There are days when you lace up, head out and just love running. Everything feels amazing, your legs are light and bouncy, you’re flying up hills and your mile splits are definitely Insta-worthy.
Other days? Not so much. Not every run is going to be PR-setting amazing. But calling it quits isn’t an option—you’ve got a big race coming up, after all—so it’s time to call in the big guns and play a few mind games to distract you to make each mile a little less daunting. Here’s your guide about when, where and how to play.
When it’s OK to Zone OUT
1. Long Runs on the Treadmill
The Count Your Steps Game: “Sync your steps to a count,” says three-time ultramarathoner, three-time marathoner and three-time Ironman Chris Mosier. “One-two-three-four, two-two-three-four, and so on. Count up until you get to 10, then repeat. You can also count backwards from 100, which will force you to pay a little more attention to the task and a little less attention to the fact that you’re on your 42nd loop of the little track on the screen. Counting will also help you stay in a rhythm.”
The Script-Writer Game: “Use your peripheral vision to watch other people at the gym engaging with one another, and make up hilarious dialogues they might be having,” says running coach, licensed massage therapist and 3:17 marathoner Isang Smith. Even better: Imagine how their voices sound.
2. Long Runs Outside
The Appreciate Your Surroundings Game: “Look at everything like it’s the first time you’ve seen it or like it’s the last time you’ll see it,” says Mosier. “Pay attention to the way leaves crunch underneath your feet (fall is coming!), notice where two paths cross or acknowledge how the sun shines on a tree trunk. At the end of your run, try to recall three really great moments you noticed while running, and store them in your memory bank as inspiration for the next time you’re iffy about getting out there and getting a run done.”
The Celebrity Lookalike Game: “Watch runners approach and pick a celebrity he or she looks like,” says Mary Arnold, field marketing manager for Running Specialty Group and 50-plus marathoner and ultramarathoner finisher. “One morning, I was convinced the guy running laps around the Central Park Reservoir looked exactly like Ashton Kutcher. Turns out, it was!”3
The Puppy Scouting Game: “Because when all else fails—look around for puppies,” says Mosier.
3. Track Workouts
The Body Part Game (it’s not dirty, we swear): “There’s not usually time to get bored during track workouts because you’re doing shorter segments,” says Jonathan Cane, exercise physiologist and head coach and co-founder of City Coach Multisport in NYC. “But they hurt because you’re working hard. So for each segment, focus on one particular body part or technique. For instance, on one 400m repeat, think about nothing but making sure your hands are where they should be. On the next one, focus on your knee lift or getting your heels up toward your butt. When your attention is on one particular aspect, you’re less likely to be thinking, ‘Oh crap, this hurts!’”
The Final Push Game: “I like to put a water bottle just by the ‘10m to go’ mark for my repeats,” says Arnold. “Once I see my water bottle come into view, I know I’m almost there and I push it accordingly.”
When to Zone IN
1. Running on the Street or in a Park: “No games in the concrete jungle streets,” says Smith. “Be fully focused on cars, pedestrians and dodging piles of dog poo.”
2. Trail Runs: “Trail runs force you to focus,” says Cane. “If you’re not attentive to the terrain, you’re likely to be face-down on it!”
Remember, there’s no shame in playing a mind trick game. “Even the most focused and disciplined runner will zone out at times,” says Cane. Just don’t zone out so much you’re ignoring your body’s cues. “Listen to your body and the message it’s sending. Make sure you’re thinking of running as something you want to do, not something you dread. Embrace it and remember how lucky you are to be out there,” Cane says.