How Can I Increasing Mental Toughness
by on Wednesday, June 19, 2013  (8 comments)

I just read an article (Runner's World) on beating mental roadblocks in training and racing. Some of their ideas seem so silly. It is tough to just "tell yourself" to do better or to just ignore or replace negative thoughts or to "just smile." For me mental roadblocks are more than motivation. A mental roadblock needs mental toughness to overcome any and (nearly) all obstacles.

For me a mental roadblock is brought on by some sort of physical signal from my body. Signals like the beginning of a side stitch or my breathing getting out of control or even that wonderful burning sensation in the legs. This is what I want to be able to overcome and push through to the end of the race.

I have realized that I need to distract myself with more than the silly ideas like "I really want the race shirt" or "its ok if I get a (much) slower time because I made my goal so wide open" mentioned in the article. It has to be something concrete and directly related to my goal for that workout or race. I have had some success with shortening the race mentally - "catch and pass that runner in front of you - that's all, just pass them and hold on" which seems to work best. However, what do I do when I just cannot close that gap? Get a glimpse of the runner chasing me and try to widen that gap.

I want to learn how to ignore a side stitch as painful as they sometimes feel, running through it, working to control it and not slow down. I want to learn how to continue racing when my breathing is out of control or my legs feel like they are on fire. I want to do this without slowing down but by employing a technique to minimize the issue and engaging a superior mental toughness.

After the racing season (or maybe during the season depending on Coach Hill) I would like to start having a few workouts a month that are nearly impossible to complete. Workouts that would create tears in my eyes, which will require serious effort, so that I can start to develop that mental toughness of drawing on the pain and completing the goal regardless. We shall see what Coach Hill thinks and/or puts together for me.

Either way . . . there is more running in my future!

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Wow. Books have been written on this topic so, obviously, it's hard to offer a comprehensive plan in blog comments. That said...

I think the first thing is to practice in training. It doesn't always have to be digging deep in workouts like you would in a race. It can just be controlling a workout. All workouts get tough by the end. How do you respond? Work on running with control and taking charge of the workout. Finishing faster than you started by getting gradually faster throughout the workout. I am not a huge fan of 100% effort workouts. Just look at what happened when we tried a big workout. It almost compromised your upcoming race.

I also think a big part is practicing in races. There is only one time you're going to dig as deep as you have to at the end of a race and that's at the end of a race. Even if you do a "gut buster" workout, you're not going to push as hard as you do on race day. This is one of the advantages I think those of us who ran in high school have. In many cases, high school runners are raced into the ground. While there are disadvantages if you're overraced, being thrown into the fire frequently has its advantages also. One of those advantages is the opportunity to frequently practice pushing to the edge of your limit.

Finally, I think there are some mental "tricks" you can do. Mantras can help you in a couple ways. First, they can help you take your mind off the pain of a late race effort. Second, they can help you focus on some aspect that will help you run through that pain. "Quick steps" if you have a habit of slowing your stride rate and/or overstriding, "power" if you need to focus on a powerful push-off. Things like that can help.

In the end, though, it's about believing in your ability and being willing to dig deep. Most of us always have a kick when we get into the last 100 yards. If you can kick then, why couldn't you push a little harder a little earlier? Because you weren't sure you could make it to the finish line? What made you unsure? Next race, try to dig a little deeper a little earlier. I've been in 5K races where I didn't think I had enough so I "coasted" into a big kick (relatively speaking for this guy who never has a huge kick). When I said screw it, I'm running my guts out, I run better. In fact, I can't recall ever hitting the wall in a 5K. Who knows? Maybe I've never pushed hard enough. I've never pushed too hard so I've never confirmed exactly where the wall lies.

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Actually in a half marathon "just smile" has worked for me. Positively interacting with other runners or spectators has given me a lift before.

I think racing more often would help if you are running shorter races.

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I do not think I can smile during a race unless a young child is cheering runners, I am too focused at trying to stay at the edge. But maybe I will give that a try.

Great points Ryan. Although I am convinced that the issue I had was not from the workout but from running up the stairs after the workout to depart the track area. I am convinced about this by the fact that I have done two more workouts on the track and walked up the stairs with putting most of my foot on the stair to avoid stress on the calf muscles.

I think that maybe a number of time trials (after this racing season) where I start my end of race push a little sooner each time until I find my sweet spot my be in order. But who knows.

Maybe I will have to convince myself to follow the old Nike slogan and "Just do it."

