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360 YOU: Build That Mental Muscle

Mental toughness needs to be worked on and molded, just like your running fitness.

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Racing is 100 percent mental. OK, it’s some percent physical, but really our minds run the ship.

Realizing how much control our mind has over our race completely transformed my running. Up until then, I would think once I started falling off the pace, that it was OK to wallow in total misery and just jog it in. I thought that accepting the pace slowing and then beating yourself up and feeling sorry for yourself was standard race practice. Then I started realizing, hey—why don’t I try to encourage myself and coach myself when things get tough? Instead of completely giving up on myself and considering holding pace a lost cause when I started to struggle, why didn’t I take back mental control and do the best with how my body was feeling at that moment? This mindset shift completely changed my running.

I no longer accepted a slowing pace as a reason to completely check out or feel sorry for myself for the remaining miles. Now, a slowing pace was a challenge for me: What can I do to get myself back on pace? What tools in my toolbox could I use to encourage myself that I was doing a good job and that I could keep pushing for more—and what coaching tips could I use to resuscitate pace? I always end up getting more out of myself by staying engaged in my race and positive.

My race philosophy is this: I am positive from the time the gun goes off until I cross the finish line. That’s it. I don’t give myself outs at any point of the race to give up, beat myself up, feel sorry for myself, or mentally check out.

That philosophy has helped me have some of my best days because I kept positive through the tough spots and then came out with a win (metaphorically that is—I’m not winning any races yet).

RELATED: Inside the Mental Game of Elite Marathoners

That philosophy also kept some of my worst days from being even slower and also didn’t let those miles be a mental pile on for me where I was being unkind to myself when I was already having a tough day. Your running deserves your positivity and you being engaged and in control for the entirety of your race. We don’t train so hard to mentally give up when things get difficult, which they inevitably will.

At the same time, we also can’t expect to be this beacon of positivity in a race if we aren’t practicing it every single day in our running. Easy running? Yes, that’s a time to practice positivity and coaching yourself to good form. Hard workouts? Yes, a great chance to practice what you’ll be doing in a race—encouraging yourself and coaching yourself from start to finish.

Sports psychologists have studied how positive self-talk can impact performance in running. “We know that things like goal setting and visualization have got a decent evidence base to them, but in an endurance context, self talk has a really good evidence base,” says Alister McCormick, a sports psychologist at the University of St. Mark and St. John. “Making a deliberate choice to say constructive and helpful things to yourself can make a meaningful difference.”

McCormick points to two types of self-talk that runners can practice and utilize: motivational and instructional. Motivational self talk are the things you say to build your confidence, while instructional self talk is related to those form cues (basically coaching yourself).

He gives several examples of how exactly self-talk can improve your running, including helping runners to improve their personal bests by a few percentage points. “If you teach people to intentionally say motivational things to themselves, when running up a hill, they can get 20 to 30 to 40 percent further before they choose to stop,” says McCormick.

We don’t show up naturally mentally strong at races. That is a skill that is practiced everyday in our running. The more you work on it and feed it, the greater your mental muscle grows so that you’re maximizing your fitness every time you step to the line.

RELATED: Dealing with Disappointment: How the Top Runners Handle Heartbreak

How to Work on Mental Strength

Practice makes perfect, even when it comes to mental strength. McCormick notes that planning for how you will react if things don’t go well can help you cope better when something goes awry. “Having a plan in place for dealing with different possibilities means that when stuff does inevitably go wrong, you’ve already planned for it. So you can respond to it quickly, and you can respond to it more constructively as well,” he says.

Here are some action steps to take to practice building your mental strength:

On easy runs.

During easy runs, stay positive. It’s so easy to dwell on negatives when you run: I feel tired. It’s so hot. I’m on my period. Why do I feel so slow? Instead, don’t focus on anything that is not going to serve you. Don’t waste your mental effort on commiserating with circumstances.

On easy runs, I like to focus on gratitude, how blessed I am to be out there, what’s going well with my run or my running, and then I’ll always keep an eye on form and using my form cues.

On hard workouts.

I’m positive and excited in the morning. I get myself pumped up on the way to the workout and start envisioning how I’m going to knock it out of the park. You do a lot better with things that you’re excited for and that you enjoy.

I focus on form throughout the run. I coach myself in the sections where my form is falling apart because I’m tired.

I don’t stress myself out if I’m going slower, or with how many more reps or miles I have left. I focus on being positive and strong in whatever mile I’m in, and not getting overwhelmed with how much I have left.

I count a workout successful if I gave it my all, if I had a great attitude, and was positive from beginning to end. Paces are irrelevant to me. The thing that will move the needle most in fitness is our effort and then my ability to be tough and mentally strong when the workout gets hard. Those are the two things that will help me to run breakthrough races in the future.

No one is naturally positive when running gets tough. That’s why this is a skill you have to work on and improve at. The more you work at it, the more positive and mentally strong you’ll be when it counts.