Mental toughness: it is not magic and you are not born with it. It is the will to win and the will to put everything on the line. It is something that can be developed… learned. Before I elaborate, when I use the word “win” I do not only mean the literal win (first place) I refer to every single runner out there trying to beat that one friend or opponent; that runner out there yearning to set a new PR at some race; that runner trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon or finish their first marathon. I am addressing nearly everyone… not just those front-runners and Olympians!
There is an adage based in the psychology of sports that goes something like this: good teams find ways to win in situations that poor teams will lose. Likewise, “good” runners find ways to win in situations that other runners will lose. I’m not talking about talent. I’m talking about finding ways to win even when you are down; not having a good race; being put in a place you are unaccustomed to such things as behind on splits or behind runners you normally beat; or struggling to keep up on a bad day. I tell my runners “give me your best bad day ever.”
“Good” runners find ways to pull it out. “Good” runners find ways to pass someone or stay with someone even on a bad day. “Good” runners will stay with leaders to give them a chance to pick off the victory in a sprint. “Good” runners have many strategies to get through bad patches in a race and still stay in the hunt. “Good” runners don’t back off when the going gets rough. “Good” runners stay on their goal marathon pace one way or another.
This requires more than physical conditioning. Because given two athletes in top physical condition, the one who can fight through adversity will win. Anyone can run well when everything goes their way and you feel great. That is the easy stuff. The real question is how do you react when things are going bad in a race?
This is an element of mental toughness. Someone who is brittle will flop when they are under adverse conditions. But, how many can say they gave it their all, and had the “best bad day possible.” They are also the runners who find excuses for not performing. They are so often willing to blame everything from coaches, to training schedules, to the weather, to the terrain for their bad performance. Of course the excuses go on and on, that is one reason I wrote “Coach, I couldn’t run because…” (due out in January ’09). There are as many excuses as there are runners, races and conditions. “Good” runners simply don’t use them.
The big question is how do you get mentally tough… how do you become one of those “good” runners? It starts in your training. If you are one to cut workouts short because you don’t feel good; if you take short cuts in your training; if you wimp out on a run because of adverse weather; if you back off prescribed workout training paces when it gets uncomfortable; then you are not practicing to be tough. You are conditioning your body and mind to give in at the first signs of fatigue or discomfort.
Get your mind in gear! Do those reps as prescribed. Do those goal paced runs as prescribed. Hang in there for just one more rep or one more mile. Find out which mind games work for you. Tune in. Tune out. You’ll call upon everything you learned about yourself and apply it to race day. Get tough and be a No Excuse Runner.
[NOTE: Do not misinterpret comments in this post. I do not in any way recommend going to limits that will injure or re-injure you. You and your coach must learn what you can tolerate; and know the difference between discomfort in extending your efforts and hurting you. This is NOT a no-pain-no-gain philosophy revisited.]