Mental Toughness in Training and Racing

Running is, of course, a fundamentally “physical” endeavor. At the same time, the act of running touches parts of ourselves that are more intangible, namely the spirit/soul and the mind. I’d like to address the mental side of training and competing. Mental toughness, composure, and the ability to perform well under pressure are topics that have been widely addressed in the sports psychology literature. I will just touch on some of the main components of becoming stronger and tougher as a runner.

Emotional control and stability are psychological traits that are common to successful athletes. This is also known as “composure” and “focus”. The athlete with the most composure will invariably perform better across time. What is interesting is that the ability to manage one’s emotions in stressful situations is LEARNED. That is good news! People are not born with great mental toughness. It can be learned.
Often, extremely high levels of anxiety inhibit performance. The definition of “anxiety” in its simplest form is “an emotional response to a perceived threat”. In life, we have good stress and bad stress. Good stress motivates us to complete tasks (study hard for an exam) and thus to grow as human beings. DIS-stress is negative stress associated with emotional turmoil, undue fatigue, ill health, etc. It’s important to remember that not all stress is bad and that the real issue lies in how we PERCEIVE a situation. We tend to make stress external: This “thing” stresses me. Really, it’s our PERCEPTIONS that create stress. (“If I don’t do well in this race, I will be perceived as a failure by other people in my life.” – Is that REALLY true? Don’t people like and appreciate you because of who you are not because of how fast you run?) When we know this, we have control to change things. Having that feeling of control means that you can regain composure and focus, which enable you to perform at your best.

When approaching a competition, it’s important to ask: “what do I fear in this situation”? Do I fear failure? success? letting someone down? not living up to my own expectations? An appropriate acronym for FEAR is False Evidence Appearing Real. At a fundamental level, we must realize that “the world will not come to an end if I don’t perform well here.”
When, as runners, we live constantly with anxiety, we have the tendency to over or under train, to choke in higher level competitions or workouts, we are injury prone, and we make excuses or rationalizations for poor performance. In order to conquer negative anxiety we can ask ourselves the following questions:
1. How important is this to me? Do I have an accurate expectation for this race given my current ability level and the competition?
2. What are the true consequences of “failure”?
3. What control do I have? What can I change? (My own level of training.) What can I not change? (The weather.)

Learn to reframe “failure” as disappointment. For most of us, a lackluster performance really isn’t the end of the world. Even for an Olympian running in a final, loss is still not catastrophic. Sure, one may lose endorsements and have to live with great disappointment, but in the end, it’s still just running, which is one element of a larger life. Learn from disappointment and take the lessons you’ve learned into your next race. Did you go out too hard and thus ruin your chances of a desired PR? Give yourself a set amount of time to feel the disappointment then regroup and begin to think about what you can learn from the experience. Every single race gives an opportunity to learn something about ourselves. That, in itself, is a wonder. You can grow as a human being even as you learn from poor racing performances.

Here are some approaches, thoughts and practices which have helped me grow in this area:
1. Work hard and smart so that you’ve done all you can do physically.
2. Maintain positive self talk (a deep, fundamental level of self acceptance and well being). Even when the race gets tough, focus on your “good” qualities, i.e. your strength and perseverance. This one practice has helped me perhaps more than any other in racing and is something I have had to learn across the years. In the past, I struggled with perfectionism and fear of failure and had to learn to overcome much negative self talk (which led to poor performance).
3. Maintain a positive assessment of the situation (gratitude!). Remember, there are no guarantees. To arrive at race day healthy and srong is a gift. Sure, you will sometimes have to race in awful conditions. But the person who can re-adjust her race plan and still enjoy the process will experience more “flow” in the race.
4. Have a routine for race day and warm up. The familiarity of sticking to your routine will enable you to maintain focus.
5. Practice under pressure sometimes. This is why we do speed training. You are essentially forcing your mind to believe that you can get through pain and suffering. When you regularly do this in practice, you literally teach yourself how to perform under pressure. When under pressure, you will fall back on what you’ve rehearsed. Perfect practice makes perfect.
6. Focus on the process more than the outcome. You can only control the process. Work to hit your splits, to maintain pace when your mind wants to back off, to get to that next mile marker strongly, etc.

This is a great topic for ongoing conversation. These are issues we all face but the good news is that, just as we can train very hard physically, so too can we improve in this area of mental strength and toughness. Please post a response or email me if you have thoughts to add to this post.


3 Responses to “Mental Toughness in Training and Racing”

  1. Doug Says:

    Excellent blog, Kim! The race this weekend was a great example of something that was totally out of my control…the weather. I had to make an adjustment to my goal time and when the injuries kicked in I had to find another goal (just run a qualifying time for Boston) to keep me going during the race.

  2. Amber Says:

    I love this post! I have issues with mental toughness for sure. I’m hoping that throwing myself into races more frequently will help me get over the race anxiety and come to enjoy running (and running fast.)

  3. Says:

    I would add that there is the matter of the “will”: you have to be WILLING to “go to the well” in an important race. In other words, you have to be absolutely set on reaching your goal and absolutely determined to do what it takes to achieve it. That sometimes means a level of discomfort (pain!) that is quite beyond what we’re used to.

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