How Does Your Mental State Affect Your Running?

Ever wonder if there is real evidence that your mental state has a direct impact on your race performance? A peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in January 2009 demonstrates that being mentally fatigued will decrease your endurance performance.



Researchers Marcora, Staiano, and Manning recruited 16 healthy and aerobically fit participants to test whether mental fatigue would impair endurance performance. The subjects performed two trials of cycling at 80% of their maximum effort until exhaustion. The mentally fatiguing trial included a stressful 90-minute computerized test directly before the cycling performance test and the control trial included watching a 90-minute documentary. During the cycling trial, physiological data was also collected such as amount of oxygen consumed, heart rate, breathing rate, etc.


  • The control group who were not mentally fatigued cycled an average of 2 minutes longer the mentally fatiguing trial. (~12.5 minutes vs. ~10.6 minutes, respectively)
  • The control group reported less perceived effort in their trial despite preforming longer!
  • There were no significant differences between trials physiologically except heart rate was higher in the control group. This makes sense because they cycled longer and means that the performance was solely based on the mental state.

Who does this apply to?

Well, any runner who is trying to optimize his or her race or workout performances!
Couple of practical scenarios: 

The runner who does their important workouts after work.

If you’re mentally exhausted from work, you may want to consider doing your important workout in the morning. If you aren’t a morning runner consider adjusting the schedule of your day to have you most challenging assignments in the morning, furthest from your evening workout and leaving some light work for the afternoon. If you’re whole day will be mentally stressful, consider changing your workout day to a less stressful day of the week.

The runner who checks their work on their weekends.

Refrain from checking your email the morning of your race or really checking anything that may stress you out. Maybe that’s CNN, Fox News, or Facebook.

The runner who has young kids on race morning.

Young kids (or even pets) can, at times, be stressful no matter how much you love them. Consider hiring a baby sitter the evening before or morning of your race.

The runner who is trying to set an important PR, qualifying time, or even win.

If able, take a few vacation days leading up to the race. You may only get the chance to race Boston once. Why let stress ruin it!

 Other tidbits

 Although I thought the researchers did a good job in their design— they recruited enough participants; they included females (often females get neglected in exercise science studies!); trials were blinded to the subjects; the order of the trials were random and counterbalanced; and they included a questionnaire that showed the subjects were actually mentally drained— I wish they included a third trial in which mood was positively boosted. This could have been watching an exciting or positive 90-minute movie. I suspect they would see that the cyclists would perform longer on their ride than the control and mentally fatiguing trials. Although I can’t find any research right now that supports this, I think it’s safe to try it.

Also, I wanted to give credit to one of my students who made me aware of this study. Thank you, Chris!

Bottom line:

If possible, adjust your schedule and your life to avoid stress leading up to race day! This study shows about a 2-minute difference in performance when the trial lasted only 10-12 minutes!

What stresses do you face leading up to your race? How do you minimize those?

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