A few weeks ago, I posted about the physical benefits of long runs, even for folks who race shorter distances like 5K or 10K or whose main sport isn't even running.
We all know that weekly or bi-weekly long runs (whatever long means to you at a given time) make us stronger and help us develop physical endurance. Long runs do a lot more for us than that, though! Distance running has a huge mental component to it, and just like our bones, muscles, and cardiovascular systems, our minds need consistent, progressive training to help us be the best runners we can be. In terms of my mental game, here's what long runs have given me:
Mental toughness. To quote Tim Noakes: “In each race, a point is reached at which it becomes necessary to face the mental challenges posed by self-talk and to develop mental strategies to cope, regardless of whether you are finishing first or last in the race.” And Jacqueline Gareau (1980 Boston Marathon champ), “The body does not want you to do this. As you run, it tells you to stop but the mind must be strong. You always go too far for your body. You must handle the pain with strategy.” Long runs (and other types of runs, too) give me the opportunity to work out and practice my own strategies for how I'll convince myself to keep running when the only thing I want in the whole world is to stop.
Focus & concentration. Unfortunately, running is not a three-ring circus all the time. For me, this isn't an issue in a 5K or 10K because it's over too fast. Even with a half marathon, starting line adrenaline is usually enough to get me to mile seven or so, and the finish line adrenaline sets in not too long after that. Longer runs than that can turn into a bit of a slog, though. Once the starting line adrenaline starts to wear off and the monotony starts to set in, it's tempting to let your mind wander and dissociate from your body. (I have recently learned that some people actively work at doing this in order to minimize the physical discomfort of distance running. I won't pretend to understand this.) When my focus starts to drift, my form, stride, breathing,etc. immediately start to suffer. For me, keeping those things solid requires serious concentration. Just like maintaining a challenging pace for a long time, learning to stay mentally focused on your body and the details of your running for multiple hours is hard work, and takes practice and experience to develop.
Body experience. One of the most fascinating things to me about running is the different ways that your body responds after running for certain amounts of time, especially as you reach multiple hours. Long runs give you the chance to feel what your body does after one, one and a half, two-plus hours of running so that when you reach those points in your race, you aren't surprised. I've written before about how expectations are everything, and knowing what to expect in terms of your body's responses makes all the difference in the world.
Confidence. When I was in high school, the thought of running double-digit miles was freaking INSANE to me. How did people do that? And WHY would people do that? To me, it was an absolutely insurmountable feat. I actually think I probably did have the endurance then to run 10 miles if I had to (though probably not with any real speed), but I didn't believe that I could. Several years later when I ran my first half-marathon, I was probably actually in worse shape than I had been in high school, but thanks to several ten mile training runs (the longest I did), I went into the race with the confidence that I could finish (which was my only goal). After ten miles, three more seemed like nothing. (Alright; in the actual race, it seemed a lot less like nothing, but I never felt as if I couldn't finish.)
I realized after writing these down that I've pretty much stuck to things that are relevant to racing & trying to reach a certain goal, because that's my motivation for running. People run for all sorts of other reasons, though, which may give rise to completely different mental benefits.