Building Mental Toughness

We’ve all been there. It’s the middle of a race and that little voice in the back of your head whispering “you can’t do this” starts to sound more and more convincing.

Before you know it, you’re questioning why you put yourself through the race in the first place. Do you even like this sport? After all, running sucks. What’s the point?

After what feels like a lifetime, the finishing line appears and your second wind arrives. You power past people in the straightaway and cross the line feeling strong. Despite the joy and the rush of endorphins, you’re disappointed your faith wavered during the race.

They say running is 90% mental. We know that once you let negative thoughts come into your mind they can quickly send you spiraling out of control. Unfortunately, few resources exist for improving the mental aspect of running.

Mental toughness is not well-defined or understood. Simply put, it’s about how we respond to discomfort, obstacles and challenges. When someone passes you in the last third of the race, your mental toughness determines whether you give up and accept defeat or if you dig deep and try to hold on.

Training can help. Obviously, practice helps condition your body. After all, when you’re out of practice, it’s easier to throw in the towel when things get hard. But training helps prepare the mind as much as the body. An ideal training plan involves a range of paces, efforts and types of runs. Harder days build your physiological fitness but that’s not their only benefit. While you grow get faster and stronger, you also get opportunities to work on developing mental toughness you can tap into on race day.

Here are three things to practice to improve mental toughness on race day.

1. Get Uncomfortable

Those tough training days aren’t the only way to improve mental toughness. Daily life offers plenty of opportunities. One of my favorite ways to flex what I call my “suffer muscle” is showering in cold water for a few minutes a day. My instinct is to jump in, tense and shiver. Instead, I step into the icy water with my arms open. I know what I’m in for, so I’m relaxed and can accept the sensation.

A couple frigid minutes may not sound like much. But routinely enduring moments of discomfort can help train your mind. When it’s a regular part of your life, you learn to recognize what your mind does to escape or avoid unpleasant physical experiences and how to stay a step ahead of its games.

2. Visualize The Good, Bad and the Ugly (But Mostly The Good)

Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn once said “by the time I get to the start gate, I’ve run that race 100 times already in my head, picturing how I’ll take the turns.”

Mental imagery influences how the body behaves. Studies show that visualizing yourself going through the motions helps performance at all skill levels.

While it’s good to visualize good outcomes, it’s equally important to prepare for the bad. Give thought to what you’ll do and how you’ll feel should something go wrong. What if your shoe comes untied or you have to go to the bathroom? By visualizing these scenarios, you’ll have a specific plan in place and instead of panicking, you’ll be calm, cool and collected.

3. Have a ‘Why’

We’re more willing to tolerate discomfort when we know the unpleasantness is tied to a meaningful purpose or long-term plan. As you warm up, remember the big goal you’re working on and what makes that goal meaningful to you.

If you can’t connect discomfort to a goal, think of people in your life you’ll be excited to share your experience with. We each have our own support network, filled with friends, family, physical therapists, coaches or whoever else yours may include, but those people support you and believe in you. Sometimes when a rough patch hits in a race, it helps to take your focus off yourself and dedicate a mile or minute to the members of your support network instead.