Finding Ways to Win

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.]


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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8 Responses to Finding Ways to Win

  1. Mark says:

    Coach Dean,

    I am training for my first half marathon and I came across this coaching organization called QT2 based in Boston. They have a website called “Your 26.2” in which they advocate the use of heart rate monitor based training. Can you tell me if this makes sense to you?

    [Begin quote of Your 26.2] Your 26.2 athletes train according to HR zones that are calculated relative to the athlete’s particular Lactic Acid Threshold, the point at which the body can no longer buffer lactic acid as quickly as it is created. To this end, lactic threshold is typically established through field-testing, which captures an average HR over a given race distance. Along with maximum and resting HR’s (The Karvonen Method), this can be analyzed to determine the athlete’s threshold and corresponding HR training zones.

    Once these HR zones are established, the athlete used them every single day, with the exception of “best effort” intensity days, when HR is not measured. The bulk of the runner’s training takes places in Z1, which tends to fall within the “3 to 5” range on the perceived exertion scale of “1 to 10,” (with 10 being the hardest). Initially, athletes are concerned that they are not training hard enough, because perceived exertion will be very low and paces are quite slow, relative to others. As the runner becomes more fit, the cardiovascular system dilates, causing HR frequency to slow and stroke volume to increase. This makes it significantly more difficult to get into an assigned training zone. All the while, the body is able to keep up with (and adapt to) the increase in intensity because the peripheral fatigue has been offset by a gradual improvement in overall durability.

    The patient athlete sticks to his/her training zones, allowing the body’s soft tissue to stretch and strengthen over time without injury, and then reaps the aerobic rewards of consistency in training. The impatient athlete is easily frustrated by the early training zones, and ignores them. This builds short-term fitness more quickly, but increases the runner’s risk of significant injury, due to soft tissue that is not prepared for the demands that are being placed upon it. Great fitness is useless when it can do nothing but sit on the couch for two weeks, because of an injury.[End Quote of Your 26.2]

    They assigned me heart rate zones and I tried to follow them. However, the assigned “recovery” heart rate zone was so low (106 to 128 beats per minute) that I could barely run at all and I ended up running a 12:20 minute/mile pace. So, I quit the program. Just wondering what your thoughts are on heart rate zones.


    • Dean Hebert says:

      I do not believe in HR training other than for a novice athlete who does not understand pace or effort. It is an ok biofeedback to help someone learn this. However, HR has no correlation to times and paces. No one can say if you ran at 145 HR avg. that you will qualify for Boston for instance. Whereas you can say if you run under 3:30 or avg. 8:00/mile (or whatever) you will. Period. And that is not to even introduce all the inaccuracies involved with HR training.

      You will encounter exactly what you experienced time and time again… I have. Zones that are too challenging or not challenging enough, too broad so they encompass a wide variety of paces, etc.

      That is the bottom line. Neuromuscular training is superior in that way. You train at paces that condition you for your race. Your heart is coming along for the ride and will be conditioned as you progress too. But IT does not dictate pace… your neuromuscular system does.

      That is how I design running programs.

      • Mark says:

        Coach Dean,

        It is interesting how my interaction with this Boston based coaching group was quite the opposite of what you described in your post. You described runners who don’t want to run on a lousy weather day or don’t want to run hard because it’s uncomfortable.

        I, on the other hand, was getting the sense that my training program wasn’t really going to prepare me for my first half marathon.

        And when it comes to being mentally prepared for a race, if you really don’t believe that the training program you have used is sound, you probably won’t stick with that program for more than a few weeks. And even if you did stick with it, you’d fall apart during the race at the first sign of adversity.

        I guess if I was to give any advice to running coaches, it would be this:

        Make sure the runners you are coaching are reasonably convinced that your training program will deliver the desired results. Don’t assume that a runner is convinced just because he or she is currently following the program because that runner might quit soon based on doubts.

        Also, don’t assume a runner who isn’t following the program is not good at following directions or willing to work hard. It might be because that runner has doubts about the training program and doesn’t want to ask for elaboration from the coach because of not want to appear disrespectful to an authority figure.

        I already have much more of a “mental buy in” to the concept of goal paced miles as described by yourself and Coach Joe English than I had with my previous training program.

  2. Aric Keith says:

    This is an excellent philosophy. One thing I would caution (which is alluded to in your note at the bottom), is that without a carefully guided plan, it’s really easy to overdo it. I know you’ve said it before, on this very blog, but easy days need to be easy days. And your plan needs to be realistic for your abilities. Trying to go out and conquer a pace you are just not ready for because “your plan” (which you cobbled together yourself without much objectivity) calls for it is a recipe for disaster.

  3. Dean Hebert says:

    Aric, – funny you say that about the easy days, because that was part of a recent discussion I had with 2 of my runners.

  4. Dean Hebert says:

    Good points and yes… you need to believe in what you are doing. Though I have had some who were skeptical.. followed and then were so surprised they improved that the 100% buy in came afterwards.

  5. Lindsay Cook says:

    Hello Dean, This is a good article – you cover many valid points! I specialise in Mental Performance for athletes – I would be happy to discuss further with you. Please check out my website –
    Kind regards
    Lindsay Cook

  6. Hi Dean! Great post.
    I definitely agree with how you describe a good runner. I too believe that a good runner endures and keep his goal

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