Running the Mental Game

Kristi Crago shares how running has helped her mindset on stage


I often tell people that what I do for a living is crazy. Or maybe it’s me. Maybe I'm crazy?


I spend hours every day blowing through a metal tube, practicing musical exercises and repertoire methodically and diligently in order to increase the odds that I’ll play well when it really counts. Then, at the end of every week, I get one chance per concert to get it right in front of thousands of people.


I am a musician, a professional horn player, and I think I can speak for all musicians when I say that we all have a little “crazy” in us. For me, I’ve learned to embrace my crazy and respect it.


Risk-taking is a part of everyone’s lives. But, for us musicians, we’ve made the choice to take risks and put ourselves out there on a regular basis in very public ways, all for the sake of creating art.


That’s a pretty great kind of crazy.


We are also regular people who have to be able to lead everyday, sane lives. For me, this means having a life where horn playing fits into my life but doesn’t rule it. It’s not always easy for me to achieve this balance, but in recent years, I’ve found something that really helps and it came from one of my hobbies: running.


My Running Story


I’ve technically been a runner for about 20 years, but until 3 years ago I was what I call a “seasonal” runner. I ran when the weather was nice enough to be outside which, for the upper midwest, means May through October.


Three years ago I decided to tough it out and run through the winter and it changed my life. It meant I came into the spring in good running shape, giving me the opportunity to build on this fitness and increase my weekly mileage. I ultimately began running 6 days a week and it eventually led to running my first marathon in 2019.


Psychological Benefits


While it was clear that my body felt different from my new level of fitness, what was most exciting was the way it affected me psychologically.


Most people have heard about endorphins and how they help regulate mood and lower anxiety. I felt this effect pretty quickly as a runner.


Recently someone asked me and another horn player what running has helped with the most in our playing. I think they were expecting us to say it helped our breathing or perhaps something more physical, but our answers were the same- the biggest benefits were psychological.


For me, it means my base level of anxiety and stress is lower than before I was a runner. Because my resting state is more relaxed, when I get nervous for a performance the anxiety peaks at a lower level. This allows me to find calm and focus more easily.

Lessons from running


The best lessons I’ve learned from running come from the stories I tell myself while on the road:


  • the encouragement I direct inwardly,

  • the toughness I so intimately feel,

  • the confidence that comes with succeeding after struggle.


Running a marathon feels different each time I do it. At its best, it feels like pushing myself to my limits, and, at its worst, it becomes a battle between success and survival.


There are a lot of ways runners plan out their pacing for a marathon, but as a general rule, the first 20 miles are run at a pace that will feel like work, but doable work. They are supposed to be the time in the race where, as long as you’ve trained properly, you should be able to settle into a pace that is on your edge of comfortable, yet sustainable.


The last 6 miles is where the race is “won” or “lost”. Your glycogen stores are near depleted and your body begins to revolt and tries to tell you to quit. It’s the time when your training, but more accurately, your will is tested.


These last 6 miles are the “You can do hard things” moments for me. When the pain settles in your legs and every step hurts and your lungs are screaming for you to stop running and save yourself - to save your life!


You have a decision to make. Do you keep running, keep choosing pain, keep ignoring the feeling that your lungs may not be able to keep up? Or, do you give your body what it is asking you for - to stop and recover?

In these moments I repeat to myself over and over:

  • I trust my legs.

  • I trust my training.

  • I am strong

With each mile, I pat myself on the back and gain just a bit more confidence that I can make it to the end.


Feeling like a badass


In my first marathon, I spent the last 7 miles debating whether I was in more or less pain than when I went through natural childbirth. I think I decided I preferred natural childbirth. It was rough. As rough as it gets. I collapsed at the finish line and was carried to the medical tent.


But, for goodness sake, I proved to myself that I can do hard things. The hardest things!


I, KRISTI … I can do HARD things.


And, so can you. YOU can do hard things, too.

