Four Workouts to Help Build Mental Toughness

Train your Brain!
Train your Brain!

Of course it’s important for us runners to be physically strong, but anyone who has run an endurance race knows that there comes a point when your mind does the heavy lifting.  When your legs are tired and your body aches and your brain starts to give up, the key to saving a challenging race is what you do mentally to push through the pain and the rough spots.

My coach puts a few specific workouts in my training not to just train my body for optimal race performance, but to help get my mind ready for race day.  By adding workouts specific to developing mental toughness you can effectively “strength train” your brain, and come race day it will be a lot easier help you push through and perform your best.

If you follow me, you might be thinking, “well that’s easy for you to say, Miss 100-Miler!” since ultra runners are notorious for having the grit and mental fortitude to push through the even the darkest rough spots.  But I assure you, these workouts aren’t just ultra-specific and their principles can benefit any runner whether she’s looking to crush a Marathon A Standard or nervous about completing a 5k.

Fast Finish Long Run

The fast finish long run is one of my absolute favorite workouts. The goal is to build endurance and practice running hard as you would at the end of the race. Just like at the end of a race when your legs are tired and your energy is flagging, you’ll need that extra mental strength to help push you through and kick it in. The fast finish long run does just that.

How and when to do it—Depending on the length of your training cycle, perform this workout at least twice. I use fast finish long runs as a race dress rehearsal. I choose the course based on what’s most similar to the race I’m training for and make sure to dress, eat and carry food/water exactly as I plan to on race day. You can do you fast finish run based on time or distance, for example, 20 miles with the last 6 miles at race pace or 3 hours with the last 50 minutes at race pace. Run the first few miles really easy and a little slower than normal and then pick it up to your normal steady long run pace before dropping down to your race pace for the final miles.

What if I’m not going for distance?  You can reap the mental benefits whether your long run is 20 miles or 3.  So if your training is on the shorter side, use the 80/20 principle: run 80 percent of your run as you normally would, then for the last 20 percent, kick it into gear and run at race pace.  For a 5k that would mean the last 1,000 meters (or just over half a mile) would be your final 20 percent.  For an 8 miler, 20 percent would be about the last 1.5 miles.  For a 40 minute run, the last 20 percent would be the last 8 minutes.


Back-to-Back Long Runs

Back-to-back long runs are the bread and butter of any ultra marathon training plan (although below you’ll learn how you can benefit if you’re not an ultra runner). Like the fast finish long run, back-to-backs simulate late-stage race fatigue and really build mental toughness by forcing you to push your tired mind and body to complete the workout to build endurance and confidence. Back-to-backs are usually only added to plans for those training for 50 miles and up, with the most common workout being back-to-back 20 milers.

How to do it—Take two days in a row (usually Saturday and Sunday if that works for your schedule) and run long both days. Back-to-backs can be as short as a 15 miler one day and 10 the next or as long as you want, like 30 and 20.  Not only will you build endurance very quickly, but by doing back-to-backs, you’re building mental toughness by fueling properly in between, getting enough rest and actually waking up the next day and pushing through the second run.

When to do itSome ultra runners argue that back-to-backs should be performed every single weekend until race day to help prepare you for the distance. If you’re a beginning ultra runner, add in back-to-backs slowly (every other week or so) to start out before doing them more regularly.  Marathon runners can add in a second longest long run each week for the same principle.

What if I run races shorter than a marathon?  You can benefit from the principles of the back-to-back too!  Instead of using the day after your long run as a complete rest day, head out for a short recovery run and keep the effort light and easy.  By going into it tired, you’ll help build that mental strength!


Hill Repeats

English: A ultramarathoner running the 32 Mile...
By adding hill repeats into your schedule, you can help prepare body and mind for tough courses. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I always groan when I look at my schedule and see hill repeats on there for the week. It’s the workout I struggle with the most mentally, but it has some of the best gains for the types of races I run and can make anyone—road or trail runner—stronger for race day. Hill repeats push you out of your comfort zone and not only train you to attack the hills with physical strength and power, but give you the confidence and toughness to conquer any hill come race day.

How and when to do it—The frequency of hill repeat workouts will depend on the race you’re training for. If you’re scheduled for a hilly road marathon or trail ultra with thousands of feet of gain, it’s best to do hill repeats often.  Otherwise, do them when you feel you need a good tough workout.  Hill repeats can replace a second long run of your back-to-backs (this will really push you out of your comfort zone) or on a day when you regularly do a speed workout (this is how I usually do them).

Find a hill that’s similar to the ones you’ll see on race day (in grade and terrain) and after a short warm up, run up the hill at 5K-10K pace for 60-90 seconds 6-10 times based on your experience level and jog back down. As you increase your endurance, you can start to increase the time and amount of repeats.

Cross Training

I know cross training isn’t a specific running workout, but if you’re like me, you really love to run and don’t want to do anything else. But some of my biggest mental gains have come from my cross training. Part of the reason is because I have to motivate myself to actually do it, but I’ve also learned a lot about running by cross training. My favorite form of cross training is yoga. Bringing myself to my mat and learning to be present and focused has helped my learn how to get past some of the roughest, darkest patches in my races.

Forcing yourself to push past the uncomfortable spots of any cross training workout will help you mentally focus and stay tough on race day. Remember, the best form of cross training is one that fits into your schedule and that you enjoy and can stick with. Whether it’s CrossFit, yoga, barre, spinning, swimming or Zumba, lessons learned during your cross training sessions will help you become a stronger runner.

What are your favorite workouts to build mental toughness?

Trail and 100 mile ultra runner who still loves a good road marathon every now and then. Lifetime Northeast Ohio resident that dreams of the mountains out west, but loves CLE too much. Sometimes a vegan, sometimes does yoga, always loves a good craft beer and post race donuts.

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  1. For me, it’s tempo runs. I love the short, fast stuff, but sustaining a medium-fast pace for prolonged periods takes every ounce of mental fortitude I have (and some creativity with the mantras!).

  2. The mental toughness trick that made the biggest difference for me this year was to make sure that all of my runs, especially easy runs, took about as long or longer than workout runs. When easy runs take 1:20 or 1:30, an hour on the track doesn’t feel nearly as long and hard as it really is.