I had this wonderful inquiry from one of my high school runners. Can you tell me why running is 90% mental?
Here are answers (yes plural) to your question.
Let’s use a gallon of water as symbolic of your capabilities. It equals 100% of what you are capable of. It represents that if EVERYTHING were perfect mentally and physically you would perform at this theoretical “best” level. I say theoretical because there is no way to determine when we have met that limit. There is no measuring stick, no container, no test and no laboratory that can determine this for any individual.
Be clear – there is no such thing as giving 110%! A gallon is a gallon. That is all the container can hold. There only is 100%; that by definition is everything. The problem is that we most likely can always squeeze a little more out of ourselves than we do which only goes to prove we in fact – in reality – only give LESS THAN 100%. We have not really filled our gallon container – there is most always more room.
OK, so what role is the mental game? Nobody knows exactly for the same reasons already stated about the 100% potential we each have. For some runners it might be 10% and others it might be 99%. What we DO know is that you could be 100% physically ready and in shape (whatever that is; again this is theoretical) and if you are not mentally strong you will not capitalize on your physical conditioning. [It would be like filling the gallon container with only 120 of the 128 ounces.]
At the same time, mental preparation or mental roughness cannot make you something you are not. It does not make you faster than what you are capable of it only allows you to take advantage of every single drop of conditioning you have. It allows you to come as close as possible to your 100%.
Since sports are a physical endeavor with physical limits reliant on physical conditioning you cannot do more than what you are trained and capable of doing.
Example: If you have run a 6:00 mile and the next day you run 5:59 (this eliminates better conditioning as a variable) we know that you improved by a percentage but that does NOT mean you GAVE more than you have. You only proved that the 6:00 was less than 100% of your capabilities. We do NOT know (because it cannot be measured) if 5:59 is 100% or maybe only 80% of your current capabilities.
[You see, we still don’t know if 5:59 is 120 ounces out of the 128 ounces/1 gallon or if it is 127 ounces or if it is 95 ounces.]
Introducing the conditioning variable; you may further lower your time in coming weeks but it is not because you are GIVING 110% or whatever, you are merely increasing your physical capacity (through training) and you perform better. Since you in fact achieved this new level of performance it was indeed within your capabilities (otherwise you could not have done it – it would have been beyond your capabilities).
Introducing the mental conditioning variable; you may run faster yet because you’ll get closer to that true 100% capability. We get closer to the full gallon capacity.
So, in practice mental toughness gets all you can out of your physical game. It does not get you more.
And the beauty of all this is that we never know what that potentials are! So we keep at it!