Runners devote a lot of time to their training plan. No matter the goal, it’s often hard not to get wrapped up in mileage and workouts.
Despite the obvious physicality of running, there is also an enormous mental component to training and racing. Building mental fitness alongside physical fitness is essential to long-term success and longevity in the sport.
We’ve all struggled with difficult runs, bad races or even weeks of low focus and motivation. Hitting rough patches is unavoidable over months and years of training. Knowing how to push through these challenges can make the difference between a discouraging and successful training cycle — and mental fitness is key.
While there are many components to mental fitness, we’ll discuss three that are especially relevant to runners: mental toughness, combatting anxiety and using stress to your advantage.
Mental toughness is the reserve you draw on to help you through a variety of difficult scenarios. They might include any or all of the following:
- Pushing through a challenging workout
- Sustaining goal pace in the final miles of your marathon
- Bouncing back from injury
- Staying consistent with running during periods of low motivation
- Getting out the door in unfavorable weather conditions
Mental toughness is a skill developed over time. Think of it as a muscle — the more you use it, the stronger you become. Sometimes with running, the hardest part is getting started. When the weather is less than ideal, getting yourself out the door can be a big win. As you practice pushing yourself in small ways, it gets easier to face the bigger challenges that may come down the road.
Learning to get used to being uncomfortable is a skill that improves with practice. This doesn’t mean running with an injury or outright pain — in that case, mental toughness may require making the smart decision to rest for a day or two.
Instead, this is the kind of discomfort that comes from a hard tempo run, intervals on the track or hill repeats.
Your training should help you build your tolerance to these kinds of challenges in a way that’s safe but also allows you to keep pushing yourself as your toughness and tolerance (and fitness) grows.
When you face anxiety about an upcoming race or workout, it can be challenging not to let yourself be consumed by your thoughts and fears. But there are ways to turn your anxiety into more useful and productive behavior. Physical and mental preparation both have a place in reducing anxiety and stressful thoughts.
Physical preparation — training with appropriate consistency, mileage and workouts — is an important part of readying yourself and reducing anxiety for an upcoming race. Working with a coach or someone who can give you constructive feedback is especially useful, so you don’t second-guess decisions about your own training. Knowing you have successfully pushed through long runs and workouts that are appropriate to your race can be a huge confidence boost.
Mental training and preparation are just as important as the physical component. While a dedicated sports psychologist may be necessary if you suffer extreme anxiety, two options to try on your own include the following:
1. Mental dress rehearsal: Practice running through the race in your head, thinking about the start, middle and later sections of the race where you may begin to fatigue, and finishing strong. Visualizing your upcoming race (or even a workout) in as much detail as possible can make it less stressful over time.
2. Anticipate your problems and solutions: It may sound contradictory to think about worst-case scenarios, but by making them more familiar they can often become less scary. Consider what worries you most (from minor to significant), and then think about how you can handle each one in a way you’ll feel good about.
Preparation gives you a big advantage on race day, so don’t shy away from thinking about your upcoming race.
USING STRESS TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
For most of us, the word “stress” has a negative connotation. Stress is something to avoid or minimize.
In the athletic world, stress has a place and a purpose. By using the appropriate amount of stress in your training — meaning workouts or scenarios that challenge you without being overwhelming or inappropriate — you encourage growth and improvement.
In your training, be careful not to push yourself over the stress threshold too often. For instance, running your first 20-miler may be a new stress (mentally and physically) while training for your first marathon. But trying to accomplish this when your previous long run is only 10 miles likely pushes you over the edge and leads to injury. When stress is used as an appropriate trigger to improve, however, it becomes a positive and necessary part of your training.
Mental toughness, anxiety reduction and the appropriate use of stress in your training are all essential to becoming a mentally fit runner. Consistent training and preparation, both physically and mentally, are components to address in your training that will benefit your running along with other aspects of your life.