play into our overall running abilities (hint: being superstitious is not necessarily a bad thing). You can find answers to questions like these in this part of the book.
The third section covers racing from end to end. It begins with topics related to whether or not you should even race at all and how to decide for yourself based on your personal preferences. From there, it goes on to cover topics related to overcoming anxiety, pre-race jitters and post-race depression.
The fourth section deals with specific challenges runners all face at one time or another (hitting the wall, running in bad weather, long treadmill runs, etc….) and the last section has training plans, worksheets, and other useful resources.
The Runner’s Brain is a well written book that covers topics that aren’t always covered very thoroughly in other places. Dr. Brown does a great job of explaining these topics.
Like I mentioned earlier, I was also lucky enough to be able to interview Dr. Brown for this post and in addition to talking about the book and his background, he answered some questions that I had about my own techniques and he also had some great tips for things I could do to help keep my mind from wandering during some of my longer runs. I recently did a 20 mile run as part of my Honolulu Marathon training and was able to use some of his tips. I’m happy to say that they made a noticeable difference. Now that I have a better understanding of the mental processes related to running along with some personalized tips from the best running psychologist in the business, it feels like I have a secret weapon to help prepare myself better. I’m looking forward to race day.
You can pick up a copy of The Runner’s Brain on Amazon if you’re interested in reading more.