Mental toughness and running go hand in hand, as the age-old adage “running is 90% mental and 10% physical” is often brought up when discussing the role that mental game plays in running performance. Indeed, many elite athletes attribute their improved performances to enhanced mental toughness, often through the help of a sports psychologist or mental game coach. Listed below are just a few of the strategies that runners can use to improve their mental toughness, according to mental game coach Dean Hebert.
Have a Plan
One of the biggest mistakes that runners make is approaching workouts and races without a defined plan. Before an important race, sit down and write out everything you intend to do, from pre-race routine to post-race meeting locations. Then, decide how you will tackle the race. Instead of saying, “I hope to break 24:00 in the 5k” say, “I will run my first mile in 7:50, maintain pace for the 2nd mile, run 7:45 for the third mile, and finish the race with an all-out sprint.” Also, determine what you will do if your race does not go according to plan. If you run your first mile in 8:00 instead of 7:50, develop a plan for how you will rally to make the next mile faster.
Control the Controllables
Would you waste energy the night before a race by playing a game of basketball, going for a 10-mile run, or walking for hours around a mall? If you avoid wasting physical energy before a race, you should avoid wasting mental energy as well. Runners often devote unnecessary time worrying about factors that are completely out of their control, such as the weather, the competition, and what other people will say or think about their performance. Avoid falling into this trap and only focus on what you can control, such as getting enough rest, eating and hydrating properly, and thinking positive thoughts.
Reframe Negative Thoughts
When we think negatively, we subconsciously signal to our body that we are in distress which can affect our performance. By reframing our negative thoughts into positive ones we can avoid unnecessary stress in our lives and become mentally stronger in the process. For instance, on a day that you are overly tired or simply don’t want to run, instead of thinking, “I am so tired, this run is going to be terrible,” change your thinking to, “completing runs when I am tired is great practice for when I get to the end of the race. I’m glad I have this opportunity.” Small changes in your mental framing can make huge differences not only in your happiness but in your performance as well.
Being able to see yourself achieving success is a great strategy to help you realize your goals. In the weeks leading up to a race, visualize yourself in as many different scenarios as possible. For instance, see yourself passing mile markers and hitting the appropriate splits; visualize passing people at the end of the race, and crossing the finish line just under your goal. Be sure to also visualize how you will handle various situations that come up during the race. For instance, visualize how you will react if you start to fall off pace by seeing yourself getting stronger and overcoming challenges.
Develop a Mantra
Mantras, which are short phrases that can be used to remind yourself of specific goals, such as being strong, tough, confident, etc., can play a big role in athletic performance. Mantras can literally be anything that you find meaningful, such as “I am tough” “quick feet,” or “no fear.” During a race when confidence is waning or discomfort sets in, repeating your mantra to improve your mindset.
Practice, Practice, Practice
While these strategies are important for improving mental toughness, a runner shouldn’t expect to first use them on race day and see results. The more that each technique is practiced, the more effective they will be during a race.