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What is Mental Toughness?

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

While there are many physical factors that go into preparing for a race, a significant part of training also happens between our ears. Growing up my Dad used to always say “running is 90% mental and 10% physical”, while I am not sure what the actual percentages come down to, I do know that our mindset can affect a lot of things, including how a run or race goes. In order to be an efficient and strategic runner practicing mental toughness is key. Before we dive into different ways to practice mental toughness, let’s talk about what that actually means.

Mental toughness has been defined in many ways but there are a few factors that stand out in each definition. Mental toughness is a skill that allows runners to stay positive and run at a peak performance level without succumbing to fear, discomfort, humiliation, or failure.

Let’s break it down.

While personality does contribute to mental toughness, it is also considered to be a skill because it is something that can be improved. Mental toughness is learnable and can grow or wither depending on your training.

Researchers found that mentally tough athletes and performers distinguish themselves on three interrelated levels: commitment, challenges, and control.

  1. Mentally tough athletes tend to be more committed to their sport. They maintain a growth mindset; they view potentially difficult situations as opportunities for personal and professional growth. Mentally tough athletes don’t give up on themselves or their sport when faced with problems, pressure, mistakes, and competition.

  2. Adversity is viewed as a challenge and mentally tough athletes respond positively to pressure in ways which enable them to remain feeling relaxed, calm, and energized. Mentally tough athletes are more able to cope with highly stressful sporting events and maintain high levels of competitive performance. They have developed the ability to focus on the task at hand and block out distractions.

  3. Mentally tough athletes feel more able to positively influence the outcome of competitions allowing them to view competitions in a less stressful manner. They are also able to keep their emotions in control and remain calm under pressure situations and are better equipped to regain psychological control.

Does being a mentally tough athlete mean if you are injured you should push through? No, there are always going to be situations when stopping a workout is the smart choice for your health and your ability to continue training as a healthy athlete. There is a difference between when you should stop a workout for your health and when it’s time to push through and keep going to strain those mental toughness muscles. Knowing that difference is something that takes practice listening to your body.

I used to occasionally have an anxiety attack during long or hard runs. The anxiety would cause me to feel like my throat was tightening and I would have a hard time breathing. It got so bad I chose to stop running a few times. What I have since realized is usually the anxiety would stem from the anticipation of the workout and me telling myself I couldn’t do it or because I would focus on the difficulty of the workout. This negative thought cycle was a form of self sabotage. Over the years when I would recognize the negative thought cycle beginning, I started to view it as an opportunity to improve my mental toughness and practice regaining psychological control and remaining calm. By using this strategy I have been able to calm myself down, focus on the task at hand, and finish the workout. Putting myself in these stressful running situations has helped improve my mental toughness and add strategies to my toolbox for when I encounter obstacles in the future. Overall making me a stronger runner.

Here are some other ways you could try to strengthen your mental toughness:

  • Positive self talk - practicing positive self talk is a great way to build mental toughness. Focusing on the positives during a run or race can do wonders for getting you through some tough miles. Even something as simple as telling yourself “you can do this” or “one foot after the other” can go a long way. Find a motto that works for you!

  • Stressful conditions - if you know you are running a race that has tough conditions, practicing the stressful conditions you are going to be in come race day is going to help mentally prepare you. If we never put ourselves in uncomfortable training conditions then we aren’t going to have a chance to improve mental toughness skills that help us stay calm and confident in those situations.

  • Hard running workouts - Tempo runs, marathon pace runs, and intervals are a great way to challenge your body physically and mentally. Tempo runs incorporate faster paces which require you to stay focused on the pace you are running throughout the whole run.

  • I like to play some mental games during tempo runs, like counting backwards on my miles, so instead of counting each mile I run 1, 2, 3, etc. I go backwards: 5 to go, 4 to go, 3 to go, etc. mentally this helps me see that I don’t have that far left to go.

There are many ways to practice mental toughness and these are just a few ideas! We are all at different points in developing our mental toughness so what has worked for me may not work for you.

Happy Training!

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