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Trinity College Dublin

Dublin University Harriers and Athletic Club

Training the Mind

From Lore of Running, by Tim Noakes

"That the mental is destined to play an even more important part in sport that ever before is my firm conviction. Physcial attributes are essential to success in sport but their full use in exercise can be obtained only by the correct mental and physical control."

[Jack Lovelock 1984]

"Mind is everything: muscles - pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind."

[Paavo Nurmi 1968]

"Together Cerruty and Elliot have brought athletics to the threshold of a new era. They have proved conclusively that not only the body but also the mind must be conquered."

[Derek Ibbotson 1960]

"A man runs with his mind and emotions, just as much as with his legs and circulatory system. The mental-emotional aspects of training should be just as carefully planned as the physical aspects."

[Kenneth Doherty 1964]

"If you want to be a champion, you will have to win every race in your mind 100 times before you win it in real life that last time."

[Marti Liquori & John Parker 1980]

"The difference between my world record and many world class runners is mental fortitude. I ran believing in mind over matter."

[Derek Clayton 1980]


Despite all I have written about preparing the body for running, I suspect that the preparation of the mind is the more important factor determining running success.

"We share a place where no man had yet ventured - secure for all time, however fast men might run miles in the future. We had done it where we wanted, when we wanted, how we wanted... In the wonderful joy, my pain was forgotten."

The words are, of course, those of Roger Bannister, the man who as a medical student, training as little as 1 hour a day during his lunch hour, was the first to run the mile in under 4 minutes.

Latterly, it has become popular to conclude that Bannister's knowledge of medicine and of exercise physiology explained why he and not other, possibly more gifted, runners like Arne Anderson, Gunder Haegg, Wes Santee or John Landy had been the first to break that mystical 4-minute barrier. This is an assumption that we have, to our detriment, been making far too long.

Bannister himself would never have considered that his scientific knowledge gave him any sort of advantage. He saw that his medical training really taught him to observe and understand himself better:

"A medical training aims at increasing the power of careful observation and logical deduction. Because understanding other people starts from understanding ourselves, the self-analysis which sport entails can be very useful to the medical student".

[Bannister 1955]

What, then, was Bannister's secret? I think success came first to him because he, better than anyone, perceived that the battle for the 4-minute mile was fought in the mind, not in the body. Gunder Haegg, the man who in 1945 came within 1.3 seconds of breaking the 4-minute mile, wrote this about 1 month before Bannister's great race:

"I think Bannister is the man to beat 4 minutes. He uses his brains as much as his legs. I've always thought the 4-minute mile more of a psychological problem than a test of physical endurance".

Bannister's genius told him what was most important - the conditioning of the mind until it would "release in 4 short minutes the energy I usually spend in half an hour's training".

In his preparation Bannister reduced the race to its simplest common denominator - 400m in 60 seconds or multiples thereof. He trained until running 60 seconds a lap, 24km/hr, became automatic.

"In this way a singleness of drive could be achieved, leaving my mind free from the task of directing operations so that it could fix itself on the great objective ahead".

And when he achieved that great objective at Oxford's Iffley Road track on May 6 1954, Bannister's unique experience allowed him to write one of the most significant paragraphs in the running literature:

"Though physiology may indicate respiratory and cardiovascular limits to muscular effort, psychological and other factors beyond the ken of physiology set the razor's edge of defeat or victory and determine how closely the athlete approaches the absolute limits of performance"

[Bannister 1956]

That few runners or their coaches have ever grasped the implications of what Roger Bannister said is shown by an almost total dearth of material about the mental side of training and competition. To correct this, we will compare Roger Bannister's intuitive approach to mental preparation for racing with the approaches suggested in other modern books.

To be continued!