Each person approaches exercise differently, but a distance runner uses a unique and distinct mental program in the performance of his or her art. At all levels of competition, the unique mindset of a distance runner is plainly evident in the runner's focus. It takes a great deal of mental discipline to focus against pain, muscular exhaustion, and elements like heat, cold, wind, and rain. It also takes a strong focus to work against the mind's own natural tendency to slow down when breathing becomes labored and the effort of running becomes harder.
The distance runner's mindset takes time to develop, and is not entirely linked to physical condition. It takes the application of specific and targeted effort to develop focus, and coaching makes developing the mindset much easier. Simply going out and running does not develop a distance running mentality. It is, however, not impossible to acquire the distance athlete's focus on your own; Alan Culpepper, a self-trained American marathoner who ran sub-2:10, is a perfect example of this phenomenon.
What ebenefit does the distance runner's focus provide to the runner? It enables you as a runner to push through pain to reach your desired objective. Perhaps the easiest way to improve your focus is by comparing yourself to the clock in timed workouts and repeats. Fast repeats take an immense amount of effort to complete, and they shake up the traditional running posture by engaging the body's muscular, cardiovascular, and energy systems differently. Perhaps the most effective repeat length for a distance runner is 400 meters, which is one lap on a standard track. A repeat of this length utilizes both the anaerobic and the aerobic energy stores, and it forces an athlete to shift their stride length and rely more on the calf muscles. In high school, I regularly ran between 6 to 10 of these repeats with the track team. Longer repeats such as 800 meters or 1000 meters are good as well, but they are better suited towards honing focus after it is developed.
The naturalk tendency of an individual is to slow down significantly when the body gets tired. What separates a runner from a non-runner is that the runner does not mentally quit when the body wants to. The difference is readily apparent: a runner's pace in a two mile race might remain the same, improve slightly, or degrade by 5 to 15 seconds in the second mile, but a non-runner's pace might degrade by thirty seconds to a minute or more. What makes the difference is the mental attitude: choosing to push when it hurts develops a habit of doing this, while mentally quitting encourages the body to shut down as well, and effectively limits the possibilities of performing well at a given distance.