“Make It Hurt”
So…I threw up in the bushes yesterday. With a tenth of a mile to go in my 8-mile progression run, my stomach revolted, and I ended up freshening up some pine straw with my coffee from earlier that morning. Darn. So close. It wasn’t the ideal ending to a training run, but my emotions were mixed. On one hand, the run to that point had been solid, and a strong finish would have been a nice bow to tie it all up with. But on the other hand, part of my coach’s instruction for this particular run was to “make it hurt.” While I don’t plan to make a habit of spewing vomit around my neighborhood, I was proud to have accomplished the mission. And aside from the physical exertion, it had given me the opportunity to further develop what I believe to be the most important characteristic for success: mental toughness.
Why Mental Toughness?
As an ultrarunner, I have been lucky enough to witness incredible displays of grit. I have seen runners push through pain, harsh conditions, and overwhelming fits of doubt to go on and finish races that they probably had no business finishing. On the flipside, I have also watched in sadness as racers pulled the plug, overwhelmed by the monumental task that lay ahead, even though their body was ready and able to move forward. They simply could not muster up the belief that they had what it takes to finish. It begs the question: why was one group able to overcome while the other was not?
For most, it comes down to mental toughness. Mental toughness, similar to grit, is the ability to effectively perform in the face of adversity. In other words, it’s how well we can hold ourselves together when the crap hits the fan. While we tend to associate mental toughness with sports, it can translate to just about every aspect of our lives, including business, relationships, and even financial management. The tougher we are mentally, the higher the chances are that we have can successfully navigate hardships in these areas. But to keep it specific to running, the more mental toughness we develop, the better we are at overcoming the inevitable, unforeseen obstacles during training and on race day. And here is the good news: similar to dialing in cadence and breathing techniques, mental toughness is a skill that can be developed through practice.
Developing Mental Toughness
The road to increasing mental toughness is frustratingly simple, and incredibly difficult. The simple part is that it really comes down to “doing more hard stuff.” It’s the “hard stuff” part that makes it so difficult. But the more we practice taking on “hard stuff”, the more proficient we become at working through adversity. As time goes on, it takes bigger problems, tougher challenges, and increasingly overwhelming circumstances to throw us off our game. Bring on the PRs!
Think of it this way. When someone is just starting out at the gym, it may take everything they have to complete a set of curls with 10 lb dumbbells. Because they perceive that as their current limitation, the thought of curling 30lb dumbbells would seem impossible. If a successful workout depends on them using those 30 pounders, they might as well just go home. But after a few months of consistently crushing their routine, they have further developed the appropriate muscles. Now the 10 lbs seems like child’s play and the 30s are a challenging, but doable, curl weight. Mental toughness is the same. As we practice working through tough challenges, the more prepared we become for dealing with even tougher ones. So let’s get started on building our mental muscles.
My Favorite “Hard Stuff” Exercises
The following lists consists of 5 exercises that I personally have found useful in developing my own mental toughness as it pertains to running. I am a work in progress, and still am far from reaching my potential, but I have seen huge gains in my ability to work through low points in my training and races. My hope is that you are able to adopt one or more of these (if not already adopted) or that they will spur ideas for incorporating your own, similar exercises. The options are limitless.
- Cold Showers: The cold sucks. Which is exactly why this one is so effective. Plus, there are HUGE physiological benefits from cold therapy, so you may just get an added bonus. You can start by turning the water cold for just a few seconds during your shower. The idea is to relax into it and try to avoid the gasping reflex that comes naturally. Rather than fighting through it, focus on slow, deep breathing and keep your muscles loose. It may be difficult at first, but with practice it will become manageable, and possibly even enjoyable. You can eventually work your way up to stepping directly into cold water and taking a complete cold shower. The skill of convincing your body to do something that your mind does not want to do will come in handy, especially when the weather gets bad on race day!
- Make Your Bed: I know. This sounds dumb. I thought so too. But the magic is in the simplicity. Because what is easy to do, is easy to not do. For me, this is about learning to execute a small discipline and then expanding from there. Often times, when we face adversity, we know what we SHOULD do, but we lack the mental toughness to execute. It just sounds overwhelming. The simple act of immediately making your bed each morning, with no exceptions, teaches you to execute regardless of the excuse. Not enough time? Make the bed. Overslept? Make the bed. Don’t feel like it? Make the bed. Once it becomes habit, incorporate a new discipline. Believe it or not, this will translate to race day. It’s the ability to do the little things that matter and will keep you moving forward. And if you already make your bed, pick another simple task that you are currently letting yourself off the hook for (folding laundry comes to mind).
- Run Intervals: If you don’t currently incorporate intervals, they are a great way to improve your running and torture yourself at the same time. If they are already part of your training plan, then you know why I am including them. Every time I run intervals (short, fast repeats), I feel like I am going to die. My brain is screaming at me, telling me that my legs and lungs are also screaming at me, and I am convinced I can’t hold on for another second. But I usually do. And every successful interval teaches me that even though it’s hard, I won’t actually die. My brain was wrong. And if I fall short, reflection usually tells me that I quit mentally, while my body would have continued. This exposure comes in handy during races when everything hurts because I can draw on the experience to fight through doubt and pain. “I’m OK. I won’t die. Press on.”
- Strength Training: Similar to intervals, strength training puts immediate stress on your body. When done properly, this stress provides the opportunity to develop mental toughness while simultaneously adding a physical benefit. We runners tend to neglect strength exercises, but it can be invaluable in both injury prevention and training progression. Not only will physical resilience be a huge bonus during race day problems, but the mental resilience built by pushing through countless reps will be a major valuable asset.
- Back to Back Long Runs: This one has been foundational for me. Assuming you don’t exceed your capabilities or increase mileage too quickly (consult your coach if you are working with one), back to back longs runs can simulate longer races and help develop the mental toughness to navigate the pitfalls that come along with them. As an ultra-guy, I have gutted through weekends of 25 miles on both Sat and Sun and it taught me a lot about myself. Aside from proving I can run a long time on tired legs (a useful thing to understand during a race), it also highlighted the need for patience. Sometimes when things get tough, the answer lies in simply continuing to put one foot in front of the other. Even if the progress is slower than desired. That is what mental toughness is all about. Moving forward, especially when it’s hard. On race day, or even during a tough training session, the lessons learned during back to back long runs may be all it takes to decide to stick it out.
Have your own story about mental toughness? Or have your own tips to share? I would love to hear from you!