Using Time Trials to Improve Your Mental Game in Running

Amy J. Wall
Oct 29 · 7 min read
Photo by Amy Wall

Time trials make a perfect personal laboratory for improving your mental strength in running. In the beginning years of my running career, I focused on intervals and long runs and spent less time exploring the fitness benefits of time trials, especially the mental side. For the past several years, I’ve been spending more time doing them. I’d like to talk about how to utilize time trials in training to improve mental fitness. This article is for runners at all levels who are training to run a faster race.

Time trials are like practice races, without the nerves and adrenaline. They can be the distance of a race, for example, I run the 1500 and mile so I like to do mile time trials. Or they can also be shorter than your race distance, so for someone running the marathon, it might be a 10k distance rather than the whole marathon. Either one works.

The key is to treat it like a practice race so that you can put yourself in a mental laboratory to see where your weak spots occur, and then you can address them, either with changing the style of your race philosophy or by looking at how to change what is going on in your head. I will talk about both, but first, we should look at the different types of time trials.


To utilize a pacing time trial, the key is to try to hit each distance marker as close to the same time as possible (ideally the exact time). Distance markers can be on a track, or with a mile pacing device, or even road markers, as long as it is an exact measurement.

Whether or not you choose to run a race at the same pace, it is still a great way to do a time trial. For instance, if you know what a 7-minute mile feels like, you can speed up or slow down from there and have a better gauge of your body’s response to the speed. It is also good to know that your body can handle a certain pace because you’ve nailed it in practice.

Pacing workouts are also good for mental strength because you can get your body moving like clockwork and focus on the pattern. As you begin to hit the edges of your fitness, you might notice that hitting the same pace feels like you are running harder even though your time might not reflect it. It is important to notice when this happens in the time trial because that is when you will need to engage your mental strength.

Negative Split

Another workout idea is to practice the negative split, which is when you run each distance marker slightly faster than the one before. When I do these workouts, my only rule is that each interval must be faster, even if only one second faster than the one before. To do this, you will likely need to start your workout at a slightly slower pace, so you have room to make it faster by the end.

Some runners notice that their fastest races are achieved with a negative split. Mentally, these workouts can be fun because you are so focused on going faster, you don’t focus on feeling more tired. It is also a good way to train your mind to associate going faster with positive thoughts. It is satisfying when you hit a marker and see you’ve gone faster.

Testing Speed

In this style of workout, you test your speed in a time trial. While this style of running is risky in a race, doing it in a time trial can be great to assess whether you are ready for a slightly faster pace. It can give you an idea of how close you are to achieving the next level.

This workout is better done when you have done pacing workouts and know what pace you are comfortable with, then run just a little bit faster. You may want to shorten your distance temporarily and build it back up with the faster speed, like an interval workout, but with a longer distance and with a goal to extend it at the new speed.

This style is challenging physically and mentally. The key is to watch how you respond to the physical challenge. If you do this workout, does it make it hard to be motivated to run the next time? Do you find you are fighting yourself? (Worth noting, you may need a longer recovery after this workout, especially if you end up pushing yourself significantly harder than usual).

Mental training

Having strong mental fitness is about having a positive attitude. If you go into any workout with negative thoughts, you will conflict with your mind and body’s ability to perform and you won’t get the most out of your workout. Since these are practice races, what you do in a workout will also apply in a race. Consequently, it is important to address negative thoughts in a workout for optimal performance. It will also help you enjoy your running. Of course, no one is perfect and negative thoughts will come and go, it is natural. The goal is to minimize the number and intensity of them.

When I ran in college and even for years after, I would get nervous before hard workouts. Time trials are especially nerve inducing because they are like taking a test, but for running. Your times mean something. They tell you where you are with your running, and if you are not where you want to be, it can lead to negativity. Time trials also feel like a race, which can also make a runner feel anxious. Therefore, they are a perfect opportunity to explore your mental strength in running.

Mind Fitness vs. Physical Fitness

Sometimes our minds are less fit on a particular day than our bodies are. Perhaps your body can handle going 5 seconds faster per mile, but our mind is not having it. This can be a result of running your hard workouts too fast with not enough rest in between, or too many “testing speed trials.” If this is the case, slow them down for a little while until your mind can adapt to what you are doing. You are better to do a slower workout and keep your mind fit than allowing the negative consequences to set in.

Before the Workout

Mental training starts well before you arrive at your training location. Notice your thoughts around your workout in the planning stage, or even on your way to the workout. If you notice you are dreading it, it might be time to start re-framing the way you think about the workout, and possibly changing the intensity.

It is important to remind yourself that you are choosing to improve your running, you are choosing to do the workout and you are choosing to be a runner. No one is making you do it. You are doing it to improve which is a positive thing. You don’t have to do the workout; you want to do it. It is also important to give yourself permission to take it slower if you need to.

Another reason you may feel negative before a run is that you are not switching off from the stresses of the day. Your negative feelings may melt away once you start the workout. Notice if you feel an improvement in your mental state while you warm up. It might be a matter of switching gears. In these situations, take an additional warm-up lap or do more active stretches while warming up to give yourself extra time to switch gears.

During the Workout

There are several things to pay attention to during a time trial workout. Try to change up your time trial between the three types I mentioned above. Notice what style is working best for you. This is a key to how you should race. Keep in mind, your style may change over time depending on how you evolve in your fitness, so always be mindful of how you are responding to each workout.

During your workout, notice if/when negative thoughts rise up — thoughts like, “I think I might shorten this workout today,” or “I don’t like this anymore.” Notice any thought that crops up in your head that is even slightly negative. Notice when it occurs and if there are any patterns. My pattern is ¾ of the way into a time trial. It is important not to judge these thoughts, but to notice them. Once you do, look for thoughts to replace the negative thoughts, ones that will work for you. For me, I remind myself how strong I am to be out running a hard workout, or I think of how incredible it will feel to run a P.R. Whatever it takes and whatever works for you.

During the workout, you may feel like you are approaching the end of your fitness tolerance. If you feel extremely tired, pay attention to your breathing and pace. You may notice that you aren’t breathing any harder. This can be an indication that you are experiencing mental rather than physical fatigue. You should notice that the more often you do these workouts, the less mental fatigue you will feel in them.

After the Workout

No matter how you perform in your workout, be proud of yourself for taking the time to work on your running. If the workout didn’t go how you wanted it to, accept that you gave it your best on that day. We often don’t know why we falter mentally or physically. Maybe you are fighting a cold, or maybe mentally you were just having a bad day. The key is to be proud that you did your best, even if your best isn’t what you expected. Either way, it was what you did. You were out there, and you deserve to be congratulated.


Getting faster in your workouts and in your races is much easier when you fall in love with the sport of running. It is possible to fully embrace these workouts, and to even look forward to them. As you slowly shed negativity in your running, it will happen. It often takes time, but it is worth the time to self-reflect in your workouts. It will take you to new levels in your sport.

Amy J. Wall

Written by

Freelance Writer. Check out my author page

Runner's Life

Runner's Life is a publication for advice and stories from the intersection of running and life.

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