If you’re an athlete and train regularly, I bet you’ve heard a thing or two about mental toughness: how to get it, why it’s important, or ways you can develop it. Me personally? I’ve been a runner, someone who does the long-distance stuff like half marathons, marathons, and ultra marathons for the past decade, and what I hear (and tell people) more often than not is that yes, absolutely, running is hard work, but it’s mostly a mental exercise. That is: it’s mind over matter.
Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you’ve been training to realize a specific athletics goal for a long time, only to get side-lined or discouraged time and again. Maybe you think that perhaps this sport or athletics endeavour isn’t for you, that you aren’t good enough or won’t ever be good enough, and that you should just throw in the towel and find a new hobby (after binging on bad TV and sweets because you feel sorry for yourself). It can be really easy and tempting to let our minds take us to dark places, places where we’re convinced that we’ll never be as good as we want to be at something, and before we know it, that can lead us on a downward spiral, making us lose control, make poor decisions, and ultimately give up altogether.
I’ll couch my conversation here in running parlance, since that’s why I know, but I think talking about mental training cuts through barriers and applies to virtually every athletic endeavour out there. The physical conditioning our sport gives us no doubt matters – we can’t be as strong or as fast as we’d like if we don’t put in the physical training components – but the mental training we do also matters a great deal. It’s so important for us as athletes to hone our mental game so that when we’re in the thick of a competition, when a personal record is on the line, we know how to be our biggest advocate and cheerleader and can help push ourselves to victory. It’s not healthy to constantly criticize ourselves; sometimes, we absolutely need to remind ourselves of what we are capable of doing and encourage ourselves just like we would our very best friend.
Based on my own decade-plus years of running, I’ve compiled some of my tried-and-true tips that have helped me break through mental ruts in training. When we’re pushing ourselves, things will get tough, but it’ll be in those super-tough moments that we can gain so much mental strength and fortitude. You can do it! Here’s how:
Believe you can do it. Admittedly, this sounds really simplistic and pretty cheesy, but at its base level, it’s so important. If you don’t believe in yourself – if you don’t think you’re capable of working hard, testing your boundaries, and succeeding, then who will? Training is meant to be challenging because it’s supposed to prepare you for the Big Day – whether that’s a race or some other type of competition – but it’ll be through hard training that you’ll get stronger and later will be able to achieve your goal. Learn to become your own biggest cheerleader. Talk to yourself – encourage yourself – like you would to your very best friend. Constantly criticizing yourself or minimizing your accomplishments won’t help you in the long run.
Make your words matter; mantras can be pretty powerful. The running community can be rife with hippy-dippy, pseudoscience elements, and it’s possible that you think ascribing otherworldly power to specific words would qualify under those categories. However: many runners swear by mantras for a reason. Choose a word or a phrase that you can say to yourself, either aloud or mentally, when the going gets tough. Closely related to my point earlier, what would you say to encourage your very best friend during a rough spot in training or in a race? The words we select have a very real effect on our feelings, so choose deliberately and intentionally. My favourites: I can do hard things, go forth and kick ass, eye on the prize. Whatever you choose, your mantras should empower you.
Find strength and power in power songs. I have many friends who swear by a special race-day playlist full of their favourite songs – what they call their “power songs,” either because of the lyrics or the way the music makes them feel when they hear it. If you regularly compete or train while listening to music, you might want to consider creating your own special playlist that you can listen to on these special occasions. Ultimately, it’s all about the music that leaves you feeling strong and ready to throw down, so don’t hold back! If Metallica gets you going just as much as bluegrass country, so be it. Include whatever helps you feel strong.
When it gets really tough, have a moment with yourself. Finally, and probably most importantly, when things are really tough in training or in competition – when you really question whether you’ll be able to complete your workout or finish your race – I really encourage you to take a moment with yourself and remember what got you out there in the first place. Many people call this exercise “remembering your why.” When you started doing this stuff X number of months/years ago, what inspired you to have the courage to start? Who or what inspired you to try your hand at this activity? Over the course of the time you’ve spent training and competing, what good has your sport done for your life? These questions are admittedly a bit lofty and may be challenging to develop coherent responses to when you’re in the thick of a hard training session or a competition, but they can also be instrumental in giving you the space and opportunity to re-focus and to re-center yourself. Moreover, these questions can help you remember the inherent gratitude you should feel – the gratitude that you should always be feeling – at your ability to participate in your sport in the first place. When the going gets tough – when you are in such a deep mental rut that you honestly question whether or how you’ll ever be able to pull yourself out of its depths – remember the journey that you’ve taken to get where you are today and the one that you’re currently on. It’s all about the long-term perspective.
There are many other motivational and self-help books out there that can help you further develop your mental training game, and many are marketed specifically to athletes. Just like with any other aspect to your athletic endeavours, working a little day in and day out on your mental game, just as you do with the physical and cardiovascular side, can help you become the most fit and strongest version of yourself that you can be.
Writing from Copenhagen, Denmark, Dan is an entrepreneur, husband and ultra marathon distance runner. He spends most of his time on runnerclick.com, monicashealthmag.com & nicershoes.com and he has been featured on runner blogs all