Running is a Mind Sport

Train your mind in order to run a good race.

This is according to avid marathoner and ultra runner, David Chung, 45, who is a certified trainer in mindfulness with Potential Project – the leading global provider of organisational effectiveness programmes based on mindfulness to help organisations achieve strategic objectives by enhancing performance, creativity and resilience.

David has also recently joined Coached too, as an official Mind Coach. Coached is a boutique fitness company in Singapore and was founded by former New Zealand triathlete, Ben Pulham, to help athletes become more effective.

David is a Mind Coach with Coached. [Photo Credit: deorunner]

David Chung has recently joined  Coached, as a Mind Coach.
[Photo Credit: deorunner]

Few athletes pay attention to their minds

Says David, “Most athletes know that they need to train their bodies to get fitter and achieve new goals but few pay attention to what goes in in their minds and whether that is helping them or hindering them. That’s where mindfulness comes in.”

He added, “Mindfulness is about our ability to manage our attention and focus, and to become more aware of ourselves as well as what is going in around us. To do that means learning to be present. It leads to all kinds of benefits and insights; clarity of thought, concentration, self awareness and self regulation, resilience, compassion and more. I think these can be incredibly helpful to athletes not only to help them reach their athletic goals but also in their work and personal lives.”

A strong mind means a clear mind

Having a strong mind also means having a clear mind, according to David. He added, “A clear mind is one that is aware of body, thoughts and emotions and able to self regulate – that is, being able to place your focus where you want it to be – and to choose your response rather than simply reacting. For example have you set the right goals in the first place? What is your motivation behind that goal and is it enough to see you through the weeks of training needed to reach your goal? How will you respond to setbacks along the way?”

A strong mind means having a clear mind for runners.

A strong mind means having a clear mind for runners.

David added that he likens a typical runner’s mind to a “monkey.” He said, “Like a monkey, our mind has a natural tendency to wander and get distracted, swinging from thought to thought in a haphazard way. As the ex Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, once said, The problem is to keep the monkey mind from running off into all kinds of thoughts.”

Explained David, “When left to its own devices, our mind is highly habitual and likes to run on ‘autopilot.’ Our brains are naturally programmed to react on impulse – to be impatient, to judge, to have strong biases and so on. This has helped the human species to survive over thousands of years. But we have evolved and such impulse behaviour is usually not very helpful to an athlete training for an endurance race in the 21st century. What would be helpful, is the ability to be focused and aware, and understand the nature of our mind.”

Mindfulness has helped David to enjoy his running

In terms of his own running passions, David, who has completed more than 17 marathons and 15 ultra marathons so far, says that mindfulness has given him the perspective to prioritise between short and long term running goals and to accept his decisions.

For example, David served as a pacer for the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015 and leads public runs organised by Running Department, a local running club.

And David explained, “Last year I decided to DNF (did not finish) in the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji due to Iliotibial Band Syndrome even though I had already covered 75 per cent of the distance, and it would set back my dream of reaching the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc by a year. However that decision saved my legs and allowed me to fulfil my Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore pacer commitments, so I have no regrets.”

He added, “Mindfulness has also helped me to really enjoy running, to enjoy the journey and focus on one run at a time regardless of the outcome. I have learnt to look for and find satisfaction and happiness from within myself. I like to think that mindfulness has given me a mindset that is open to what is possible without being in denial of what is.”

Mindset can make or break a race

A runner's mindset can make or break them in a race.

A runner’s mindset can make or break them in a race.

In fact David also points out that your mindset can make or break you in a race. He says, “Your condition leading up to the race depends on your mindset. Did you have the motivation and discipline to follow up on your training plan? What kind of mental stress have you been through and how is this setting you up for the race?”

Concentration to execute your race strategy also affects your performance in a race and whether you are able to complete it. Says David, “Soh Rui Yong’s pacing at the 2015 South East Asia Games and the 2016 Chicago Marathon comes to mind. For me, when it started pouring in the middle of The North Face 100 Singapore 2013, I could have let my mind dwell on how heavy my waterlogged shoes and hydration pack felt and start worrying about chafing and other problems in the remaining 40km, but instead I felt grateful that the rain helped to cool my body down and kept me alert in the middle of the night. So I remember it added a spring in my step.”

