Mental toughness for runners is one of the most prized mental skills we can develop. With proper techniques and practice, the mental aspects of the sport can elevate your running to new heights.
Runners spend the majority, if not all, of their training on physical attributes: getting faster, building strength, recovery, injury prevention, and becoming more athletic. And these are absolutely crucial to your progress so don’t stop!
But too many runners ignore the psychological aspect of running, which determines how you engage with the sport. Mentally tough runners understand that this is just as important as physical training.
Mental strength may not seem very important to your development as an athlete. But there are numerous situations where this skill becomes increasingly important:
- Standing at the start line of your goal race, anticipating the distance ahead
- Missing a few workouts and feeling like you might as well skip today’s training too
- The point at which you want to quit during a hard workout or long run
- Dealing with setbacks from a running injury
- Getting frustrated with performance plateau and a lack of improvement
- Setting short, medium, and long-term goals
And so many more – just consider, what was the last time you felt uneasy about your running?
Mental strength is the intangible, invisible power that will get you through all those situations and keep you pushing, thriving, and excelling toward your biggest goals.
Mental Toughness for Runners 101
What is “mental toughness”, anyway? Perhaps you’ve heard of it referred to as mindset mastery or mental strength. All those terms encompass the same definition:
The psychological skill set that allows runners to work sustainably toward a long-term goal despite setbacks.
So being mentally tough enables runners to consistently make strides towards their desired outcome, no matter what comes their way. Hey, that’s pretty cool! That’s not something that any piece of gear, training plan, or even coach can give you. It’s a gift that you can develop for yourself.
For runners, mental toughness comes into play in many areas. Our progress and training is rarely linear. Our life isn’t either – there are phases where we have less or more time to commit to training, higher and lower drives for new running accomplishments. Mental strength permeates all seasons and is truly a lifelong skill to practice.
5 Key Parts of Mindset Mastery
Mindset mastery comes from the ability to control what you can, and let go of the rest. The aspects that you truly control are internal such as your reactions and mental models.
These 5 parts are the building blocks of mental toughness for runners:
- Focus – setting goals and executing the process
- Anxiety Management – utilizing an inner “pep talk” to lower anxiety
- Intensity – modulating mental energy through mantras, visualization, and other techniques
- Mental Toughness – staying positive and performing at your peak
- Confidence – developing self-belief through demonstrated success
Many athletes have developed strategies to deal with the demands of their sports but may not realize that they are, in fact, working on their mental strength. You may have practice with a few of these already. Or you may feel like you’ve spent all your energy on the physical aspects rather than the mental ones.
The great news is that mental toughness can be learned. With proper tools and lots of practice, you can be well on your way to mindset mastery.
If you want to learn more, we created an entire program that is a deep dive into these 5 key areas: Mindset Mastery.
Sign up for the entire course or start with a free training on mental toughness, designed specifically for runners.
What You Tell Yourself Matters
You’ll notice that mental toughness focuses on the internal rather than external. It’s how you relate to stressful situations, conquer them (or not), and continue moving forward.
How fast you run isn’t a direct result of your mental strength, but it’s directly impacted. Here are a few other outcomes of mental toughness for runners:
- Keeping your cool and managing anxiety before a big race
- Finishing a hard workout confidently with all that you’ve got
- Embracing the down times of a training cycle when you’re focusing on rest and recovery
- Trusting yourself to show up every time, no matter how you feel
- Believing in your abilities to kick hard and finish strong at the end of a race
A runner can easily undermine their own mental strength with negative self-talk. Have you ever said anything like this to yourself?
- “I failed at this before and will again…”
- “Who am I to go after this big goal?”
- “I can’t do this, I’m going to slow down.”
The chatter in your head matters. It can propel you forward or set you back.
A lot of the tools we use are based on mantras for running (these are also known as personal affirmations). These are the things you tell yourself to keep focused and confident. The video below provides some examples and more details on how you can leverage mantras for yourself.
You can also get our handy list of mantras here.
Confidence, anxiety management, and focus can all be improved with the proper use of mantras. Try it out for yourself!
