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Imagination: Your secret weapon for when running gets too hard

I imagine Mary Poppins floating effortlessly through the air when I need a boost

Actor Julie Andrews in a scene from Mary Poppins. Photograph: Donaldson Collection/Getty

What do you do when you are feeling sluggish on a run? Do you drive your legs harder, grit your teeth and dig deep? Maybe you prefer to mutter motivational quotes hoping for inspiration? Or do you slow down, focus on your breath and search for energy that way? We all have different tactics to help us overcome these running slumps. You can probably guess that my approach has something to do with running form and technique.

It does, but not in the way you might expect.

Too tired to think

I aspire to feeling light, tall, relaxed and comfortable when I run. I want to float along effortlessly rather than plod heavily. But like most other people, I struggle to focus on technique cues when I am tired. It is too much like hard work. So instead, I trick myself into feeling better by using my imagination. If I told you I channel my inner Mary Poppins when I need a running boost, would you consider me totally mad? Think about it, how effortless does she look as she floats along behind her open umbrella carried by the wind across the London sky? Wouldn’t it be great if running felt that free?

Find your wings

When we are in need of a dose of power or positivity, images are much easier to recall and apply than a series of complicated body positions. Mary Poppins might not be the image for you, but there are plenty other images you can use that will pull you up out of your running slump. Asking my running community about what goes on in their heads, I am delighted to find I’m not alone. There are runners who transform into birds when they need wings, others who have imaginary helium balloons attached to them and some who go parasailing or become unicyclists or hot air balloon enthusiasts. Some runners like to imagine they are a famous person they know who always runs effortlessly. Whatever image you use is up to you. The sensation it gives – light, forward, upward and relaxed – is what we are after.

Imagine a different world

Not only can you pretend to be someone else, but you could try experimenting with changing your surroundings. You might be on a quiet local path but can you picture crowds on the sidelines encouraging you along? Is that person walking towards you in the distance someone you know? Can you hear them cheering you on. Try putting yourself in your own shoes but on a previous run where you felt fabulous. Replay that run in your mind. Our head can take us anywhere. Yes, it will be hard to stay focused on it for long, but if you try even for a minute to let your imagination lead you, it will become easier for you to call upon these mental movies and images when you need them most.

Music might help

Initially you might find it helpful to have a soundtrack to your short movie. While I don’t encourage running to music all the time, it can be helpful as a focus rather than just a distraction. Certain songs can pull you into a mood, remind you of a particular run you enjoyed or help you step into your running character. My emergency marathon music (which I turn on at about mile 22) is indeed a few songs from Mary Poppins. Strange, but it works. It lifts me up, helps me smile and carries me along.

You make the rules

Imagery doesn’t always have to be about helping you run with better form. In fact, sometimes a distraction might be just what we need. Remember those zombie running apps that told stories about you being chased by a zombie? They certainly spur you on. Or how about stepping back in time. The most fun image I recently heard was of a runner turning on classical music and imagining she was dressed in full princess ballgown attire, racing to get to the ball on time. Even if your prince charming isn’t waiting at the end of your run, that little distraction might help move you forward.

Keep on daydreaming

Probably the simplest image to engage is a happier and more relaxed version of yourself. If you can’t engage a fake smile to trick yourself into feeling better, try to bring your attention back to a day where you did feel great running. Replay that movie in your head and you might just feel like you are there. This can help move you away from your current mindset. If all this sounds like a struggle, take comfort in the fact that however you are feeling at one point in a run, it will feel different again in five minutes. Your mind will wander, your pace may change, but consider having a few reserve “characters” or “movie sets” you can step into when you need a mini break from your reality.

Save your energy

When your legs (and the rest of your body) have done their bit, try to remember that your head is always there to help you. We can use images to calm, motivate or inspire us. We are able for a lot more than we think. But we do need to train our heads to be able to perform when we need it most. On your next run, experiment with the images I’ve mentioned above or – even better – find your own version of Mary Poppins. We could all do with an inner cheerleader who can carry us along when we need a break – the first step is to work out what they look like to you. Once you can picture them, then you can put them to work. 

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Best of luck! 

Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with Her book Get Running, published by Gill Books, is out now