Mental toughness

Stephen Scullion Dublin

When you are trying to convince your sedentary friends to take up running how do you sell it? Do you talk about the freedom and how relaxed, happy and full of life you feel? This is a great image of running but we probably know that it doesn't always feel like that.

To get better you have to work harder and sometimes that hurts. How do you motivate yourself to put in the tough sessions or to keep running up that never-ending hill?

Each runner responds to a tough training session differently from the next. Here are three runners who you may know:

  1. Paul dreads the tough sessions on his programme. He dislikes the discomfort and tends to back off the pace when the going gets tough. He never seems to push himself on the rare occasions when he is at these sessions.  (He finds that he often has other things on that he must do rather than go along to those sessions).
  2. Sam embraces them and enjoys the challenge of completing them. During the warm up she is thinking to herself "Bring it on!" During the session she is completely focused and pushes on when the going gets tough.
  3. Amanda finds them hard work but uses strategies to get herself through and then feels on top of the world once she has completed them.  You can see the satisfaction in her face at the end and she is often buzzing for 24 hours afterwards.

You can probably relate to one of those runners. One of them may even be you.

So why are some runners tough and others less tough? Are some people born mentally tough or is it something that you can learn? A runner who is mentally tough could be described as confident, committed, positive, determined and ambitious. How did they get to be like that? Are they simply born that way or have experiences through life developed them?

Like any nature versus nurture argument the answer is probably 'a bit of both' so if this is the case any runner can toughen up if he or she wants to. However, modern life tends to lend itself more to comfort than discomfort. It could  be argued that we have all gone a bit soft in the 21st century with our heated homes and work places, comfortable cars to take us from A to B and everything we could possibly need in the shops. To develop mental toughness you may consider taking yourself out of your comfort zone occasionally by, for example, walking or cycling rather than taking the car, swimming in open water rather than the heated swimming pool or putting your name down for a tougher than average running challenge!

To be confident in your ability to complete a tough challenge you need to know that you are capable. Your past experiences will indicate your capabilities. You also need to be be committed and determined. If you know that you are capable but don't have the drive and ambition you are not tough enough to achieve the outcome. Likewise, if you have the desire to achieve the ambition but are not confident in your abilities your chances of success are less. To develop mental toughness you need to be positive that you can do this. By saying to yourself, "I can and I will do this thing" you are programming your mind for success in the future. Using visualisation and imagery will also help you to develop the traits of a mentally tough runner and make success more likely.

All of this can happen before you start that tough challenge but how are you going to stay focused and push on when the going gets tough during the session? You may know either of these runners below. They train together and both get through a tough hill session but have different ways of doing it:

  1. AsJamie approaches the hill he mentally detatches his legs from his head and says to himself "detatching legs". By doing this whatever burning sensation the legs are subjected to Jamie doesn't feel it. Those legs are no longer his. They belong to someone else and he doesn't feel the discomfort and so trots up the hill happily.
  2. Ryan doesn't think too much about the hill as he is approaching it but once he is on the way up and the burning starts he feels it and embraces it! This feeling of fatigue in his legs motivates him to push on harder. It hurts because it is working and that makes him feel good!

These strategies are sometimes called disassociation ('tuning out')  and association ('tuning in')

You may fit with one of these runners. Do you block out the pain or do you embrace it? Next time you are running a hard session you may like to try one of these techniques and then try the other on a later date. Is there one that works better for you? You may also want to use one or the other in a race situation but you should be aware that some studies have shown that if a runner uses disassociation for long periods of a race it can result in 'hitting the wall' early by not 'hearing' the warning signs that the body sends that they are running too fast and other studies have seen runners losing their sense of pace judgement and slowing down because they were so absorbed in other thoughts. The best strategy is probably to employ a mixture of both by t'uning in' to how you are running when you are feeling strong and 'tuning out' during a particularly challenging part.

You can also work on your mental toughness when the training session over. Think positively by reflecting on the session you have just done and the instances where you displayed mental toughness. Did you drive on when it got hard? Did you approach it with confidence? Take the positives from this session and you will eagerly anticipate the next opportunity you have to put in a tough session!

Better still ask your coach for advice on the best ways to overcome tough sessions; they may have a very simple and effective answer