How to Develop Grit and Mental Toughness

You too can become a competitive badass, no matter how fast or experienced you are

Race-day success comes down to both physiological and psychological factors. Two of the psychological factors that get mentioned the most are grit and mental toughness. I often hear athletes discussing this well of mental fortitude as though it’s something to be accessed at will on race day without practice. True, grit and mental toughness are key factors in performing optimally, yet they require training, no different from logging your weekly miles.

Here’s what grit and mental toughness are and how you can begin working to cultivate each in your daily training, so you are able to access these valuable skills come race day.

Grit

Grit, as a skill, is something many appear to be adopting in an overall approach to life, and specifically in training and racing cycles. It is connected to two central components: passion and perseverance that are implemented across time. Many runners can relate to passion with ease. They are quick to connect to excitement about the sport, or talking about the finer points and finer details of their training schedules. Passion isn’t something you can necessarily fake, but it does require practice.

Sometimes connecting to passion means finding the internal strength to get up for your 5:30 a.m. Tuesday workout in the middle of December when it’s cold and dark. Passion, if examined through the lens of behavioral action, in many ways comes down to choice. The choice to do the work even when it’s not necessarily what you want to be doing in that particular moment. Doing this repeatedly and consistently is what leads to long-term development and sustainable gains in endurance sports. Perseverance is a skill that can be developed with repeated, deliberate practice across time as well. Perseverance is continuing to do the next actionable item, regardless of condition. In a racing situation, this may mean focusing on only taking the next step once you hit mile 23 of a marathon. In a training context, this might mean pushing on to the next mile marker.

Grit can be learned. You can teach yourself how to be gritty on those tough workouts when you confront the desire of wanting to quit or slow down, for whatever reason—like time, distance, pace or effort level. Learning how to hold yourself accountable in that moment makes it a teachable skill that can be repeated when it counts. And, without a doubt, what you do you in a training situation will translate to a racing situation.

Mental Toughness

You cannot fake mental toughness. Like grit, mental toughness is not something that magically arrives or that you can somehow, someway conjure up at mile 20 in a marathon. It just doesn’t happen, no matter how deep you dig. Mental toughness is a skill set that, like all skills, gets better with practice, patience and discipline. It must be incorporated into your training cycle in order for you to access it come race day.

There are a number of ways to practice the skill of mental toughness both in and out of running. An ideal training plan will have a range of paces, efforts, and types of runs scattered throughout.

– The harder days are designed to build your physiological system and help you on the path of adaptation.

– Those harder days also provide an opportunity to work on developing a mental toughness platform that you will then access for the remainder of your training and racing.

– Mark these days on your calendar and plan how you will approach them, to ensure that you are doing the the work both physically and mentally.

Outside of the those tough training sessions, there are a myriad ways to practice mental toughness in your daily life.

For example, when you take a shower in the morning or after a workout, you have a daily opportunity to hone this skill simply by proactively and purposefully putting yourself in cold water for a few minutes each day. But not in the way you may necessarily think. You can’t jump into a cold shower and shiver, crossing your arms to conserve heat and cursing at the experience the entire time. You need to enter the shower with your arms open, allowing the water to hit your body and accepting the experience for all that is, in both your physiological experience and in your emotional and psychological reactions. It’s tolerance of this moment, or few minutes, each and every day that you learn the connection between a difficult physical experience and the games your mind plays to quickly escape or avoid the unpleasantness. You can practice your mental skills in this moment, repeating phrases reminding yourself that a little cold water will not be harmful.

READ MORE: Why the Mind is a Runner’s Strongest Muscle

This mindset of entering discomfort with tolerance becomes your platform for accessing and developing mental toughness for when it really counts in training and racing, at the last miles of a hard run or when fatigue sets in. Accepting the water and not trying to run away from it, allowing yourself to fully immerse in that experience trains your mind to not immediately grasp for comfort in a uncomfortable situation. Your mind is going to look for comfort or escape from discomfort in a racing situation. It’s going to look for a place of comfort the moment your body crosses the threshold into an area of discomfort. It’s your job to decide whether you let the mind win, and you back down, slow the pace or let off the gas. If you train your mind to tolerate these moments, and have determination to sustain the experience just a moment longer, you are training yourself to be able to access this same skill set come race day.

Rethinking Grit and Mental Toughness

Both grit and mental toughness are important ingredients on the path to success in endurance sports. But I often think both concepts would be better considered from a different framework, that of self-determination. Self-determination comes down to tolerance (are you willing to sit in a cold shower?) and willingness (are you willing to get up at 5:30 a.m. for that Tuesday workout) for a given amount of time in pursuit of a meaningful goal. Basically, how much you are willing to tolerate and for how long will vary based on the meaning behind the goal you are pursuing.

The more meaningful the goal, the more likely you’ll find something inside you to get through those tough moments. Self-determination is 100 percent trainable during your training sessions each week. It comes in the form of finding something within a hard workout you’re chasing down and simply finding the internal determination to do whatever it takes in that moment to achieve that goal. Sometimes that’s just a fartlek-type sprint to the next tree on the path. Sometimes it’s hanging in with a tough pace for a matter of a few miles. If you develop an internal self-talk framework surrounding the idea of self-determination, you can embody the constructs of grit and mental toughness and work to have these skills accessible at your next race.

READ MORE: 5 Tips to Master Pre-Race Anxiety

Justin Ross, Psy.D.
Dr. Justin Ross is a clinical psychologist in Denver, CO, where he specializes in sports performance psychology and health/wellness psychology. He co-owns MindBodyHealth, a mindfulness based practice. He is also a recreational athlete, with a 3:03 Marathon PR. You can connect with Dr. Ross on Twitter at @PsychDenver.