3 Strategies for Building Mental Toughness
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Becoming stronger mentally is a key to improving as a runner

As runners, we’re always willing to devote our time to physical training, no matter how busy our schedule may be. We contemplate workouts and training schedules to produce the best possible outcome on race day.

But often the mental side of training doesn’t get enough attention. As American distance running legend Lynn Jennings said, “Mental will is a muscle that needs exercise, just like the muscles of the body.”

So how do we train ourselves to be mentally tough?  What separates those who give up or give in from those who push through and beyond? Every runner is unique, and there are many ways to develop mental toughness. But here are three strategies that will prove useful to all runners, no matter how new or experienced you may be.

1. Build Self-Confidence

If you are looking for the “wonder drug” to improve yourself, look no further than self-confidence. Simply believing that you have the ability to do something can have an enormous impact on your performance.

Unless you are taking part in a sport that has life-threatening risks, you can rarely have too much self-confidence. Fortunately, endurance athletes rarely face this type of risk.

Self-confidence is not a trait that can be “learned” in the traditional sense. Instead, you need to “earn” it. What does this mean exactly? Here the essentials of creating a pathway to self confidence:

Create an environment that is conducive to confidence. For a high school runner, this may mean a supportive team and coach, while adults should surround themselves with encouraging family members or training partners.

Set goals that allow you to build on success. While there is nothing wrong with setting a time goal for a race, the goals most conducive to self-confidence are process- rather than outcome-focused. Process-focused goals (finishing strong, focusing on each mile as it comes) are always in your control. No matter what the weather or your final race time, you are always in charge of successfully navigating process-focused goals.

READ MORE: Running With Mindfulness

2. Reduce Anxiety

We’ve all felt it—those pre-race jitters or feelings of nervous anticipation that come before a race or challenging workout. This nervous energy is completely normal and has been hard-wired into your brain throughout thousands of years of evolution.

To a large extent, that nervous anticipation is a good thing. Your body is preparing to do something challenging, and the last thing you want is to be dozing off on the starting line because you’re so relaxed. To make that energy most effective, you need to recognize the positive effects while managing the thoughts or feelings that cross the line from positive to negative stress.

Elite runners are especially good at managing pre-race and pre-workout anxiety because they are able to recognize it as something positive. If you struggle with anxiety or negativity prior to races, “fake it ‘til you make it” can be a surprisingly effective coping strategy.

READ MORE: Overcoming a Bad Race

3. Manage Fear

The third component of building mental toughness is managing fear. Runners often fear the discomfort that comes from running hard and race-related pain. But you should find comfort in recognizing the commonality between runners and knowing that all of us—beginner or elite—have to manage this fear.

Exercise scientist Dr. Tim Noakes developed the Central Governor Theory, which emphasizes the brain’s role in protecting us from catastrophic harm. It limits our actions in order to protect our bodies from complete collapse. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t train our brains over time to put up with a little more, and become more tolerant of the pain we face while racing hard.

One of the best ways to accomplish this is by breaking up large, overwhelming goals into smaller, manageable goals. Rather than thinking about racing 26.2 miles, your brain is much happier thinking about running 26 1-mile repeats. As you experience success with each mile, your brain gets a small hit of dopamine that helps continue to fuel your motivation. You can also use your brain’s love of repetition by counting to 6 or 8 then repeating, or singing a rhythmic chorus of a song over and over.

No matter what strategy you use, you’ll never improve if you don’t get out of your comfort zone. “Neuroplasticity”—when the brain changes based on what we experience—will lead to mental and physical changes that benefit you as push yourself a little bit harder each time.

When you recognize you are on the edge of discomfort, try not to think about physical cues (such as your respiratory rate or heart rate). Instead, anticipate the challenge and the physical struggle, and try to be curious about being uncomfortable.

Mental toughness is an essential component of racing well. If you’re looking to take your performance to the next level, it’s essential to focus on the mental aspect of training as well as the physical.

When you build confidence, reduce anxiety and manage fear, you set yourself up for lifelong success in running and in all aspects of your life.

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and the USATF-certified coach behind Strength Running, an award-winning blog and podcast that helps runners set personal bests. His work has appeared in Runner's World, The Washington Post, Health Magazine and many other major media publications. Follow his work on Twitter at @JasonFitz1 and at StrengthRunning.com.