Mental Toughness: Why You Need it Now.

This is the flag you want to carry to the starting line of your next marathon! Image via basketballismypassion.com.

Fall marathon season is on the horizon.  Those of us who have 26.2 in sight have no doubt been logging lots of miles, running for hours on end, thinking about our diets and race day nutrition, racing tune-up races, figuring out how to meet our goal pace and generally getting fired up for race day.  That is a lot to take in.  But it is not enough.

One aspect of training we often neglect is mental training.  Don’t do it.  It is a huge mistake to overlook the mental side of racing. And when it comes to the marathon, mental toughness might just be the most important mental skill you can bring with you to the starting line.

Let’s be real: the marathon is hard.  Racing 26.2 miles is not easy for anyone – even on the best days when everything seems to come together seamlessly.  More often than not, something will unravel on race day.  How you handle it will not only make a difference in your race outcome, but no doubt in how you perceive your months of hard work post-race.  Make no mistake – if you mentally cave in the marathon, it can stick with you for months, if not years.

So in addition to whipping your body into shape, it is time to start thinking about and improving your mental toughness for race day.

What is Mental Toughness?

According to Olympian and author Jeff Galloway: “The brain has two hemispheres that are separated and don’t interconnect. The left-brain tries to steer us towards pleasure and away from discomfort. The intuitive-creative right side connects us to our hidden strengths.”

The left brain fears pain and in the marathon can be the devil on your shoulder telling you to seek comfort by slowing down or giving up. The right brain is the angel side telling you to ignore the devil and give it everything you have. To get mentally tough we need to strengthen our angel right side so it can kick that wussy left-brain devil to the curb.

While they’re both cute, choose to listen to the right side to be your toughest self on race day! Image via musthavecute.com

That said, mental toughness does not mean pushing yourself at all costs (read: making bad choices when clearly you cannot push on).  To the contrary, it simply means having the ability to push yourself to the limit given your training and your race day circumstances.  It may mean pushing through pain during the last 10k of a race.  It may mean refocusing on your goal after you already fell off pace due to injury, a side stitch, a GI problem (you name it).  It may mean refocusing your goals when it is 85 degrees on race day instead of 35.  There are hundreds of examples that could come into play that require you to get your head on straight to have a good race.  Chances are, one of those hundreds of scenarios will come into play on race day.  Are you ready?

Let’s Start With an Example

Typically, we concern ourselves with mental toughness only after it has become abundantly clear that it is lacking.  I am no different.  But last weekend, I got smacked with the reality that I need to hone in and improve my mental game.  How?  I raced a half marathon.  The weather was perfect and I felt amazing.  I know I am in great shape and I thought for sure a PR was in sight as I passed the 10k mark feeling like a million bucks despite the hills I was running over.  But then – BOOM – out of nowhere – I got a debilitating side stitch.  A “bring you to your knees” side stitch.  It hurt – really bad – and it definitely slowed me down.

Even worse, it killed my mental game.  Within minutes I went from feeling super strong and almost euphoric about the PR I knew I had in me to wondering whether I would be able to finish at all, let alone within a respectable time (for me). Fortunately, after about a mile and a half, the stitch was gone.  Great news, right?  Yes and no. It was great that it was gone, but with it went my mental game as well.  I knew a PR was now off the table and I really had to talk myself into picking the pace back up.  I was sort of successful, but in large part unsuccessful.  I carried on, but never found the fire in my belly that I carried during the first 7.5 miles. So I ended up finishing the race with a decent time, but was super bummed at myself for not being able to mentally refocus on my original goal pace after my setback.

Why is this a big deal?  Not so much because it reflected in my time, but more importantly, post-race I felt the painful sting of giving up when I knew I had more in me. I let the left-brain devil have way too much air-time and wasn’t as tough as I could have been. Had I gotten my head back into the game, sure, I still would have been a minute or so off my goal. But I would have the satisfaction of knowing I overcame adversity and I did my best anyway.

Being as tough as you can be makes a very big difference to a girl post-race.  Trust me.

