“Mental toughness is the capacity to reliably perform at your best regardless of external conditions, distractions, or internal emotions.”- Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter
I love this definition. Mental toughness is key for racing any distance from 5km to 160km. A 5 km requires the ability to redline for a significant amount of time. Alex Hutckison, author of Endure, describes it like holding your finger over a flame. It takes focus and resilience to stay there, right where it hurts. In the long races, it’s battling the bodies desire to quit when you’ve got hours behind you and hours ahead of you. Whether you’re trying to hit a new distance or a new speed, being mentally tough can be the difference between reaching your goal or not.
Here are my 5 best tips for improving mental toughness in training and racing.
Learn about the Central Governor Theory, and then beat it
This theory by Tim Naokes is based on the idea that the mind will try and shut your body down before it does damage to itself, so we feel fatigue. We know it as the edge of our comfort zone. It’s usually the time we stop and walk, but in reality, we can push far past that long before we hurt ourselves.
North Americans generally work to make life as cozy as we can. The second we feel discomfort, we change it. A small chill we put on a sweater, a little bit hungry, there is food on any corner. Rarely are we in a situation where we are at our limit. When translated into running, this means that when we get to the point where it starts to hurt we tend to want to slow down or stop to walk immediately. We want to get comfortable again.
Being mentally tough means recognizing this, and deciding you don’t have to listen. This takes practice. You have to get to a place in training where you really hurt. When you get there, try thinking about it objectively. It’s just pain, it’s just fatigue, it’s just in your head. Maybe you don’t need to stop yet, you can push past the discomfort.
You can practice playing with your limits in the sauna and cold showers. Wait until that moment when you really want to jump out of the freezing water and just hold on. Even for 5 seconds. Push past that boundary, and eventually you’ll expand your comfort zone.
Visualization is a common performance tool in athletics. We are told to mentally see ourselves running well, feeling strong, and having the race of our lives. The key, however, is to also practice the worst parts. See yourself at mile 20 of a marathon, when the pain really starts to set in and you know you have a reasonable distance left. Think about suffering up a hill, and see yourself pushing past that and keeping the pace. Use this visualization to teach yourself that no matter what you face, you keep on going—even when the going gets tough. Make it a habit.
3. Make the race smaller
Being tough also means being smart. There are ways to hack your thoughts so you can better control your emotions. Making the race smaller is key. If I toed the line of a 50mile and thought about the full day ahead of me, it would be impossible not to feel overwhelmed. The race has to be broken down. One aid station to the next. Sometimes just the next tree. Whatever your brain can handle, run that race.
4. Positive thoughts and self- talk
When I was preparing for my longest run to date (100miles), the most common question I got was, “what are the chances you don’t make it”?
I never knew how to answer. That thought had never crossed my mind. Not once.
I knew I was physically capable and the rest would be mental. It’s an old cliché but it’s bang on, “whether you think you can or you can't, you’re right.”
Don’t just think that you can, know that you can.
Once the race starts, keep up the positivity. Speak to yourself positively. It’s that simple.
It sounds a little ridiculous, I know, but it works. Pain, fatigue, the desire to stop, these are all due to the mind’s perception of what you are feeling. If you force yourself to smile, your mind suddenly thinks you’re having FUN, and then your perception of how hard you’re working lessens. Once you trick your mind, you’ll feel the physical benefits and it will actually be easier to run. Less pain and easier strides equal faster runners.
Master your mind and you’ll your most outlandish goals become reachable. The best part is that having an unstoppable mindset translates into your entire life.