Mental Strength for Runners: Build it and Thrive

Picture your next big race: You’ve been training for months, doing all the things necessary to ensure this race will be the one. You envision yourself a stallion on the starting line:

Slow motion makes everyone look like an Olympian ????‍♀️????????????

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You didn’t miss a single track session, all your long runs have gone like clockwork, and you made nutrition a priority, fueling with nothing but high quality whole foods. Unlike other marathons, you even got all the rest you needed.

In short, you nailed your training.

But come race day, when the chips are down and you’re at mile 22, you start making deals with yourself:

  • Trading “A” goal times for “B” goals…
  • Adjusting your goal pace because it starts to feel intimidating
  • Promising yourself that if you can just get to the finish line, no matter what the time, you’ll be satisfied. Anything to make the pain stop!

Sound familiar? Can you identify the missing piece of this puzzle?

Mental strength.

Here’s the thing: you’re in good company. Most runners hone just about every skill they can think of on the physical end when chasing a PR. But squeezing in the time and dedication to the mental part of the equation sometimes feels like too much, or just not all that important compared to the other components.

Sports psychologist Justin Ross, co-founder of Denver-based MindBodyHealth (and episode #10 podcast guest, understands this as a high performing runner himself. But he also understands the value of mental toughness and encourages runners to spend some time cultivating this very useful skill:

Mental toughness is what you do when you start to feel uncomfortable. It’s definitely a trainable skill.

That’s great news for runners, who are always looking for that extra edge. By taking some extra time to make the most of the mind-body connection, you can step onto the starting line in better shape to go after that goal time.

How to Train the Brain

Ross says that there are two key components to training your mental strength: Willingness and optimism.

  • Willingness: This is the measure of how willing you are to get uncomfortable to achieve a goal.
  • Optimism: According to Ross, this is your ability to believe that what you are doing matters. For example—believing that a particularly difficult track workout will deliver the results you want.

According to Ross, you can work on either element at any given time:

These are the key ingredients to mental toughness and if you can harness them, you’ll better manage when the going gets tough.

Much of training these components comes down to “finding your why”, explains Ross. This means understanding why you are out there and why you are doing a given run. “When your goals are specific you are more likely to work toward it,” he says.

For example, if you are working toward a PR or a BQ, knowing the 20-miler on your schedule is an integral piece of the formula will up your willingness to embrace it. This attitude will allow you to at least plug on when your legs start fatiguing late in the run.

Ross breaks optimism down into three basic principles:

Be In The Moment

When you are in the middle of a tough repetition, for instance, try to have the confidence that you can complete the next rep as well.

Reversing that, it is also the understanding that you will feel better as soon as you get to the rest. So if you are running 800m reps with a 400m easy jog recovery, looking forward to that recovery interval will help you push through the interval.

Think Broadly

On a broader level, this is learning to link the hard workout to your bigger plan. By pushing through the second lap of that 800, for example, you can realize that it will help you run the type of race you want when your goal race arrives.

Think Long-Term

Connect your daily actions to your big goal. This is your ability to look down the road and break your training into larger chunks.

For instance, take on a week’s training and envision how this segment will work toward the longer range goal. Know that consistency leads to improvement (it’s the “secret sauce” to successful running, after all) and therefore showing up and doing the work for that week will be key to your race-day goals.

Ross is a believer in the idea that mood will follow action:

You’re going to feel better after that workout, whatever it was. Remind yourself of that, do the work, and remember that you are improving through the work.

How Often Should You Train Mental Strength?

Mental Strength

As with any type of training, working on your mental strength isn’t something you can do round the clock. But you can dedicate some portion of each day or workout to brain training.

Ross suggests unplugging from your music, podcast or whatever it might be to tune in to your mind and body. Ross told me:

Bring awareness to what you are doing in your training. How are you reacting when it gets tough, for instance?

With a better awareness of how you feel or react at different points in your training, you can drill down and focus in on improving these weaker moments. Practice it in training and then race day can’t throw up any unexpected surprises.

You can remind yourself that you’ve been in this uncomfortable place before and know how to persevere through it.

Mental Strength Cues

Building mental toughness might be new to you, but many of its tenets are tried and true. Here are some additional ways to strengthen your brain game:

Practice positive self-talk: It’s easy, when running gets hard, to start a stream of negative self talk.

Things like “I’m so slow,” or “this hurts so much,” can begin a downward spiral and sabotage your efforts. Instead, turn those thoughts into positives: “I feel strong,” or “the effort is making me faster.”

It doesn’t take long before you’ve chased away the negative thoughts.

Find a mantra: Another proven method that appeals to all sorts of runners. Play around with various positive statements and settle on one or two that you like. Then put it into practice on your next run.

Say you like “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” When you’re struggling to finish out your tempo miles, put that mantra on repeat. Before long it will become an automatic go-to statement, one that reinforces your efforts.

Draw on past experiences: Chances are by the time you get to the starting line, you’ve logged plenty of miles.

On race day, when the going gets tough, recall times that you’ve pulled through a tough workout or long run. Remember that positive sensation when you nailed your paces, for instance, and bring that into your current moment. You’ll be pleased with where this can take you.

Picture it: Have you ever watched the winter Olympics and seen downhill skiers quietly working their way through a run in their head before actually hitting the slopes? Visualization is one of the oldest tricks in the book and it’s no surprise that most Olympians employ it.

By picturing yourself crossing a finish line or successfully pushing through a tough moment on the course, you’re setting yourself up for victory. Take some time to mentally go over a course before stepping onto it, visualizing a successful outcome, and you’ll be more likely to execute as you’d like.

Finding the time to train for a race can be tough. Adding in time for mental strength training might feel like more than you can manage.

But getting your head into the game as much as your body can be the difference between a good race and a great one.

Postscript: Books to Improve Your Mental Game

Interested in upping your mental strength? Several top-level athletes have written about the topic over the past few years and here is a sampling of good ones that will help you dig in:

The Champion Mindset by Joanna Zeiger: An Olympic triathlete and multiple marathon trials qualifier, Zeiger drills down into what separates champions from the rest of the pack.

The book weaves in Zeiger’s own experiences and offers up tips on goal setting, improving motivation, and promoting self confidence, among many others.

Let Your Mind Run by Deena Kastor: A household name for every runner, Kastor’s storied career was not without its ups and downs. In her memoir, Kastor documents her journey to cultivating a positive mindset.

The book shares her insights and teaches readers to improve their own thinking en route to better, more satisfying running.

Endure by Alex Hutchinson: Journalist Alex Hutchinson digs into the mind-body connection in this research-based book that reveals just how critical the mind is to physical performance.

Endurance, Hutchinson maintains, is “the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop.” You can also listen to Jason’s podcast interview with Alex here.

Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness: Taking a unique approach by pulling in examples of excellence in athletic, intellectual and artistic performance, Peak Performance delivers concrete evidence on the mental role in physical success.

An interview with Brad Stulberg on the topic of peak performance is included in High Performance Lifting.

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