I always try to improve my mental toughness running and training in general.
I certainly have not mastered it but I know through practice, I am better than I was.
I also know it makes a massive difference in sports performance.
I have put down my thoughts, but please comment with any strategies that work for you too.
As anyone training for an endurance event knows, there is a LOT of time to think!
I get a lot of questions about how to develop mental toughness running and training from two main groups of people:
- From athletes: wishing to improve their performance who ask from the point of view of: what SHOULD I be thinking about when I run (swim or bike)?
- From curiosity seekers-who always start with “Oh I could never run that far! I mean- what on earth do you think about all that time?”
(As though the thinking part is the ONLY reason they are not getting off the sofa!)
Unlike team sports where you are generally running around with team mates chasing a ball, long distance swim, bike or running events place an enormous challenge on the mind as well as the body. (I will refer to running in this post- but of course apply it to training of any discipline). Developing this mental toughness running or training for any sport is a huge part of training and one most people do not pay attention to.
How to Develop Mental Toughness Running
To be a successful athlete, it is critical to be the master of your thoughts and not allow them to rule you.
Many of us will have had the experience when we intend to go out for a 6 mile run, but just 3 miles in, THAT voice in our head telling us to stop becomes so strong that we give in, stop… and go home.
When we get back home, we are extremely frustrated as there was no reason to stop – there was no physical pain, no pressing deadline to be home, no unusual discomfort… just mental pressure, mental suggestions to stop…..
This is the voice we must master or our progress will be extremely slow and inevitably, we will give up.
Conversely the ability to recognise this voice and deal with it- will translate to success in many arenas. Sports, work, public speaking – it is an important skill to develop.
Of course many people speak about the benefits of going for a 30-minute run when they get home from work to “clear the head”, de-stress and wind down from the day.
But there is something completely different about longer distance training, where you are spending a long time with just you and your mind chattering away.
There is a lot of research on the mind- body connection. There is a lot of evidence that demonstrates that what you think matters- really matters.
Mental Toughness Running: Use Running as a Meditation
Many runners see running as their physical meditation. It becomes their place to get away from it all and get some head space.
As anyone who has tried mediation knows, it is incredibly difficult to quieten that voice that keeps incessantly chattering.
Try to develop an empowering mantra to focus on something that makes you feel great, powerful and successful.
When the run gets difficult or THAT voice in your head is telling you to slow down or stop, you can say the mantra, keep in your rhythm and keep going. As you develop your physical skills in running, also develop your mental toughness to achieve what you want without letting mental weakness throw you off course.
The mantra could be a scanning the body and relaxing each body part.
It could be a saying that works for you like:
“With every step I get stronger and stronger”
“I just love running and it loves me”
Come up with your own quote or saying that really makes you feel really good.
The other important part of meditation is focusing on the breath.
If you are an inexperienced runner, you probably are just aware of gasping for breath and cannot conceive you could ever control it.
Experienced runners generally have a rhythmic breathing pattern. For example breathe in for 3 strides, breathe out for 2 strides. Your pattern will change depending on your fitness and also the speed and intensity of the run.
Breathing control helps increase oxygen in the blood stream, helps you relax, improves your posture and helps you run faster. There is some debate about the correct ratio but you need to experiment with what works for you and then tweak that.
In his easy to read book Eat and Run, Scott Jurek talks about slowing down his breathing, breathing from the abdomen and breathing through his nose on easy runs in order to lower the heart rate and brain activity. This is certainly worth a read and provides some useful ways to think about running- especially on the long runs!
Mental Toughness Running: Develop Better Form
I spend a lot of time thinking about my form. I focus on each body part separately and think about optimizing that.
Then I move onto another body part.
I use the time running to try to implement and solidify my drills into my running. For example I will think about my head position and make sure it is back and not poked forward in a computer posture. I think about my neck and shoulders and make sure they are relaxed and not slumped.
I think about my knee lift, my stride length and where my foot lands.
And so on…
Then when I have finished scanning, I start again and go through it again. Depending on the terrain, these things need constant tweaking.
Then I might go back to the breath for a while.
Of course meantime there are plenty of random thoughts trying to get in and crowd out the good ones.
Mental Toughness Running: Use It As a Confidence Builder
One of the biggest stealers of people’s dreams is self-doubt.
We all have great plans and hopes and dreams but as we get on in life sometimes we stop trying- we give up.
We put them on the “to do” list- “I will do that later”
“I will do that when I have time”.
Of course later never comes.
For many people, later means they do not have try and risk failure.
I believe this is due to giving in to the THAT voice that plants self doubt in our heads.
I use some of the time running to shout louder than the voice of self-doubt.
I put powerful mantras in my head:
“I am great”
“I love running”
“Every day I am getting better”
“Its awesome that I got out here today!”
For those who take this seriously and can see the benefits, this Renegade Triathlon Psychology program is a game changer. It guides you step-by-step through an NLP technique called “anchoring” to help build confidence, control nerves and ramp up (and maintain) intense positive energy. Check it out…
Also visualise your past successes.
Give yourself proof of when you found something tough but you succeeded anyway- like maybe your first triathlon, you were scared but somehow you did it and it was not that bad.
Or that first time you ran 10km when at the beginning you could not run around the block.
Or that speech you gave which you were dreading that actually went really well and won you a few contracts.
