Captains’ Corner: The Power of Positive Thinking

Neil’s back with his latest Captains’ Corner – and it’s an absolutely fantastic read. We’d love to know what you think, so please leave us your feedback in the comments below. Thanks Neil!

As runners, we’re continually training our bodies, but have you ever considered training your mind too? The club’s philosophy this year is ‘Try Something Different’, so why not ‘Think Something Different’ as well?

You’ve all heard the terms ‘put your mind to it’, ‘mind over matter’ and ‘It’s all in the mind’ – but is it as simple as that? Is it really that easy just to think your way to success and positive outcomes? If only life (and running) were that straight forward, we’d all be super-positive human beings 24/7, smashing PBs every weekend! Hopefully this blog will give you some food for thought about just how powerful the mind can be and how much potential there is if you use it effectively.

For those of you who’ve unfortunately been affected by depression, anxiety or phobias you’ll be all too familiar with just how debilitating the mind can be. If it can be that crippling, imagine just how beneficial it could be if we train it to be used in a more effective and advantageous way. It is, after all, the most precious and powerful tool we will ever own. Certainly in relation to running, it’s often the thing that stops us from achieving our goals – not our fitness levels or strength. It’s widely said that the mind will give up before your body does!

I am a speech and language therapist and I do a lot of work with children and youngsters who stammer. There are a few approaches I use for this to help challenge thought processes. The main technique I use is ‘Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’. Basically, the way you think affects the way you feel. If you think negatively there’ll be a negative outcome whereas if you think positively the outcome will tend to be more favourable.

When presented with challenging situation we often have Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) ‘I hate hills’ ‘I can’t run at 8 minute mile pace’ Sound familiar? These negative thoughts (that’s the cognitive bit) have a physical impact on the body (the behavioural bit) e.g. increased heart rate, anxiety, panic and then ‘flight or fight’ kicks in. The natural reaction is to want to run away and avoid the difficult task, which we often do – this is called avoidance! Subsequently, we don’t actually get to test out our ANT – we never run hills, we never step up a group and we never change or progress. . . Alternatively, we go through with the scary activity and because we have told ourselves it will be terrible – we view it that way and never want to do it again (and never change or progress) – Either way, not a good outcome.

On the FCRC Facebook page recently, there was a perfect example of identifying and changing an ANT into a positive one, when it was announced that hills would be the focus of that night’s session:

This shows perfectly how changing the thought, changed the mind-set and behaviour and set John up for a positive experience. He’s not looked back since J

Imagine you’re scared of flying and you go on holiday with a friend who loves it – assuming you have plucked up the courage to fly and not avoid it in the first place. You sit next to each other on the plane all the way and experience the exact same thing but your ANT means you get sweaty palms at the airport, maybe start shaking, notice all the engine noises and view them suspiciously and when you get off, you’ll view it as a negative experience whereas you friend will think it was a good flight with great views of the mountains, they managed to read a bit and have a relaxing beer. The only difference being – the way your mind viewed flying initially. Try it for yourself, what you would think and therefore feel if someone suggested you step up a group or you try something you currently fear…

The trick is to notice those ANTs and challenge them by testing them out in a rational and reasoned way. I’m not in any way suggesting that if you think you’ll win the London Marathon you will, you need to ‘Brace Yourself’ and even if it doesn’t go as well as planned, take the positives forward and move onto the next challenge. Sound easy? Far from it, but this ‘Self-Talk’ really can make a difference and with regular practice can be a hugely positive strategy!

Thinking positively is something I try to do all of the time, especially when in a race when the going gets tough. If those tiny doubts start to creep in I quickly try and quash them – it would be easy to slow down or stop because it’s starting to hurt or you don’t feel right. I’ll always remember the advice once given to me by FCRC legend Mark Greenfield ‘Never EVER give up’ – simple but so effective. I still recall this when I’m suffering mid race or during a tough training session. If it can get him through the Marathon Des Sables and other crazy ultras, it can get me through a ½ marathon or brutal hill reps.

The other phrase that helps me when I’m struggling is ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional (Haruki Murakami – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – awesome book by the way if you’re interested) If you’re going for a PB, the quickest you’ve ever gone, of course it’s going to hurt – it’ll be worth it though and it will all be over very soon so make the most of it and give it your all.

This is echoed in the book ‘How Bad Do You Want It?’ By Matt Fitzgerald who talks about, what he calls ‘The Perception of Effort’ He says some people tell themselves, “This is going to hurt, but no worse than before.” Other people try to cope with the same situation through suppression, a form of denial. They tell themselves, in effect, “I really hope this doesn’t hurt as much as it did the last time.” Psychologists have generally found that, compared to suppression, acceptance reduces the unpleasantness of pain without reducing the pain itself. For this reason, it is a more effective coping skill.

It’s no coincidence that the whole business of ‘Sports Psychology’ and ‘Life Coaching’ is such an expanding field. The influence of the mind on behaviour and achievement should never be underestimated. Take cycling for example, it’s one thing having the best bike but if the person riding it isn’t 100% mentally right, chances are, they won’t win. If you asked anyone in British Cycling, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Team GB and numerous Premier League football clubs they would tell you one of the most important members of their backroom team is the psychologist, Dr Steve Peters.

Alongside this, there is currently increasing evidence about the benefits of Mindfulness, something I first became aware of and have used for a few years now. This is all about not worrying about the past or the future and just concentrating on the here and now. This is not something new, even Buddha was at it ‘Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment’ This fits perfectly with running, especially races where we put extra pressure on ourselves e.g. I have to run the next mile in a certain time to stay on track, I ran this race 30 seconds quicker last year – guilty? Just focus on your technique, posture and breathing and the rest will take care of itself.

One of my favourite Mindfulness quotes is ‘You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf’. I really like this and it promotes acceptance of the curveballs life throws at us and encourages you to focus on the positives of the given situation. This can be applied to running when things don’t seem to be going your way – just go with it. Mindfulness has progressed so much that the NHS now recognises studies which show it cuts the reoccurrence of depression by 50% – The power of the mind yet again.

Well, what do you think, so to speak? Have I changed your mind about the power of positive thinking and the impact it can have? With Salisbury & Eastleigh coming up, give it a go, think positively and reap the rewards. Go on – make yourself truly #unstoppable!



If you want to find out more, check out these books:

‘Wherever You Go, There You Are’ – Jon Kabat-Zinn

‘Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway – Susan Jeffers

‘The Chimp Paradox – Dr Steve Peters

Featured Image by Damian Gadal. Changes have been made under Creative Commons.

9 thoughts on “Captains’ Corner: The Power of Positive Thinking

  1. Great read Neil and thanks for the mention although the mantra was borrowed but all the same a great one to keep repeating when going through the tough times.

  2. If I start to feel negative on a run I sing ( in my head!!) something along the lines of “I feel good … I know that I would now….” It really does help even if Im not sure of the words

  3. Excellent Neil. Positive thinking gets me there every time, apart from when my knees give up.

  4. Thought provoking piece, thank you Neil, it really does make sense, must adopt this more positive approach in all aspects of my life. At 66 still learning.

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