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Mastering Mental Toughness

By Jessica O’Connell MSc, CSEP-CEP, OLY and Faye Stenning BKin.

Let’s be blunt - endurance sport generally requires less technical skill than many other sports. With that, you can’t really “fake” fitness when it is you versus the stopwatch! Instead, success in endurance sport goes to those who have both a great a physical capacity and the mental fortitude to use their hard-earned abilities.

We all know that physical metrics are highly trainable – that’s why we work out! But at the highest levels, everyone is “fit”, and often what crowns a champion is the ability to capitalize maximally on that fitness in a chaotic and high-pressure environment. A critical component to reaching one’s potential comes down to their “mental toughness”, that is, their ability and willingness to endure discomfort. After all, endurance races can be, ahem, unpleasant at times!

What does it mean to be mentally tough in racing? As athletes, we consider those who are very tough to be able to remain focused through adversity, be willing to take risks, and do not shy away from discomfort. We all know an athlete who is less physically gifted than their competitors but seems to have that extra gear to surge past a few extra bodies when competing, or an athlete who always shines in less desirable, more “gritty” conditions while their competition regurgitates excuses. Just as some people are physically talented, some are mentally gifted with an intrinsic knack to push themselves to a level of physical discomfort that others will never experience in their entire racing career.

If this doesn’t sound like you YET, don’t worry! Just like physical strength, mental skills are highly trainable. Whether you are an elite racer or weekend warrior, you have worked hard and made sacrifices to be able to compete -why not give it all you’ve got!?

How do we get tough out on the race course? A misconception about mental toughness is that you will simply be able to summon top-notch ninja toughness skills when put in a competitive situation. We have found both as coaches and as athletes that this just does not happen – toughness must be trained. Racing is chaotic and stressful and being able to execute takes deliberate practice.

Where is the best place to develop mental toughness? During regular training sessions, right alongside your physical preparation! Mental toughness skills are learned by enduring uncomfortable situations.

Of course, this does NOT mean going out and doing tortuous workouts day in and day out- that’s a recipe for injury, overtraining, and a sure route to burn out. It can be as basic as approaching your training with a growth mindset and taking risks in how hard you are willing to push yourself during key workouts like hard intervals, tempo runs, or long runs. In time, you will learn what sort of discomfort is maintainable versus what is too much. In reality, this is as simple as choosing to spend some time in the “suck zone” and learn to do just that- “suck it up!”

Here are a few key mindset tips to try in your next race or hard session:

  1. Remember your training! Remind yourself that as uncomfortable as you may be in the moment, you have been here before (duh, in your training!). Recall those tough workouts and visualize how you pushed through them- races really are no different

  2. Break up the race into more manageable chucks. Most people see the race as one big overwhelming chuck of time that passes ever so slow without a finish in sight. We suggest breaking races into manageable chunks like thirds or quarters and have specific check points so to re-assess where you are in relation to your goals in that moment This will keep you motivated and engaged throughout the entire race rather than falling into “coast” mode

  3. Create a better relationship with “pain”. Instead of being afraid of pain, acknowledge that to reach your potential, feeling uncomfortable is part of the game! Learn to endure discomfort in a way that makes you feel alive and grateful to simply be out there doing what you love.

This all said- toughness isn't just enduring a ton of pain. In fact, some of the best races we've ever run have actually felt almost....easy (??!!) and in flow because we believed that we were in control and that any discomfort meant that we were working hard and achieving.

Toughness really is bravely taking risks and committing to see just how good you can be.

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