Give yourself permission for self-congratulation. Celebrate mini successes.
Mental Toughness Running: Accept Your Weaknesses
Of course the strength of THAT voice in your head will vary depending on whether you are in an easy session where everything is under control or a leg crushing, lung busting, mega session that is testing your physical limits.
You may feel closer to the Universe, to God, to inspiring scenery.
You may be more aware of your own weaknesses.
You may find you are flirting with THAT voice in your head and tempted to give in and surrender to it.
This is the time to practice mental toughness running. It is only in intense physical and mental challenge that we grow.
In most training sessions and races, the mind gives up WAY before our body needs to. We are all capable of so much more than we ever thought possible.
This is one of the reasons, of course, that we enter difficult races, crazy events to strengthen our body and mind and keep proving to ourselves what we are capable of.
When the mind and THAT voice are testing you, either come back to the breath, or come back to your mantra.
One of the aspects of running we must accept at some point is we will be in pain.
Haruki Murakami puts it well in his fantastic book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “Accept that pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”
This phrase has helped me keep going many times.
Put in powerful thoughts in your head and continue to remove all doubt.
Mental Toughness Running: Running is a Great Use Of Time
Many people “never have time for themselves”. Running allows an escape from the pressures and demands of life.
Of course your mind will wander from time to time and this is fine.
But it is a good idea not to allow the whole run to be – just mindless unfocused chatter getting you nowhere.
Aim to focus a portion of the run on what you are trying to achieve, whether getting better at running, strengthening good motor patterns and neural pathways, feeling in control, more relaxed and de-stressed.
Allow no negative thoughts.
Even if you “don’t feel like it” or have to slow down and not quite achieve your running goal for the day- maybe you got a stomach cramp for no reason or due to work commitments you were more tired than usual- STILL congratulate yourself for getting out here anyway.
Maybe you switch the session’ focus from a high intensity session to a more steady state technique and drill session- either way you moved closer towards your goal. Never come home and beat yourself up.
Allow yourself to problem solve and chew over problems for a while if you want to but do not dwell on them.
Sometimes it is better to allow the subconscious to do it without directly thinking about a problem, the answer will pop into your head without trying….
So those are my thoughts on what runners and triathletes SHOULD be thinking about when they run/train.
But what is the reality?
What do we actually think about?
This is the fun bit!
I took a survey of some of my athletes, and some of my readers and begged for total honestly, promised anonymity and narrowed down the answers.
Interestingly, there were a lot of commonalties…
You will recognize some of them yourself.
Please let me know in the comments if you have any other recurring thoughts… or any you think should have been included
These were the Top 10 thoughts runners reported when they run:
- I have only been going for 8 minutes???? My watch must have broken
- Oh there is another runner, shall I wave, shall I wait for them to wave, what if I wave first and they don’t wave back?
- Now I have overtaken them I have to sprint to make them think I am fast- oh man- I really need to slow down-but I cant- why did I overtake….oh this is killing me…
- Is that a pain- in my calf, hip, knee, foot, neck….. (constant thought throughout the run)
- I’m too hot, cold, tired, fat, skinny, hungry, thirsty
- Maybe I should slow down/maybe I should stop- Why am I doing this- I could be watching TV…
- What am I going to eat when I get home….
- I hate my boss/colleague/, when I get back I am going to do this/I am going to say this
- I wonder that girl/boy in my 4th grade class is doing now? If only they could see me now
- I wonder what I look like right now (when running past shop windows or reflective surfaces… (sly glance…..)
I certainly have shared some of those thoughts.
As you know all too well, each thought has a whole conversation which accompanies it and goes through your head lasting anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour.
It is really interesting to observe these thoughts and chuckle to yourself…. But from time to time try to direct your thoughts back to empowering mantras, to the breath and to try to STOP the endless chatter.
Replace the chatter or self doubt with strong, powerful thoughts….
For me, when I run, I allow myself 10-15 minutes of letting my mind run free and go where it wants to for first while.
Then I try to direct it to powerful thoughts, building up my confidence and power. I remind myself that I am grateful and healthy enough to be out there running and then I focus on form checking that I am stable, upright, have good arm position, good knee lift, I scan the body…
Then I try to think of not much and just breathe in and out….
Of course from time to time, the random thoughts of hunger, pain, discomfort, boredom will creep in.
Practice Directing Powerful Thoughts
I don’t know that these ever go- but I try not to block them but quickly become aware of them and consciously implant positive thoughts and change the dialogue
I am getting better at it… but boy it is an on-going process…
For me, it makes a massive difference.
Expect your mental strength to evolve over time too- as a beginner, you are learning the movements, and what it feels like to run 2km for the first time without stopping.
You are becoming aware of different muscle pain, joint pain, dealing with doubt- can I really do this? Can I actually enter I 5km race- what if I come last?
As we improve, we still deal with the same issues. Can I really run 100km? Should I enter an Ironman- what if I come last?
“Is that a stress fracture?”
But then, there are those magnificent days when you are very lucky when you glimpse “the zone”.
The days when nothing hurts, when you have developed mental toughness running, when you feel strong, balanced and invincible.
These are days when they come once in a while that make it all worth it.
Try to actively find those days and make them happen rather than waiting for them to appear.
Always be grateful that you can run, laugh at yourself often and share the passion!
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