Mental toughness is not something that magically appears on race day without a concerted effort to improve it. It is a skill to develop, and practice, with as much enthusiasm as getting fitter and faster. Speed drills, tempo runs, long runs are critical, but your success is limited if you ignore the mental aspect of your endurance sport.
Why is that? Endurance sports are often about discomfort and stress. Thus, your success is largely impacted by how you deal with that discomfort. Your mind copes, and your muscles perform. But here’s the rub, your muscles are only able to perform to the degree your mind is able to cope.
In a book I recently read, How Bad Do You Want It?: Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle, author Matt Fitzgerald, contends that the only way to improve performance is by altering how you perceive effort. And, perceived effort has two layers: this first is how you, the athlete, feels. The second is how you feel about how you feel.
Perceived Effort Level
There are many variables that affect your perceived level of effort, more than can be covered in this post. But, some key coping strategies to improve that and your mental toughness:
- Brace yourself. This means accept that a training session or race event will be unpleasant vs. hoping that it won’t be. Acceptance reduces the unpleasantness of pain without reducing the pain itself. Especially when compared to suppression (hoping it is easier than you anticipate).
- Reduce your “self-consciousness.” What does that mean? Excessively focusing on an event’s outcome, and its importance, becomes a sort of self-sabotage that leads to poor performance. You are better off directing your thoughts and attention externally. That can distract you to some degree from your discomfort, thus allowing you to push a little harder.
- Let go. Letting go means caring a little less about the results of a race and its outcome. This ironically often produces better results. If an athlete waits to achieve his goal before believing in himself, the stress and perceived effort associated with the event goes up.
And, ironically, it is the other way around, self-belief must come first. Most athletes start a race wanting to achieve a goal. But, those with little self-belief are so anxious about the goal, it distracts from the task (race) at hand. Having faith whether you succeed or fail enables you to race in the moment, and thus race better.
More Mental Toughness Strategies
Besides strategies to manage your perceived effort level, there’s some qualities and strategies on how to improve your mental toughness. Again, mental toughness is a skill set, it’s how you respond to feeling uncomfortable. The how matters, and two qualities that you can work on to improve your mental toughness are: willingness and optimism.
Willingness is the determination to stay in an experience without backing down or giving up. Optimism is an attitude that the effort put forth today translates to longer term gains, and reaching your goals. It’s being positive about a future state or goal. Note, optimism also applies to the short term. Finishing the next interval, the last interval, the last mile.
How can you become more willing, more optimistic, to improve your mental toughness day in/day out? Again, it doesn’t magically appear on race day. You can’t count on mental toughness when it “really matters” if you haven’t developed that skill ahead of time.
Practice Every Day
- Know your why. A long term, specific, meaningful goal enables you to be more willing to handle discomfort. A strong why provides better odds to determine how to reach your goal. And, pushing through on days you want to quit, or skip a work-out.
- Master self-talk (find a way versus an excuse). Be aware of the messages you send yourself and how that impacts your thoughts and performance. Self-talk has a direct impact on your willingness and optimism.
When training gets difficult, tell yourself “I am capable of this effort,” or “I am strong.” You CAN manage your thoughts, even when the going gets tough.
- Train in unpleasant conditions. If you normally run in the morning, run after work with fatigue (or the opposite for an afternoon/evening runner). I am not suggesting all the time, but occasionally. Poor weather conditions (not unsafe conditions!) can also work on your mental toughness – hot temps, rain, frigid weather. It’s not just the actual running during those conditions, but pushing yourself to start running.
Try the “10 minute rule.” Go for 10 minutes, and if it is still too difficult, then bag it. Most likely, once you start, you will finish.
- Practice each day – when you’re NOT running. An often used idea is a cold shower. Walk into a cold shower and get comfortable with being uncomfortable, even if it’s for only 15 seconds; over time you will be able to increase with practice. While strength training: increase weight, reps, or the time you hold a position, pushing yourself past your comfort zone.
You can even apply this to non-physical aspects of your daily life: speaking up when you feel uncomfortable. Enrolling in a course that you think may be challenging or difficult. Essentially, behave like the person you want to become; when you change your behavior, your thoughts and emotions will follow.