4 Ways To Build Mental Toughness

Deep breathing and positive thinking can help distance runners perform their best.

Jenny Hadfield |

Running is largely a mental game. These skills are both training practices that will make you a better athlete and performance tools you can use on race day.

Gain control over your breathing.

When the gun goes off, you begin to place physical stress on your body that increases throughout the event. When done properly, breathing can help mute and manage that stress.

The breath is both a release valve and a trigger for your nervous system. When you breathe in a short and hungry way through your mouth, you are telling your body that you are in fight-or-flight mode. The reaction releases hormones that can help with short bursts of work, but the effect isn’t useful for marathoners.

On the flip side, when you breathe in through your nose, deeply into your belly, and out through your mouth, this has a calming effect on the body and mind. This kind of breathing takes time and training to learn. Slow your breathing and sync it to your steps while you run – breathe in through your nose for three or four steps, then out through your mouth for three. This can help you remain calm and focused.

Maintain a positive mindset.

Deep breathing can help with this, too. While my mind is calmly focused on my breath, I have the opportunity to work on maintaining a positive mindset about my performance. This is harder to do when your breathing is out of control. You slip into negative thoughts like, “I’m falling behind,” “I can’t do this,” “I hurt,” or “This sucks.”

Negativity destroys performance because you are telling your body that you are not good enough, and your body will follow your mind. Instead, energise your mind with positive thoughts. Creating mantras can help. One of mine is, “I’m feeling good; I’m looking good. I ought to be in Hollywood.” I say that over and over because it has meaning for me. Synchronise your mantra with your breathing and you’ll enter a focused state of flow.

Practice mental imagery.

Navy SEALs have a saying, “We win in our mind before we enter the battlefield.” What that means to runners is, you have to have envisioned achieving your goal for the race in your mind before you get to race day.

When I say my mantra, in my mind, I am seeing myself as a rock star. I see myself full of energy and vitality. I see myself just dominating. And it works – your body starts to believe your mind.

Set the right goals.

First, you need to understand why you are doing the race. What’s your goal? Is it to finish in a certain time, or is it just on your schedule because a friend wanted you to do it? You have to know why you are taking on this challenge, because when the going gets tough, if you can’t answer the question, your performance will suffer.

In the past, we used to have 50-hour nonstop training events, and if you don’t know your “why,” you’re in trouble. But if, say, you are a mother, and your “why” is to demonstrate to your kids that you are strong enough to be there for them no matter what, you are going to crush it.

When you know your “why,” you can focus on smaller goals like running one kilometre at a time, or breaking the distance up into three or four parts. It’s also important to mentally celebrate after you achieve every micro goal. Create a little visual celebration in your mind where you jump up and down and high five people. When you rack up these small victories, it helps maintain positivity.

If you can integrate this mental, emotional, and spiritual training into your buildup and your racing, you are going to develop faster and meet your goals more effectively because you are bringing more of yourself – not just your legs and lungs – to the table.


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