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Ed, I think that may be part of Charlene's point. In the half marathon or longer races such as that, you can't stay on the edge the whole race. Honestly, even if you could physically stay on the edge, mentally you wouldn't be able to hold that 100% focus the whole way. Better to relax until the going gets tough. As long as you are hitting your splits/effort targets, you might as well save as much of your competitive energy for when you'll need it later in the race.

Time trials can be helpful but I still say most people can't push in training the same way they can at a race. The atmosphere, the competition, it just takes you to a different level. This is why I think a lot of it just comes down to getting out there and going through the race day experience. Low key races are of great benefit because you can take chances and try different things without feeling bad if an experiment doesn't go well.

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Ed I just time trial around what the goal pace is, do a bit of sub pace work for grins, and fill the other stuff in at 8:30 - 10:00 miles. Rarely can I run sub 8:00 anymore on a training run. That's why the track is cool for 3200 to 6400 meter time trials occasionally. When I can pull 6:00 pace for around 4 miles there is my mental toughness. Same applies for the 50 mile. A 7:55 is 9:30 pace. I ran two 35 milers around 10:00 and mentally I was ready.

In the day I did the same thing for the marathon. Train a lot at 6:20 - 6:30 pace and mirror that over time trials of 20k to 30k. You don't need to prove to yourself too many times you can do it.

I do workouts which benefit my confidence. I might hit the track Saturday. For a 3200m effort I'll just rip around at what feels right the first mile looking at the splits and save just enough to mirror this the last mile. If its 6:10 pace that's where I'm at. After several efforts you get better at it. Then you ramp it up a bit. Last year I did one 8000m workout on the track at 30:55 and just assumed I'd race at Al's 10-15 seconds faster a mile which is pretty standard.

I only run 40-50 a week in the Summer so I tend to not do killer workouts because I have to save something for the next day. I end up enjoying these sessions so much that I rarely have to race to know what I can do.

If you want to run say 6:15 pace at Al's then something like this is right up your alley. The one thing I am more app to do is work towards less recovery time before repeats. Personally this method helps me estimate better than fuller recovery periods.

I read something by Ed Eyestone several years ago about 3-3-3 workouts and I have inserted a 2-2-2 session. 3-3-3 is basically 3 different workouts that end up being 3 miles. A 3 mile tempo, a 3 x 1 mile workout, or something like a 6 x 800m or 12 x 400m which I don't do, but I will do a 8 x 2:00 w/ 1:00 recovery. There easy to get your head around, serve the purpose and for me don't kill me. I can get these in in under an hour. Purpose served.

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Ed, I was just re-reading this while making a coding change on the blogs and I read the comment about ignoring or replacing negative thoughts. I don't think it's a matter of "just" ignoring or replacing negative thoughts but I do think planning ways to do this can be a good way to change your race-day psychology.

For example, say you know you get in the late stages of a race and start thinking "this is hard, I don't know if I can hold this pace" and that often leads to easing off the pace, only to later find at the finish you had something left and didn't need to ease off. Plan ahead to head off that thought. Know that thought is coming and plan a response to it. Plan to say "I know this is hard but it's supposed to be, it's hard for everyone who is running their best, I'm going to push through it and run my best". Maybe you come up with something shorter but you get the idea. Know the negative thoughts that creep into your mind during races. For most of us, there is consistency in these thoughts. Then figure out a way to turn those negative thoughts around. Drill that into your head so, when the negative thoughts creep up, you can instantly draw upon those positive responses and turn the negative into a positive.

This might be worth a further blog post to dig deeper into this strategy. I have next week's blog post planned and mostly written but I might write something more extensive on this.

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Excellent stuff Double as is typical for you - lots of wisdom. I have a question on the 3x3x3? Is that all in one run or three separate runs? I think a tough workout would be a 2x2x2 all in one run. A good w/u say 1.5-2 miles then a two mile tempo run followed by some sort of recovery. Then a 2 x 1 mile at target race effort, some sort of recovery and then 2 x 800 at 5k effort with a nice c/d.

Today was a good day for mental toughness as well as confidence boost. Somehow I ran an extra interval and was fighting for it becuase I thought it was the last one (instead of an extra one) and it just felt a bit tougher than expected.

Ryan - I can see where you are going with the preparing for the negative thoughts so that a learned response is something that will defeat or replace the negative thoughts. I would be very interested in exploring any ideas with you and test them out for you. I have three races remaining this year and the final is a half marathon.

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Ed, I'll email you more thoughts on this. Now that I know you're open to the idea, I think it's something we can think about and work on.

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