So What’s A Girl to Do? What Can We Do Now to Become Mentally Tough for Marathon Morning?

1.  Admit it: your mental toughness needs work.  Yes, you are fit and strong and awesome.  But your mental toughness could always use some fine-tuning.  Always.  Just like you run tempo runs and long runs every season, you also need strengthen your mind for your race.  I recall when I first started racing and marathoning – my times were dropping easily and every race seemed to be a PR.  People spoke of mental toughness and I thought to myself, “I am a mentally tough rock star – I just nailed that race.” Oh how I was wrong.  Once you become a more seasoned runner and your PRs are more like a few seconds rather than many minutes, you are skating on a much finer line between success and failure.  It is here – where you are truly finding your limits – that difficult times will likely arise and crush you if you are not prepared.

Part of becoming mentally tough is believing you can do it! Image via crossfitoakland.com

2.  Train tough: don’t wimp out during training runs.  When you are feeling beat up during that interval session, do not wimp out and take an extra long recovery time.  If you are tired 15 miles into a 20 miler, don’t cut it short.  Power through it.  If you allow yourself to wimp out in training, you will be more likely to do so on race day too.  [BIG FAT ASTERISK – sometimes you do of course need to take a break – always listen to your body.  But don’t get into the practice of being too easy on yourself if it isn’t necessary.  Tired is not equal to injured/sick/etc.]

3.  Set the right goals: tough, but achievable.  Be sure your race goals correspond to your fitness.  Mental toughness will not help someone with the fitness for a 4:00 marathon to fight her way to a Boston qualifier.   But it will help her nail that 4:00 marathon – maybe even with a minute or two to spare!

4.  Get out there and practice being race tough!  Run several races during training if possible.  Yeah, you are logging lots of miles.  You are tired.  And your races won’t likely be PRs since you are running on tired legs.  But there is no better way to feel the pain and overcome the accompanying desire to give up/wimp out than to get out there and toe the line in shorter races.  10ks are perfect for this in my opinion (and I am actually calendaring a few after last week’s mental debacle).  The 10k is hard.  It hurts and it is easy to lose focus.  Run a couple.  Hurt some.  If you are pushing yourself, you’ll want to give up.  Don’t.  Learning to fight through and practicing that fight will take you far on race day.

Mint smiling big but feeling stuck in a big fat hurt locker

5.  Visualize a tough self on race day.  Imagine yourself crossing the finish line with your goal in hand.  Imagine yourself handling adversity like a tough champ during the race. During your training runs, think about your race, think about feeling strong and crossing that line with a big personal record. My son James and I always said that when negative thoughts invaded, we’d visualize blowing them up.  Blow up the bad.  Focus on a picture of you being tough on race day and burn that image into your mind. (For more on visualization go here.)

6.  Share your expectations of a tough race day self with your friends and family.  This is a very easy, yet effective way to push yourself.  Set your goals and tell everyone what they are.  Yes, even the crazy, over the top, aggressive goal.  Put it out there.  Then on race day, when it is hard and you are thinking of cutting yourself some slack, you will think about explaining to people why you were off.  You could make something up.  Or you could admit you mentally caved.  Those options are really awful though.  Even better, channel that –> focus hard and push.  You didn’t bust your butt on the roads at 4:30 am day after day for 4.5 months to have a mediocre race.  You did it to meet your goals.  Your big one.  Now go get it and get ready to tell your friends/family that you NAILED it.

7.  Find mantras that remind you to stay tough.   This worked beautifully for me at the Wisconsin Marathon.  For the first part, I wanted to focus on staying strong and smart.  I didn’t want to go out too fast or waste too much energy.  Strong and slow.  Calm and smart.  I repeated these mantras to myself over and over.  Later, in the race, my message and focus changed to keeping on pace and staying strong.  Many of the pros do this for good reason – it works.

