Mental Toughness Training: The Allure of Mastering Your Mindset

In high school, my indoor track coach always told our team to “get out of your comfort zones!” This valuable mental toughness training always reminded us that racing is certainly not comfortable…

Jason Running - HS Track

Ain’t nobody clipping me at the line!

And over the years, my ability to hone mental toughness into a skill to be used at will became easier and easier.

In the beginning, it wasn’t that way:

  • I sandbagged workouts just because I didn’t feel good
  • I “settled” on placing 2nd or 3rd in races because I was afraid to believe in myself
  • I’ve even dropped out of races for no good reason other than my head wasn’t in the right place

Even now, I have experiences that shake my sense of self-belief.

In 2015, I DNF’d an ultramarathon (my first and only attempt).

In 2019, I was disqualified for cutting the course (by accident) of a trail race.

These experiences shook my self-confidence and made me question whether or not I even possessed any mental toughness.

But I soon realized that I wasn’t approaching mental toughness in the right way. It’s not an issue of whether you “have it” or “don’t have it” – it’s an issue of, “are you working on it?”

That’s because mental toughness training is an ongoing practice that must be cultivated over time.

You’re never “done” with developing this valuable mental skill – just like you’re never “done” with workouts, long runs, or recovery runs as a runner.

What is Mental Toughness?

There are many definitions of mental toughness. But let’s keep things simple.

Our definition is:

Mental toughness is a skill that allows runners to stay positive and run at a peak performance level without succumbing to fear, discomfort, humiliation, or failure.

Let’s break this definition down to truly understand this valuable component of performance psychology.

We define mental toughness as a skill because it’s something that you can improve – it’s learnable. It’s not a static thing like your height – it can grow or wither depending on your training.

Second, we recognize that “toughness” is really “positivity.” It’s an undying belief in your ability, a positive voice that encourages you to give your best effort despite setbacks. Staying positive is a central element of mental toughness and it means that the little voice in your head is your cheerleader, not your critic.

Finally, our definition of mental toughness is focused on performance. We’re not talking about grimacing, clenching your teeth, or beating your chest before or during a race. That’s not real toughness.

Real toughness is the ability to stay mentally engaged with a race and give it your all even if you miss a water cup, have a mile split that’s too slow or too fast, or the weather isn’t ideal.

Mental toughness allows you to be the eye of the storm: an oasis of calm in a sea of chaos.

No matter what’s going on around you – a packed corral, drizzling rain, or not hitting the right split at mile 1 – you’re going to stay positive, proactive, and focused on producing a peak performance for yourself.

Runners without a high level of mental toughness succumb to distraction, imperfect race conditions, inconvenience, and discomfort.

But not a mentally fit athlete. Not you.

How to Build Mental Toughness

There are many ways to incorporate mental toughness training into your running. Today, let’s focus on two:

  1. Training
  2. Practicing Acceptance

Let’s start with your training.

Mental Strength Flows From Physical Strength

It’s impossible to develop any mental skill in a vacuum. You can’t sit in your bedroom and visualize your way to being mentally tough.

That’s why if you’re to develop mental toughness, we first must ensure that your training is sound, properly structured, and appropriately challenging.

One of my clients, Jennifer, put it well:

“My mindset changed after I successfully attempted workouts I didn’t think I would have been able to do prior. This didn’t happen right away – it evolved over time.

I started to really see my effort get lower with my times getting faster – and that was when my confidence really shifted.”

And Adam mentions similar improvements in mental toughness after focusing on his training:

Mental toughness comes with having trained your mind just like one trains the body. You have been successful in training my body to do things that I didn’t think I could and that has definitely built mental toughness.

Your training plan provides you with the opportunities to build and express mental toughness:

  • Every long run forces you to build patience, grit, and resolve
  • Each workout tests your ability to stay positive when you get uncomfortable
  • Races allow you to put these skills to the test and hone your abilities
  • The consistency and frequency of training runs builds the mental fortitude to train more regularly

But there are many training habits that undermine mental toughness:

  • Maintaining consistently low weekly mileage numbers
  • Running inconsistent or relatively short long runs
  • Not doing any faster workouts (or doing sporadic workouts that never progress)
  • Racing infrequently

Our approach to mental toughness puts training front and center because mood follows action. Controlling every thought that we have is tedious and counterproductive.

But controlling our behavior is much easier – and lays the foundation for building for mental toughness training.

Practice Acceptance

Discomfort, fatigue, and even race-related pain are necessary experiences for any runner. And our sport is unique in that the more that we want to experience discomfort, the better we’ll perform!

I know the shock of acidosis during a short, fast race can be unsettling. Or the steady accumulation of fatigue – both physical and mental – in a long race.

But to effectively stay mentally tough during adversity, we must accept discomfort. In fact, we must embrace it as a necessary part of running. Because discomfort tells you that you’re pushing, striving forward, and not settling in your comfort zone.

We must accept that running hard is uncomfortable. And that’s ok! Embrace the suck, because without it you would never improve.

It’s like how the legendary cross country coach Mark Wetmore describes runners vs. football players:

“In football, you might get your bell rung, but you go in with the expectation that you might get hurt, and you hope to win and come out unscathed.

As a distance runner, you know you’re going to get your bell rung. Distance runners are experts at pain, discomfort, and fear. You’re not coming away feeling good. It’s a matter of how much pain you can deal with on those days. It’s not a strategy – it’s just a callusing of the mind and body to deal with discomfort.

Any serious runner bounces back. That’s the nature of their game. Taking pain.”

Much like acceptance is the final stage of grief – and is the only productive stage – we must welcome adversity.

That doesn’t mean that we necessarily enjoy race discomfort, or the many obstacles that running puts in front of us, but we do acknowledge them as inevitable parts of the sport.

Now over to you: how do you incorporate mental toughness training into your running? How do you work on this valuable mental skill?