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When the Going Gets Tough

When the Going Gets Tough

“What advice for brain training do you have? My friend says her mind gives up at mile 18 and positive mantras don’t work for her… since that’s my go to, or thinking of my running friends or all the hard work I’ve done (none of which work for her), I don’t know what to tell her. Any tips from all your amazing races and clients??”

I recently received this question after I posted a link to an article on my Facebook page regarding the importance of the power of mental toughness when it comes to ultrarunning. It’s a little discussed “IT” factor that is often overlooked; many people train the body for endurance activities but don’t account for the importance of mental strength training as well. How does one mentally prepare for the challenge of an endurance event?

Ultimately, we are all individuals, and a strategy that works for me may not work for someone else.  With that being said, here are some brain training ideas that I and many of my clients have had success with in the past:

Acknowledging and Embracing the Suck –  How many times have you lined up at the start of an event and had the thought of “Oh man, I hope this doesn’t hurt” go through your head?  SPOILER ALERT – there WILL be discomfort. It WILL be hard. And undoubtedly it WILL hurt. Your best strategy is not to worry if it will get uncomfortable, rather, to anticipate the challenge and embrace it.  Like a knight in armor going into battle, you should approach your event armed with your hours of training. Know it will be hard.  Anticipate discomfort.  But rather than allow it to cause fear or dread, look that discomfort in the eye and say “Suck it!”  I often think of all the times in a race I swore I couldn’t take one more step…only to finish and 5 minutes later and I feel so much better. There will be ups and downs in a race; your legs will be tired, there may be blisters or cramps or situations that pop up that you have never encountered in training. (I once went through an entire training cycle without one blister, only to have my feet turn into hamburger meat by mile 30 of the race. Yep, same shoes and socks that I had used for my training.  Didn’t see that coming!)  What I am trying to say is you’re better off preparing for the suck, rather than hoping it doesn’t happen.

There was a LOT of suck that happened during this event.But I also walked away with a 50 miler PR

(Now, let me clear I am NOT talking about running through an injury.  There are definitely times when it is best to call a race and stop.  A smart runner (or their pacers/crew) knows when they have reached limits of what is safe for their health.  I am not talking about these cases.)

Change the Feedback Loop in Your Head – Pushing yourself to the limit physically in an event goes hand in hand with pushing yourself mentally. But once the going gets tough, many people start to create a negative loop in their head “I’m so tired” “this is so hard” “My legs hurt” “I still have xx many miles to go” etc.  What the brain believes, the body achieves (or not!) and the minute a negative thought comes into your head, your best bet is to purge it as quickly as possible to avoid it becoming toxic.  I have known many a runner who dropped out of a race not for any physical reason, but because they dug themselves so deep into a pity pit that they couldn’t recover from it. Banish this negative outlook and distance yourself from anyone with that attitude.  There is no room for that on race day! Call upon positive imagery, mantras or even revel in the beauty around you.  Find a friendly face to start a conversation with.  You’ll be amazed how this can help the miles (and discomfort) pass quicker than you can imagine!

Trust Your Training (and the value of tough workouts) – Hopefully you show up on race day with a healthy and appropriate training cycle under your belt. You’ve done the tough hill repeats, the long runs, the tempo runs and the early morning sweat sessions.  You’ve forgone weekend plans and late nights out with friends to get your training in. Now, it’s time to trust that training. Trust that you are ready to face whatever the event throws your way, and the right attitude to deal with unexpected plot twists. Know that you have faced tough workouts that were designed to not only strengthen your body, but also your mind.  Maybe you didn’t realize it at the time, but those seemingly endless hill repeats at 10k effort or that 4am run in the wind and snow was also building MENTAL strength.  Know that if you could get through that, you can get through a low point in a race.

Tough training = physical AND mental toughness

Recognize the WHY – What’s your why? – If you know your WHY, you are more likely to be able to push through the low points of an event.  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard “I should probably do a marathon.”  My response?  Why?  Do you WANT to do one…or just feel you “should” because someone made you feel like you’re not a “real” runner if you stick to half marathons (NOT TRUE!) or you want to impress someone else. You shouldn’t do any event because you feel like you have to keep up with the Jones’, prove a point, or earn social media extra credit. It should be because you are called to test your limits, see what you are capable of or embark on a grand adventure. It should make your heart happy just thinking about the task (and you’ll need to draw from those feelings when the going gets tough and you want to throw the towel in). If your “Why” is heavily influenced by extrinsic factors, it may be harder (for some individuals) to keep on keeping on when the going gets tough.  “Extrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by external rewards such as money, fame, grades, and praise. This type of motivation arises from outside the individual, as opposed to intrinsic motivation, which originates inside of the individual.”  People can be motivated by either or a healthy mix of both, but I find my most successful clients when it comes to overcoming obstacles have a higher proportion of intrinsic motivation.

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So there are some of my best thoughts and tips when it comes to mental training for endurance events.  What has worked for you in the past?  Have anything to add; I’d love to hear it!  Leave me a comment below 🙂





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  1. Love this post!! These are all great techniques for mastering the mental aspect of racing. Thanks for a great post!

  2. Great post! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you Tiffany! I appreciate you reading! 🙂

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