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 and be the very best runner you can be. It is something that can be developed because it is a learned set of behaviors. Before I go on let me clarify that when I describe a runner as a “winner” or “good” I do not mean just the literal win (first place) or being ranked high in your age group. 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 and that runner trying to finish their first marathon or complete their first 5K. I am addressing virtually everyone… not just 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. My refrain to my runners is “give me your best bad day possible.”
Good runners find ways to pull it out. Good runners find ways to pass someone or stay with someone. Good runners will stay with the lead pack 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 paces one way or another. Good runners find ways to do their very best even on a really crappy day. [By the way, for the record, I know some fast runners who aren’t as “good” a runner as many with slower times.]
Given two athletes of equal ability and physical condition, it is the one who can fight through adversity who will win. Anyone can run well when everything goes your 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 or even a workout? Do you just “bag it” and wait for a good day or do you use every tool in your physical and mental tool kit to get through it? So you see, this requires more than physical conditioning or talent. It requires training your mind in specific ways.
This is one perspective of mental toughness. Someone who is brittle will flop when they are under adverse conditions. But, how many can say they give it their all on bad days and give your “best bad day possible.”
There are also the runners who find excuses for not performing. So often they are 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…”. There are as many excuses as there are runners, races and conditions. Good runners simply don’t use them.
The 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; if you slow down before the finish line on the track on each repeat; 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 need to call upon everything you learned about yourself during practices to apply it to race day. Get tough and be a “no excuse” runner. Find ways to win.
[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.]