Build Mental Toughness by Training Your Brain

Two runners wearing On shoes and apparel

It doesn’t matter the distance—it could be the last half mile of your 5K, the last two miles of a half marathon or mile 22 of a marathon. At some point towards the last 10 to 15 percent of your run, your brain may start sending you increasingly urgent alerts: I’m tired. I’m hurting. I’m dying!

The key to pushing past those messages and finishing a run successfully is understanding that our brains tell us we can’t go on long before our bodies are done, according to mental performance coaches who spoke to Fleet Feet. We just have to train our brains the same way we train our legs and our lungs to handle the distance we want to cover.

Don’t believe your body has more to give? Think about the last time you were dragging towards the end of a race, says Brian Wade, a mental performance consultant based in Tallahassee, Florida.

You tell yourself how exhausted you are and how hard it is just to keep moving. Then you turn the corner and see the end and instantly you pick up your pace, maybe even kick all the way to the finish. What changed?

“Your thoughts,” Wade says in a phone interview with Fleet Feet. “All of a sudden you’re telling yourself, ‘I’ve got this.’”

A woman running in a race

Wade works with athletes through The Endurance Edge and coaches business executives through Tignum. He points to a breakthrough 2010 study by Samuele Marcora in which fit rugby players were measured for their power output on stationary bikes doing a quick sprint.

The athletes then biked at an endurance speed until they felt exhausted. Then Marcora measured them in a second sprint exercise. “Their output was a little less than the first time, but still higher than they’d expect,” Wade says. “The point is, they still had gas.”

To push past the brain’s negative messages, build a kit of mental tools to use as needed, says Nicole Detling, a mental performance consultant with Headstrong Consulting.

A former college track athlete, Detling now serves as the mental coach for a number of U.S. Olympic teams. In a phone interview, she offers a mix of three basic methods:

  • Mindfulness. As with other mindful practices, learn to recognize the pain messages and notice where your mind is going, then move on. “Acknowledge that your brain is saying, ‘I’m dying,’ but don’t give this thought any emotional attachment,” Detling says. “Don’t allow your mind to stay there.”
  • Offer counter messages. Prepare in advance with responses to fatigue messages, like “Yeah, but look how far you’ve come! You’ve got this!” “Practice talking to yourself the way you’d want a coach or running partner to talk to you,” Detling says. “And use second person (‘you’), even say your own name, because it’s too easy to argue with yourself.”
  • Distract yourself. Look ahead to something up the road — a tree, maybe, and then an intersection — to break the remaining distance into chunks. Then concentrate on each goal. What kind of tree is it? How tall does it seem to be? Distraction is the goal. “Our brains can only keep one thought in the forefront, so while you’re thinking about that tree you’re not thinking about pain,” Detling says. Or mentally commentate on what you’re seeing, who those three runners are ahead of you and what they’re wearing — anything other than focusing on how you want to quit.

Mental reps are just as important as physical reps, they need to be practiced like speed work and other training. “Mental training doesn’t develop by default, it’s a basic skill that should be practiced daily,” Wade says.

Out for a run on the roads and trails around her Salt Lake City home, Detling often talks herself out of fatigue. “I’m like, ‘Come on, Detling, you’re being stupid, pick it up and get going!’ There’s not just one way, you’ll have to find what works best for you and then recognize that may change on any given day.”

By Lisa Watts. Lisa started running nearly 40 years ago in college to clear her head. Seven marathons, countless half marathons, and a few two-day relays later, she still swears by early morning runs to sort things out. It’s even better when a few friends come along for the miles.

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