How to Build Mental Strength

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Building physical strength is relatively easy.  You can train for endurance and build your cardiovascular abilities by adding more time and distance to your runs.  Strength training and cross-training help you build muscle and use parts of your body that supplement the muscles you use to run.  All you have to do is workout!  This is a solid and straightforward strategy to build physical toughness, but how do you build mental toughness?

“The wall” and other mental obstacles require all the psychological muscle you can muster, but mental strength isn’t listed on my Hal Higdon plan.  To build mental toughness, I need a plan.  Here are some steps to follow for building mental toughness!

 Do Some Recovery Runs

Sometimes building mental toughness is as easy as knowing that you are capable of getting through an activity because you’ve done it before.  Recovery runs are a great way to teach your muscles how to handle running when you are weak.  The day after a long run or particularly tough workout, you schedule an easy run that takes advantage of the soreness and gets your body accustomed to running while fatigued.  Knowing that you physically can handle running when you’re fatigued will make you more confident and less likely to mentally crumble under the pressure.

Develop a Mantra

Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.  Gotta want it.  Hard work, dedication!  Many runners have a mantra that they utter to get pumped for the challenge ahead, or to get through a difficult period when more mental strength is required.  Think of something that has special meaning to you, or shop around for a hard-hitting mantra that you can chant when you need it.  This isn’t just a small distraction.  The magic of mantras is not really magic at all.  They can get you to believe you’re capable of the toughness you need to achieve, or your mantra can get you to stick to a strategy, like pacing yourself.  Your mantra can distract you from the negative or counter-productive thoughts you might otherwise have.  Runner’s World has a great article with more mantras to help you run better.

Tough Talk

Sometimes you don’t need warm encouragement.  Sometimes you need somebody to tell you to toughen up, and get it done!  Unless you’ve got the cash to pay for a Burgess Meredith lookalike to bike behind you during your next race and yell some tough-talk to get you moving, you’re going to have to do it yourself.  I am a pretty laid-back runner, but I’ve had to tough talk myself a few times.  When I was doing my first half marathon with a horrible head cold while running in the Buffalo summer heat, I pulled out some good tough talk to get through that nightmare.  “You didn’t register for this to walk! I don’t care how bad you feel—that old guy is beating you, and he’s power-walking! GO! RUN!”  Don’t tough-talk so hard that you put yourself into a panic!

Push Yourself

Not every day has to be a PR, but the practice of pushing yourself to the limits will build mental and physical strength.  Find the most challenging hill in your area, and run up it.  Then do it again.  Include sprints and speed work in your training, but make sure to empty your tank on these personal challenges.  This will help you get faster and train some of the muscles that you need to improve overall, but it will also give you a chance to see what you’re made of.  Even just going for a 5k or one mile PR now and then will give you a reason to push your limits and build your mental strength.

Beat a New Challenge

A lot of people are finding that obstacle runs and adventure races are more fun and more rewarding because they’re more demanding than a street race.  A rise in the popularity of runs like the Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash means that you can find a way to beat a new challenge, test your limits, and build some mental toughness to help you face future races.  If adventure racing isn’t your thing, try a new distance or go for a PR.

Get Good Sleep

Rest is pivotal for memory, muscle recovery, and even reducing inflammation, but making sure that you get beneficial sleep will also help increase your mental toughness.  Have you ever had one of those days where you get bad sleep, or no sleep, and you feel like you’re on the verge of losing your marbles all day?  That’s what happens when you don’t get enough sleep, and it won’t do your mental state any favors.  Learn more about getting good sleep before a race.

Reflect on Past Success

Mental strength is earned through difficulty and persistence.  If you’re conscious of ways you can build your mental strength, get into a groove that works for you to feel stronger, tougher, and to face any challenge.  Think back to challenges you’ve faced and overcome. Remember how good it felt to accomplish something that seemed so far out of reach.  Go for the goal, and don’t allow your brain to talk your body out of it.

You are in Control

A lot of these tips will help in a moment of weakness, but another thing to remember is that you have control of your body.  It is crazy to hear people say, “I just can’t,” especially if they haven’t tried, or if they seem like they’ve got it in them, yet have given up. Remember that when you are tired, you’ve likely still got about a “quarter tank” of endurance left.  Don’t believe me?  Check out this amazing episode of RadioLab which chronicles the incredible story of a very unlikely Ironman finish, and a cross-country bicycle race where the cyclists learn to cope with exhaustion, and even hallucinations, from pushing their limits.  Those people are some of the most mentally strong athletes in the world, but just employing some of these techniques will help you build mental strength for running.

This article was written for by Adrienne A., a guest author

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