(From my Hypnosis For Running Blog)

We use our legs to run, don’t we? As a result, surely we just need to run and keep on running, as Forrest Gump would say. Isn’t this the case?

Though these days marathon running is my sport, I have played football to a fairly high standard and various sports throughout my life and I think just about everyone who has ever participated in any kind of sport can remember when our state of mind interfered with a good performance.

I am going to add here that when I refer to the ‘mind’ I am speaking of mind and body as one. The literature and evidence from the fields of psychology, neuroscience and psychosomatic medicine dispute the concept of dualism, that of the mind being distinct to the brain.  Throughout this article, the mind of the runner is therefore considered and thought of as part of the mind-body being one.

Of course, it is not just running and endurance performance either, many men encounter anxiety with sexual situations which affects their ability, for others similar anxiety may have affected performance in an exam or test of some kind.

In sports, it might occur in an important competition, we all saw how Rory McIlroy lost his healthy lead in Augusta before recovering mentally and showing some amazing resilience to go on and win the US Masters golf major in tremendous style a few months later. We have seen how tennis players struggle with those important points in big championships and how our football teams get affected by the crowd when they play away from home.

For us marathon runners, it might affect our performance in races as well as in our important preparation. So of course, us runners use use more than just our legs.

There is a great deal of research evidence that supports the view that psychological factors effect and influence the performance of an endurance runner. (1-5)

I think everyone knows these days that our state of mind affects how we perform, yet it seems quite common for individuals to not understand how to get in control of their own mentality and mind, especially when it comes to sports performance.

In my upcoming book on the subject, I have been (and shall be) writing a lot about how to use your mind, and how to use hypnosis for running; hypnotherapy principles for enhancing running ability and ensuring the mind of a runner is as equipped and trained for the endurance running event as the body is with all those miles under the belt.

Within the research that I have been conducting as I have put this article together, it is amazing to read accounts of athletes and sports people as to the reasons behind the wide variation in their sporting performance and results. Very, very few (top elite people) actually perform with major consistency. I know within my own running circles, there are many, many anecdotal observations that people offer up regarding their endurance and running performance.

Injuries and health issues aside,  the vast majority of the accounts that I have encountered in my consulting rooms, or on a personal level at races and events, suggest that most runners believe their own differences in performance are due to parallel variations in their state of mind. Many runners I encounter tend to suggest that it is 50/50 physical and mental when it comes to their sporting performance and though this is only subjective evidence based on my limited encountering of runners, I would say that it is a very low percentage (3-10% max) of training time that is spent on the psychological skills and mental abilities required for peak performance.

It is a rare occurrence to encounter an athlete or sports person who spends a great deal of time and effort on their psychological skills and mental side of training.  Let’s make this clear – the psychological side of training is just as important as anything else when it comes to endurance performance. The athletes at the very top of their game are the ones who know this more than the rest and that is why they are there.

If we take a look at the very famous Roger Bannister, cited here, there and everywhere due to his achievement of being the first man to run the four minute mile. On the 6th May 1954 he ran the mile in 3 minutes and fifty nine seconds. Many runners had got close to that time, but many questioned whether it was actually possible.

Swedish runner Gunder Hågg had run 4:01.4 and his fellow runner Arne Anderson had run 4:01.6. Their countryman and sports psychologist of the time (when Hågg had held world records at one mile, two mile, three mile, 1500m, 3000m and 5000m, Dr Lars-Eric Unestahl, had openly stated that perhaps Hågg and other runners were convinced that the four minute mile was impossible and therefore there was a mental barrier stopping runners achieving it.

Bannister was confident it could be done and even later wrote: “Though physiology may indicate respiratory and circulatory 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 close an athlete approaches the absolute limits of performance.

Once Bannister had run the sub-four minute mile, many others followed in rapid succession and it made sure that runners and other athletes started to look at their psychology as an important way of becoming a better runner or athlete.

Of the research and studies available to us today, we can learn a great deal about the importance of psychological factors when it comes to running.

