Do You Have Mental Toughness? How to Train Your Brain for Your Next Race

by Jason Fitzgerald

This is a guest post from Doug Hay from Rock Creek Runner. Follow him on Twitter here.

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Mental Toughness

You’ve been training for that big race awhile now, right? I can tell because you’re deep in the zone.

You’re religiously sticking to the training plan.

You’re even focusing on your nutrition, falling asleep with Running Times on your nightstand, and reading up on all the latest training advice for the past month.

You’re doing everything right, and I can tell you’re ready for the race… physically.

But how are you doing mentally?

Have you planned for how you’ll feel a few weeks from now, when you’ve worked your way through all the running magazines, your training runs feel stale, and you’re bored from staying in every Saturday night before Sunday’s long run?

And I know, I hate to bring it up, but don’t forget about the week leading up to the race. When your nerves are keeping you up all night and you start second guessing your training.

You can be in the best shape of your life, but if you lack mental toughness when you toe the line, you might as well kiss that goal time goodbye.

Which is why we need to focus on not just our bodies throughout training, we also need to train our minds.

Today I’ll break down the three biggest mental barriers holding runners back and how to leverage those barriers to have a positive impact on your training.

Overcoming Training Boredom

The training lull is nothing new. If it hasn’t happened to you before, it’s bound to happen at some point.

Long runs, tempo workouts, recovery days. One minute they are going along beautifully, then boom: you wake up and just don’t feel like running anymore. Maybe running isn’t a habit yet.

Maybe you’re tired of canceling on your friends every Saturday night. Or you’re just tired of listening to your coach tweet angry 140 character messages at you.

Whatever it is, boredom and burnout are real things and they can totally derail your race plans.

Finding a way to refocus mentally is key to staying on track and progressing in your training. Here are five powerful ideas to help you get back on track (see that pun?):

  • Take advantage of the power of accountability by running with a new partner, either in a running group or a group of friends.
  • Take a few days off. Party like a rockstar. Sleep in. Do whatever you need to do, but only for a few days. Set a 3-day max on your running hiatus, and force yourself to lace up the shoes again once it is over. Even a short break can rejuvenate.
  • Set a goal to never run the same route twice during a 3-week window. The planning will be fun, and exploring new routes and places will be just the variety your training needs.
  • Try a new workout.
  • Go on vacation. And plan to run every day while you are there.

The Blue Pill for Runners

Performance anxiety.

When we talk about performance anxiety in other aspects of our lives, there is generally a quick fix in the form of a pill.

Not so for runners. We are all on our own.

But as Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter points out in her book Your Performing Edge, there is good arousal and bad arousal:

“Bad arousal is generated by fear and nervousness about performance, feeling out of control. Good arousal comes from enthusiasm and feeling ready for anything.”

The key is distinguishing between the two, and turning the bad arousal into positive energy that builds mental toughness instead of holding you back.

She recommends to take notes throughout your training of when anxiety begins to creep up, and how it manifests itself inside you.

  • Are you losing sleep?
  • Are you filled with self-doubt?
  • Are you experiencing physical signs of anxiety like muscular tension, irritability, or the dreaded diarrhea?

When these signs show up, perhaps before a long run or a training race, jot down how you feel and how your body handles it once you actually start running.

Practice channeling that bad energy into something more productive.

  • Spend time every day meditating on the event.
  • Visualize yourself successfully running the race and crossing the finish-line.
  • Take slow deep breaths by inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth.
  • Create a mantra, which addresses the bad energy and empowers you to be strong.

When Having a Big Head is a Good Thing

Nothing can tear you down quicker than yourself.

40 miles into my first 50 mile ultramarathon I was tired, dehydrated, and mentally unfocused. In a matter of 2 miles I went from feeling strong and confident to worthless and ready to quit. I had no mental toughness.

I quit believing in myself, and I was dangerously close to ending my race 10 miles short of the finish.

Thankfully, a running buddy was pacing me at the time and felt my negative energy flowing like Niagara Falls.

He looked me in the eye, grabbed my arm, and assured me that I could press on. He forced me to believe that the bad time would pass and I would regain strength soon.

It was confidence that carried me to the finish line.

Throughout your training, you have the golden opportunity to spend weeks, often months, doing nothing but building yourself up and turning yourself into a confidence machine.

  • Write down the distance, goal time, and race date on several pieces of paper, and hang them in places you frequent, like above your dresser, bathroom mirror, or next to your computer at the office. Every time you read those words, tell yourself that you will hit that goal time on that date.
  • At the end of your long runs, begin visualizing yourself approaching the finish line with time to spare. On a recent podcast, No Meat Athlete’s Matt Frazier discussed using this technique leading up to his BQ race. It was so effective it would often bring him to tears while he was running, as he visualized years of hard work paying off.
  • Begin telling others what you are doing and the goal you are aiming for. Don’t view this as bragging, but owning all the work you put into your training. It may go something like this, “I’ve been great. I’m training for a marathon, where I’m finally going to break 4 hours!”

The key to believing is seeing, right? Well, the same goes for doing.

When your see yourself as a confident runner, achieving all the goals along your path, you’ll be that much closer to actually doing.

The Well Rounded Runner

The well rounded runner trains for a race physically, and prepares themselves mentally.

They can embrace the negatives, or bad arousal, and actually use it to perform better on race day.

So as you train for your next race, remember these 3 things:

  1. You’re only bored because you are acting boring. Mix it up!
  2. Performance anxiety should be dealt with long before race day. Take on those nerves and turn them into motivation.
  3. Seeing is doing. See yourself as the runner you are, and go kick some ass!

Doug Hay tried to run his first marathon on nothing but mental training, but quickly realized he better actually practice running as well. Find him on his blog, Rock Creek Runner, where you can pick up a free copy of The Power of a Running Mantra ebook.

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{ 6 comments }

Mary

Awesome – I have been working on training my brain.

Doug

Have you seen any results?

Mark Eichenlaub

Good stuff Doug! The art of relaxation and learning to do that when you brain seems to be in fight or flight mode during some runs is an often overlooked aspect of training.

Doug

Absolutely, Mark. It should be a part of every training cycle. If for nothing else, to help you enjoy race day a bit more!

P.J. Murphy

Great stuff Doug! There’s a saying that Bob Knight used to say to his basketball teams – “Mental toughness is to physical as four is to one.”

This certainly applies to running as well. As you’ve pointed out, training yourself to be able to handle the mental challenges and roadblocks is vital to a success race!

Primož

I can’t really say if I have mental toughness or not. Sometimes it feels like this toughness come and go. Sometimes I could easily convince myself to go on when I wanted to give up or slow down. Other times I just gave up, or didn’t even start the workout when I felt slightly uncomfortable. One more thing on an endless todo list, I guess.

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