8.  Realize that sometimes being tough means giving in.  Sometimes, it really is just too hot.  Or your hamstring really is injured.  Or it simply isn’t your day.  You might have to stop.  DNF.  Or do the slow death march in to the finish.  It stinks, but sometimes the reality simply is that the situation is way beyond something we can mentally overcome.  Know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.  Sometimes there is valor in being smart enough to throw in the towel (ask Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman about the 2012 Men’s Olympic Marathon).

9.  Cut yourself some slack.  Finally, if your race doesn’t pan out or you can’t overcome whatever race day throws at you, cut yourself some slack.  It can be incredibly hard to overcome a bad race – particularly if it just wasn’t your day to start with.  If you have a bad race and/or drop the ball on your mental game, learn from it, then put it behind you.  The beauty of our sport is that there is always another training season and another race.

Be tough: Go get it!

Do you have any tips for getting mentally tough?  If so, please share!

Mindi is a serial marathoner. She is a private practice attorney, wife and mom of two awesome (and super fast) boys, ages 12 and 14. She coaches Girls on the Run and is a big advocate of youth running.

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9 comments

  1. I found the same thing about mental toughness after I reached a certain level with my racing. Once I got to the sub-19 fk, sub 1:30 half marathon fitness my lack of mental training really hampered my progress. I’m getting there. I worked really hard on my mental game last year and I had some decent PRs to show for it. But it’s amazing how our bodies, without tough minds can race the same pace over and over even though we theoretically should be much faster! My coach always says that I need to tell myself that a half marathon at 6:33 pace is going to hurt as much as a half marathon at 6:23, so go run the 6:23! We’ll see if I can be that mentally tough next year.

    1. I love the thinking of you coach…he is very right. A 6:23 pace is going to hurt just as much as a 6:33 pace. I need to remember that for my upcoming half (no where near that pace, thought, lol).

      1. I am going to stick this advice in my head too (although it will be 7:40 pace rather than 7:50 pace). Why – it is so true!! It IS going to hurt if you are anywhere near your capabilities. So suck it up, get mentally tough, and grab those extra minutes while you can (because YOU CAN!)

        Michelle – what is your goal race this fall?

  2. Great Advice, Mint.
    I tell my girlfriends to always count themselves in! Some of them are so quick to count themselves out. They get discouraged and talk themselves out of achieving their goals. What has held back some of my friends from reaching their potential, is not their fear of failure, but their fear of success. Sometimes I wonder if society’s way of discouraging girls/women from being confident has something to do with that. When I was young, it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t be able to do something. I know I am an exception, so I pass on my way of thinking to my athletic friends. We all have potential.
    My motto has always been, “The greater the odds, the harder I fight!” – the mentally unbreakable one, Heidi from the Nati.

    1. Yes! The fear of success is very real for a lot of us and I agree it’s ingrained in us. I think it’s partly from the socialization away from “boy activities” like athletics and getting dirty and sweaty and making ugly faces. We’re socialized to be lesser than men to catch a man: make less money, be softer than him, be smaller than him, etc. I think there is this underlying message in much of our culture that high-achieving women are less desirable and I think that’s partly to blame for this phenomenon on a macro-level. At the individual level it takes a lot of self-acceptance and self-love to demand success of yourself, so a lot of us deal with self-loathing or self-esteem issues that we must overcome too. Great point! Thanks!!!

  3. I love the way you think Heidi! And I also love to hear you are pushing and inspiring your friends.

    I don’t perceive it as a fear of success, but more of a fear of pain, and ultimately failure. When we push ourselves to the limit, we are skirting the line of great success or – frankly – crash and burn. We want to avoid that crash and burn so sometimes we are afraid of getting out there and getting gutsy! But if you have the fitness and it feels like your day – no fear should hold you back!

  4. Great post, Mint! I really like how you pointed out that goals should be achievable. That has been a stumbling block for me in two of my three marathons, where I think I’ll get this lofty goal, but my training/fitness means it’s not possible. And then when I realize I won’t get it, well, that’s when the mental game starts! Definitely will be using these tips in hopes that my upcoming race is my first marathon with no crying involved!