Morgan and Costill and Morgan and Pollock looked at psychological characterisitcs of runners and while they did tend to show that runners tended to have notably lower anxiety levels than other people, it was unclear as to whether that was due to being a runner (there is evidence to suggest running is good for mental health). Elite marathon runners have been shown in these studies to have what is termed the “iceberg” profile of a mood state, and earlier studies suggested that these runners tended to lean more towards introvert than extrovert, despite some exceptions and evidence to suggest extroverts can actually perceive high intensity exertion as less effortful.

The studies did show that elite runners did all tend to experience lower than average levels of depression, anxiety, anger and confusion and so I think it is safe to say that if you look after your general levels of mental health, you’ll be well-equipped to run well.

Studies have shown that many runners use dissociative cognitive strategies to aid them when running, and these dissociative strategies helps reduce discomfort and distress when running. This sort of strategy has also been shown to potentially contribute to injury and illness.

It tends to therefore make sense to use the sorts of strategies used by many elite athletes – an associative cognitive strategy. This helps them check in with their body and keep a record of how they and respond accordingly.

Elite runners do tend to use both strategies when required, especially when racing.

What about hypnosis then?

I can remember when Paul McKenna was working with the former Boxing Champion Nigel Benn and several of his opponents claimed this was unfair. If a runner was given drugs to overcome pain so that they could compete, aside from being dangerous, many would deem this inappropriate, and so there is a similar argument that hypnosis ought not be used for the same purpose.

It must be said, that across the board with hypnosis research into sporting performance, it has been difficult to research the differences between suggestion and hypnosis and to isolate hypnosis completely in the studies has been challenging.

Studies throughout the decades have shown that suggestion can enhance muscular strength just as well as hypnosis, and Barber (1966) found that using hypnosis without suggestions for improved performance did not improve muscle strength.

Additionally, Barber showed that motivational suggestions alone could be used as a means of building muscular strength, and so hypnosis was again shown to be tough to prove effective in this regard.

Much research has gone on since then and debate continues, but strength is not really the domain of us runners, so I am not going to discuss it in any more great detail, because there is evidence that puts a smile on the hypnosis professionals face.

A summary of findings stated in reviews by Morgan (1972, 1980, 1985, 1993, 1996) and more recently by Williamson (2001) indicate the following can be said about the use of hypnosis for improving our running:

– Case studies involving efforts to enhance athletic performance using hypnosis have been universally successful. Though how many hypnotherapists or journal articles are going to be written about failures, right?

– Perception of effort during exercise can be systematically increased and decreased with hypnotic suggestion even if the actual work-load is kept at the same level.

– Suggestions given in hypnosis when not exercising can influence heart rate, respiratory rate, oxygen uptake, blood flow and carbon dioxide production.

Heck, there is a body of evidence to support the use of hypnosis for lowering anxiety, blood pressure and overcoming pain which all have responsible applications for runners. Hanin (1978) showed that some athletes perform better when anxiety levels are high, low or usual, so an ability to regulate them and arousal levels has been seen as desirable by many other studies.

Self-hypnosis skills have a body of evidence too long for me to go into in great depth, but when accompanied with cognitive strategies, evidence based protocols and solid sporting psychology can advance things greatly for us runners.

There is evidence therefore that we can advance our running ability using our mind and I aim to continuing sharing those kinds of processes here in coming weeks.


Morgan, W. P., Pollock, M. L. (1977) Psychological characterization of the elite distance runner, Annals New York Academy of Science; 301: 382-403

Morgan, W. P., Costill, D. L. (1972) Psychological characterisitics of the marathon runner. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness; 12: 42-46

Morgan, W. P. (2001) Psychological factors associated with istance running and the marathon. In D. Tunstall Pedoe (Ed.), Marathon Medicine 2000 (pp. 293-310)

O’Connor, P.J. (1992) Psychological aspects of endurance performance. In Shephard, R.J., Astrand, P.O, eds Endurance in sport.

Unestahl, L. E. (1982) Use of hypnosis in sport psychology. Society of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis Workshop text.