Videos to Help Build Mental Strength
I have recorded dozens of mindset videos on our YouTube channel. If you’re ready for a deep exploration on this, check out the playlist below:
Our goal is to always provide actionable, science-backed instruction for runners. If you’d like me to focus on a certain aspect of mental toughness for runners, don’t hesitate to reach out and let me know!
Podcasts on Mental Toughness
We talked about the building blocks of mental toughness, so now let’s hear them in action.
These interviews feature coaches, sports psychologists, and runners who are using mindset skills to reach new performance heights. You don’t have to run as fast or as far to leverage the same mental tools as these runners.
This episode with Olympian Molly Huddle: How to Stay Driven, Be a Role Model, and Run Mentally Tough is filled with inspiration for tough pandemic times (and not).
Professor Brian Zuleger on the Mental Strengths of Youth, Community, and Fun talks about the mindset of younger athletes and what we can learn from them.
In the podcast with Madeline Strandemo on Mental Fitness, Training through COVID, and the Steeplechase, she shares her techniques for dealing the unexpected.
Check on this episode on How Ultra Runner Lisa Tamati Goes All-in, Stays Mentally Tough, and Confronts Pre-Race Anxiety.
Master Your Mental Game with Pro Sports Psychologist Justin Su’a offers a mental model that we can all benefit from.
In the episode called Train Your Mind: How to Get Mentally Fit with Dr. Marc Bubbs, we cover many tips and tricks to help runners with mental toughness.
This conversation on How Deena Kastor Used Her Mind to Become a World-Class Athlete is the epitome of mental toughness in action.
How to Build Mental Toughness is a conversation with a husband and wife duo who know a lot about running and mental strength.
In the Master Your Mental Training with Dr. Justin Ross podcast, we talk about the mind-body connection, reducing anxiety, and behavioral changes.
I hope these interviews help to shed some light on how mindset plays into performance. You can also hear to my in-depth monologues on How to Build Mental Toughness & Mindset Mastery and How to Build Mindset Mastery and the Mental Skills to Thrive.
Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Music to make sure you never miss an episode and are the first to be notified of new episodes.
Books on Mindset
You’ve heard it from me, now it’s time to dive in to see what others have to share. The books below are highly recommended and take a different approach to discussing mental strength: from a performance perspective, learning from kids, and beyond.
- Relentless: How a mother and daughter defied the odds by Lisa Tamati
- Mentally Tough Teens: Developing a Winning Mindset by Justin Su’a
- Peak: The New Science of Athletic Performance That is Revolutionizing Sports by Dr. Marc Bubbs
- Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory by Deena Kastor and Michelle Hamilton
- The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion by Dr. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson
For more of my favorite training and running books, see our list of recommended running books.
Am I a Mentally Tough Runner?
Strength comes in many forms. The most obvious, is the physical ability to perform a task. But without the ability to mentally recruit and direct our physical abilities, we cannot perform at our best.
I firmly believe that developing the mental strength for running will benefit your life far beyond the track. I’m excited to support you on this journey to developing your inner mental toughness.
One of the best ways to build this mental skill is to model your behavior on pro runners. This concept is discussed in more detail here:
Modeling is a performance psychology term that helps you copy the behaviors, posture, attitudes, and language of top performers.
You can also listen directly to the guidance of elite runners:
If you’re going to learn sport psychology, then why not learn from the best?
Courses on Mental Strength
At Strength Running, we believe your potential is largely impacted by your mental fitness. Build the skills of mental toughness, confidence, intensity, anxiety management, and focus and you’ll thrive as an endurance runner.
Because the potential advantages of training your mind are so substantial – but the downsides are virtually non-existent – we consider mindset training to be a performance multiplier.
- Have high upside and more than one advantage for runners
- But have no drawbacks (or virtually none)
This means that improving your mindset around running is a potential game-changer. Bbuild these mental skills and you’ll transform your abilities.
If you’re ready to get started, see our flagship course on mental training for runners called Mindset Mastery.
Not ready for the full course? No problem!
We also have a free ecourse that discusses:
- The long list of amazing benefits of “mental fitness”
- How to get started – and avoid common mistakes
- Case studies of successful runners and their psychological progress
- Example tools from the world of performance psychology
Sign up here and your first lesson will be in your inbox later today!
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