Mental Road Blocks and How to Overcome Them

Mind Over Muscle: Staying On Course One Step at at Time

BY: Sara Rothberger, M.S., CHC 

 PICTURE THIS. You’re in the middle of the marathon you’ve been training for since temperatures were below freezing. It’s raining, there’s a strong headwind, you’re soaked, your legs feel like cinder blocks, and become heavier with each step. You want nothing more than to stop right there at mile 12 and just sit down. At this point you’re left with a choice: give in to your body’s unrelenting attempts to quit or power through and cross the finish. What’s it going to be?

For many of us, running is much more of a mental than physical battle. Whether you’re taking your first steps toward adopting a healthier and more active lifestyle or are training for your 50th marathon, training the mind is as equally as important as the muscles.  Developing the psychological skills to fight through seemingly insurmountable walls will not only improve your running but also transfer to other areas in your life. A few of the common road blocks runners experience include negative self-talk, stringent goals, and doubt. Let’s dive a bit deeper into each of these.

 Roadblock 1: Negative Self-Talk

       We all have an internal mental dialogue, which Murphy (2005) refers to as self-talk. This internal stream of consciousness can be either positive or negative in nature, and it takes a large effort on our part to control. Dr. Brandonn S. Harris, assistant professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology at Georgia Southern University, indicated, “Over 70% of our self-talk is negative. The ability to change these negative thoughts into more positive ones is what separates the good athletes from the great.” Harris went on to explain that the first step in reframing these thoughts is making ourselves aware of them, as self-awareness is the foundation of changing behavior. “Once we become aware of the source of the negative thought, we can then work to reframe our thought processes to reflect more positive thoughts as opposed to negative ones,” Harris said. 

 Overcome It. A common technique for defeating negative self-talk is thought stopping. You have the ability to consciously control the occurrence of your thoughts! The mind is a powerful tool when used correctly. Thought-stopping is a process in which every time a negative, self-demeaning thought pops up, you consciously stop it and immediately replace it with a more positive thought. For instance, when your legs start to feel tired near the end of a long run, instead of giving in to the physical fatigue, mentally say to yourself “I am so strong.” It’s amazing how the leg muscles will comply accordingly! Additionally, it will help to make the positive thought something personally meaningful to you. This will increase the chances for it to stick in your brain and beat out any negative thoughts the next time they threaten to knock you down.

Here are a few simple tips to keep in mind for changing those negative thought monsters into positive rays of sunshine:

From Weinberg & Gould (2011)

 Roadblock 2: Stringent Goals

              Runners are typically goal-oriented individuals. We choose certain races, set specific finish times, and chase PRs for days, months, and even years! Many of these goals focus solely on the outcome which can cause disappointment and self-doubt if the desired outcome is not achieved. While setting outcome goals is a positive behavior for continuing to improve running abilities, having secondary goals that are not related to performance can help to eliminate some of this self-imposed mental pressure.  For instance, try to plan for one race a year that is “just for fun,” or shake things up and race a new distance (hello, instant PR!). If you feel you’re getting burned out from your regular routine, leave the GPS watch at home or run your regular route in the opposite direction. Change is the spice of life!

 Go for the GOAL. In The Sport Psych Handbook, authored by Shane Murphy (2005), goal setting helps athletes identify what can be considered either successes or failures through achievement goals. Feeling competent in one’s ability to reach a certain goal, like earning that coveted Boston Qualifying (BQ) time, increases self-confidence and overall enjoyment of the sport. According to Murphy (2005), there are a few certain elements that should be taken into consideration when setting goals:



Roadblock 3: Doubt

              Directly related to our goal-setting pursuits are our beliefs of being confident and competent in successfully achieving these desired outcomes. This is referred to as our self-efficacy for the task at hand. It is not uncommon for runners to experience feelings if doubt in their abilities to run a new distance or achieve an ambitious finish time. If our level of self-efficacy is low, we will be less likely to take the necessary actions or risks to reach the goals we set.

 Confidence is Key. Believe you can, and you will. This mentality is simple and surprisingly effective. In addition to positive self-talk, other means for building a sense of running efficaciousness include successful past performances, vicarious experiences, and physiological markers. We can look back to previous training runs or races that have gone particularly well in efforts to see our progress and boost confidence in reaching a new goal. Seeing the successes of others is also motivating for our own running endeavors, as our inner competitive drive to better ourselves is sparked when we see our friends or competitors triumph. Think, “If she can run this hilly race course and PR, I can too!” From a physiological standpoint, training adaptations take place over time. Stick with your training plan, eat well, sleep adequately, take rest days, and you’ll see improvements in your running abilities thereby boosting your confidence. Giving yourself a break is also necessary at times; not every run or race is going to go as planned. When we have days that aren’t our best, accept it and move on. Remember you’re better than you were yesterday, but not as good as you’ll be tomorrow! Run your own race, run with your heart, and remember the reasons why you embarked on this journey to begin with.

 It’s in Your Hands Now           

     The use of positive self-talk, goal setting, and building self-efficacy can be very effective with consistent practice. An important aspect to keep in mind is that each of these tools needs to be suited to the wants and needs of each individual to produce the best results. Work to strengthen the mind along with your body, and you’ll be able to accomplish more than you ever imagined. Keep fighting through those walls you don’t think you can fight through, and you’ll become a stronger, healthier, you one step (or stride) at a time.  

 Sara Rothberger is a doctoral student studying Sport and Exercise Psychology at UNCG, a Fleet Feet employee and No Boundaries coach, and an avid marathon runner.


Murphy, S. (2005). The sport psych handbook.  Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (5th ed.) Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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