Interview with Dr. Jeff Brown (Part 2), The Runner’s Brain

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Here’s part 2 of our conversation with Dr. Jeff Brown the lead psychologist at the Boston Marathon and author of the new book The Runner’s Brain.

In this episode we ask brain questions sent in by Academy members. I know you’ll love it!

Topics covered include: how to mentally prepare for a race, overcoming the post-race blues, mental toughness, how the elites think, and dealing with start line nerves.

Q and A with Dr. Jeff Brown

What are some techniques to build mental toughness before a race? And is there anything you can do to boost mental toughness during a race, particularly if you already find your self in a low space mentally? -Ryan D.

Have a good armamentarium of all of these strategies (talked about in part 1) that you can pull on and use. These things need to be integrated into the routine. I would educate myself. Simulating where you’re going to run is so important. The Russians in the Olympics first started doing the visualization piece. They took pictures of where they were going to compete and used that for visualization of where they would actually be. If you’ve done all of your homework, you really shouldn’t run into too many surprises. All of this adds to confidence that you’ve got knowledge. Knowledge is power.

After crossing the finish line the vision I had in my mind during training is not how I felt or how it seemed. I do not have a feeling of grand achievement like I hoped. The desire to run/train fades after finishing an endurance event. I’ve heard folks often talk of the post race blues. -Gary T.

I encourage runners to definitely have a post race plan . . . like going on a short trip with your family and have some fun. With a marathon you need to wait and see how it turns out. Be surprised with the finish. It’s a kind of cognitive error that we call “the fortune telling error” -that we predict something to be in the future that is not. Often times we look at negative emotions about that event which creates anxiety and disappointment if I’m expecting something to be that extra special moment.

We have learned that the brain quits before the body does. Are there common signposts that point towards inevitably giving up? If so how do we identify them, and keep them at bay? -Colin M.

In the Runner’s Brain book we have the negative thought flip chart. That has a list of negative thoughts that runner’s commonly have and across from that is the actual positive. Going through those lists helps with what we call “restructuring”. It restructures your thinking. If you can, go for a long run and try to get yourself in that situation and then practice flipping those negative thoughts into positive.

What are some common key mentalities that elites or greats possess? -Jim K.

There is a chapter in the book called “The Minds of the Greats” full of individual personal interviews with runners who are considered icons. I think one thing that great runners have concluded and believe is that they are who they are and it can’t be challenged! Catherine Ndereba was initially considered “crazy Catherine” because she ran all the time. Then I think of how amazing that transformation is when she stuck with it, despite what people said, and became “Catherine the Great”.

What are some things other than mantras that would help create mental toughness? -Jeannette G.

Mantras are great as long as you have a healthy positive mantra. If your mantra is “If you stop your kids are going to hate you” that is not a good mantra. Choose something that reflects how you live your life not just how you run your race.

How does one develop mental toughness when dealing with injuries and set backs? -Jenny G.

I think doing other things while you’re down that are still running related . . . you can still buy shoes, you can still volunteer at a local 5k, you can still do your rehab with the same dedication that you do your running.

How do I overcome really bad start line nerves? -Colleen S.

This is where it’s fun for me to talk one on one with somebody about what it is they’re thinking. We follow a very simple ABC model. A = activating event, B = belief, C = consequence either emotional or behavioral. What are you believing about the circumstance that you’re in? That belief is what’s leading to the consequence of feeling anxiety.


For more from Dr. Brown . . .

From Our Awesome Online Community

It got real hot, real hard, and real ugly on my 20 miler this morning where the temps reached 90 degrees by 10am. But it also got DONE! I listened to the Runners Brain podcast and it’s pretty hard to pinch your own arm while running. I can’t wait for part 2. I’ve whined to Coach Angie about my lack of mental fortitude. Hoping part 2 brings even more insight and practical suggestions. I tried to imagine myself as an engine chugging up the hills today. I think I can, I think I can…I did! -Jenny from Texas

Yesterday I won my first race prize – 3rd placed lady veteran at the Glen Moray Marathon in Elgin Scotland. Starting and ending at the Glen Moray Distillery (hence the bottle of single malt I won as a prize!). It was the perfect collision of age and field size and also my favourite race ever. Thank you to the MTA member who recently posted the pic of their forearm with the list of 26 things, because it inspired me. This was my 13th marathon and my first without my iPod. Instead I reflected on 25 things I’m grateful for (mile 26 was a recap!) and 4 hours and 5 seconds alone with my thoughts was a powerful and joyous experience. Mile 14 was Angie & Trevor and MTA, mile 22 was my running community including this group, and mile 4 was for everyone in the world who gets out and runs! Thanks for everything y’all! -Elspeth from Scotland

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