Psychological strategies for runners

By David Kuneš
Psychologické strategie pro běžce

As a sports psychologist, I have an advantage over other runners that I use purposefully during races and pre-race preparation. By understanding the psychology of the runner, I can often beat my opponents with just my “head.” And lately, clients have been pulling more and more of my psychological strategies out of me. Therefore, I decided to share them with others. Hopefully, you won’t use them against me in the race 😃

Before the race

I figured that older age could be an advantage in sports. As my performance gradually deteriorates with age, I am much calmer before a race. Even though I still have the occasional chance to place well, I don’t stress about it. I don’t set goals related to ranking. Especially for longer races, I look at the average pace of the competitors in previous years. Based on that and my current form, I set my target pace, which I try to stick to. Most of the time, this causes everyone to run away from me at the start because they get carried away, but then I get the satisfaction of passing back one by one during the race.

I don’t particularly prepare for races. If it’s a long race, let’s say a hundred K, I skim through the course on the map, but I don’t study videos from previous years anymore and usually remember two or three milestones along the way. This carelessness might also be a disadvantage because sometimes I find out on the course that the refreshment stations are far apart or that I must climb another five hundred meters just before the finish. But again, I’m entirely at ease at the start. The other day I was looking at my watch just before the start, and my heart rate was around fifty beats per minute.

In the race

I am well aware of my weaknesses and strengths. I don’t give much to long monotonous flat stretches, but I can stick with runners a class better than me uphill, and I can outrun almost anyone downhill in the technical terrain. So instead of constantly competing with other runners and trying to catch up, I choose my onset time based on the segments of the trail. On the uphill, I hang onto the runner and wait. Only a few dozen meters before the top I push on, overtake my rivals, and then go all out downhill.

I’m keeping a close eye on my opponent. I notice when he’s turning and checking his distance. I’m interested in how much he changes pace. Both of these are unmistakable signs of fatigue to me. Only when I see that a runner is fatigued I attack. Even though I initially said I was trying to keep pace, that’s not the case here. Instead, when I get on, I push the steps frequency and try to run faster until my opponent disappears behind some terrain obstacles. I know that most runners will slow down once I’m out of sight. Of course, I don’t look back, even when I’m exhausted, not to give my opponents an incentive to strike back.


I’ve learned to handle crises well. I now know how a crisis comes up for me and often recognize it long before it fully manifests itself. At first, it’s just self-defeating thoughts that flash through my mind, but if I can notice them in their beginning stages, I can get rid of them. I have a few formulas in my vocabulary that, if I say them to myself or even out loud, will interrupt the flow of negative thoughts. Unfortunately, I can’t reproduce them here because my expressions are not exactly polite 😉 .

When I don’t nip a crisis in the bud, and it develops to its full potential, self-instruction no longer works for me. Fortunately, I’ve found that food is a guaranteed remedy that almost always works for me. When I start chewing something, the crisis passes, or its symptoms subdue. However, when even food doesn’t help, the last strategy is to break the rest of the route into small sections. I won’t admit to myself that I still have, say, 50 K’s to go. Instead, I can convince myself that I only have to run to the next checkpoint or refreshment station. And then to the next one.

I even used to break up long runs into several smaller .gpx files so my watch wouldn’t intimidate me with the vast distances to the finish. However, I figured out I could only break down the course in my head, even though I could see the total distance left on the display.

After the race

When I finish a longer race, 50 km or more, I give myself adequate rest. I used to try to do one race after another. Nowadays, I run about eight to ten races a year. So for a few days or even a week after a race, I just don’t run. I do hiking or relaxed cross-training activities, which I enjoy because I only have a little time for them in my training.

👉 Do you want to push your sport to the next level? Try it with a sports psychologist.