Everyone needs to feel like a badass sometimes. For me, when I finish a marathon I am a badass - no matter how well I run it.


From the marathon to the stage


I might not feel it immediately, but I do my best to find that badass attitude and move it into my playing. If I can fight through legs on fire and a body pushing toward collapse, I can find a way to play an exposed delicate solo under pressure. Right?


Bringing confidence to the stage is a skill and like any skill, it has to be practiced. My running gives me another way to practice the habit of confidence and I love it. I love the circuitous, non-musical route for strengthening my confidence “muscle”.


For lots of reasons, I am very hard on myself when it comes to my playing. I’m sure many musicians can relate. What I have come to realize is there IS absolutely no reason I should be beating myself up over my playing. Especially while I am simultaneously the positive, ideal coach to myself when it comes to my running!


Perhaps because of the nature of my beginnings in running, having not done it in any competitive way in high school or college, I approached it as a hobby. My mindset toward running has always been based in positivity.


I contend with new challenges in my running by thinking: what if? or why not? instead of the negative phrases I often use in my playing like: I’m not sure I can do that, or I’ve screwed that up before. What if I screw it up again?


Why is this? Why would I utter the last two phrases to myself when it’s about my playing? This is my skill that is the most refined, the most practiced. It’s nonsensical, right?


I thought so too, which is why I am trying to adopt my running attitude for my playing.


When I can shift to What if? and Why not? in my horn playing mental game, I immediately see a shift in my practicing and performing.

  • What if it goes well?

  • Why not anticipate success and beauty in this performance when I’ve proved my whole life that I am capable of this?

The mental shift releases the limitations I inadvertently set for myself and the path to success is opened up.

Even my marathon mantras are just as good for horn playing as they are for the marathon.

I trust my training; I trust my body

become

I trust my lips; I trust my training and my preparation; I can do this; I am strong.


It’s so wise and so simple, yet I suppose for some people like myself, I will only see it after running a marathon. It’s a little extreme, I realize…but anyone who knows me knows I like to learn and grow in the extreme!


It’s a practice, a skill, this art of the mental game, and I am grateful to have found something to illuminate the simplicity of a positive attitude.


Running will be a continual reminder to me of my own strength, my own core knowledge of who I really am. I am not only worthy, I am powerful. I am strong and I am deserving of every success.


Kristi Crago, horn

In addition to being a member of the Iris Orchestra (Memphis), Kristi Crago plays frequently with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as well as the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings and Michigan Opera Theater Orchestra. Before moving to Detroit she played Third Horn in the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra and Second Horn in the Madison Symphony. For two seasons from 2005-2007, she served as Second Horn with the Kansas City Symphony. She is also a former member of the Cleveland-based Burning River Brass ensemble. Prior to her time in Kansas City, she served as Principal Horn in the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra, Horn Instructor at the University of Evansville and Third Horn in the Canton Symphony. She has performed with numerous orchestras across the country, including the Milwaukee, St. Louis and Houston Symphony Orchestras. Also a passionate teacher, she maintains an active private Horn studio in Grosse Pointe Park, MI. She and her husband, flutist Caen Thomason-Redus, have three musical children: Isaiah, Caleb and Lydia.


Next Steps and Additional Resources

Here at The Musician's Mindset, we have some incredible resources for developing and implementing mindset practices that will transform how you perform on stage.


  1. First, check out our Personalized Mindset Tools Quiz to discover the mindset strategies perfect for YOU!

  2. Schedule your FREE 30 Minute Call with Katie. It’s free. It’s my pleasure. And it’s the first step to releasing stage fright once and for all.


Katie Frisco

Founder of The Musician's Mindset


Katie is a certified life coach dedicated to helping musicians overcome stage fright and believe in their own unique artistic voice. She believes live classical music is a powerful antidote for the division, pain, and loneliness pervasive in the culture and strives to support all artists to confidently share their work with the world. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, three kiddos, a dog, a snake, and a goldfish named Orca.