When the going gets tough in a race, David adds that two strategies may help runners. He says, “When we are running low on fuel and physical fatigue sets in, keeping our minds clear enough to constantly assess, decide and adapt to our race situation can be a big challenge.”

“So if you give your mind something to focus on – besides the pain and discomfort at say the 37km mark of the marathon – focus your breath and synchronise it to your steps, or pedal or stroke in a triathlon, it pulls your mind away from anxiety or negative trains of thought and back to the present moment, where you can put the next tip into use,” continues David.

When you run a race, control what you can control, and don't worry about the things you can't.

When you run a race, control what you can control, and don’t worry about the things you can’t.

He added “Also you can ask yourself, what’s within my control? For example, as the marathon runners merge with the 10km runners over the last few kilometres of their races, slower runners don’t always keep left and there is a lot of congestion. That is out of my control. However I don’t need to lose my cool or patience. I can give a friendly shout as I overtake, on your right! I’ve known about this and have reserved some energy to help me weave in and out of the crowd – this is within my control.”

DNF does not mean failure

David also points out that DNF does not mean failure – it all depends on your mindset. He explained, “Even if you did not achieve a personal best or a time goal, or if you had to DNF, is it really a failure? As the saying goes, it’s only a failure if you did not learn something from it.”

He added, “There are many ways that our mind can get in the way and be an obstacle when a runner DNFs a race. For example, were their goals realistic in the first place? Did they have the discipline to train for it and meet their goals? Were they hampered by self doubt or excuses, or did they have a fixed idea of what success and failure looks like?”

What is your mindset when you are racing?

Your mindset is very important,  when you are racing.

Why injured runners may choose not to quit in a race

On the other hand, runners choose not to give up or quit even if they may be injured at a race – and David sums this up under two types of mindsets. He says, “When runners refuse to quit in a race it’s a manifestation of great determination and will power – which is basically strong focus. Their motivations – conscious and subconscious – is fully aligned and they are aware of their physical condition and they have made a calculated decision to push on. At the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji, a friend of mine struggled with very bad cramps and muscle fatigue.  However he was experienced enough to know that it was nothing serious – just the pain that comes with ultra running – and he had nothing to lose, so he took things one step at a time and finished the 100 Miles.”

David adds, “However there are also runners who refuse to quit because they get carried away by bravado – that is, pushing through injury and fatigue to finish a ‘B’ or lower priority race, and jeopardise their ‘A’ race. Or it could be because they ignore the reality of a situation – a friend of mine arrived in Singapore from the UK and ignored our heat and humidity, raced at his usual UK pace… and crossed the finish line straight into the medical tent and an IV drip!”

As such it is important for runners and triathletes to know when to call it quits and when to push on even if the mind wants to stop. Says David, “There is a fine line between the two. That’s why it is helpful to be mindful to tell the difference. The important thing is to realise why you are refusing to quit and whether it is worth trying to psyche yourself up or whether it is wiser to bail out.”

Know when to push on and when to call it quits.

Know when to push on and when to call it quits.

He added “A race is a series of decision points, prioritisation and adaptation. So constantly tune into the feedback from your body, mind and environment, evaluate the situation and weigh your options. Then choose your response and take action.”

Possible to train and strengthen the mind

It is also possible to train and strengthen the mind, according to David. He says, “Not too long ago we used to believe that our brain was more or less fully formed by the time we reach adulthood and that we were set in our ways by then. The good news is that since then, scientists have found that our brains remain plastic and malleable throughout our lives and that it’s not so static after all.”

He added, “So we can train ourselves to become more mindful. We can undo bad habits and mindsets that are not helpful and rewire our brains with new habits and positive behaviours that we aspire to.”

It is possible to train your mind to become a stronger athlete.

It is possible to train your mind to become a stronger athlete.

In fact David likens training the mind, to training the body in preparation for a race. He says, “Our body won’t be able to hold good form and posture and run lightly with a good cadence if we have not been training that way or practising running drills. We won’t be able to hit a new personal best goal pace unless we train towards it.”

He adds, “Likewise if we want to have clear focus and awareness on race day, then we need to train and condition our mind outside of racing. For me, ongoing mindfulness training is the daily workout for my mind. Then in the actual race, my mind is primed to respond and I can then call on the self awareness and self regulation that I need.”

To find out more about mindfulness, you can contact David at

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