Mental toughness

By Gary Droze

One of the trickiest concepts in distance running is that of mental toughness. Anybody with experience in road races or track meets intuitively realizes that physical conditioning alone does not account for racing success. This realization is borne out when many equally talented runners toe the line in a number of competitions, and a small percentage of the group consistently wins a large percentage of the races. Something other than training is separating the victors from the vanquished. What could it be?

Personality trait differences undoubtedly play a part. Psychological surveys of successful distance runners indicate that many are inherently competitive. In my coaching experience, I found that some of my biggest achievers were also relentlessly competitive in anything that could be contested or measured: grades, board games, hopscotch…it didn’t matter: if winners could be determined, they wanted to be declared the winners. On the other hand, a fair number of superb distance runners don’t show the same fierce vein of competitiveness outside the running realm. These athletes support my argument that mental toughness can be trained into a runner’s psyche. I have found the following strategies helpful for building mental toughness:

Consistent Training. Most runners can easily conjure up an excuse to skip a workout. Weather, school or job constraints, and the general unpredictability of modern life can all conspire to interrupt our training. Nonetheless, the tougher runners among us always find a way to get in their workouts. This “no excuses” attitude often carries over into positive race results.

Acceptance of Chaos. I was awake in high school physics the day my teacher declared that the world tends toward chaos (or entropy, for sticklers). This theory is highly relevant in many racing venues, where delayed starting times, unmarked courses, malfunctioning equipment, and other mishaps can throw an already frazzled competitor completely off the right mindset for a good race. The best runners I know actually look forward to race-day disorder, as they have accepted chaos as natural, unlike their more skittish opponents who may be undone by it.

Willingness to Surge. While running a steady pace will get us to the finish line without much stress, it rarely breaks a competitor of equal fitness. Hardcore racers know that they must elevate the pace throughout a race to shake off clinging foes. The ability to surge comes from a mix of practicing the tactic and deciding to employ it. Surge practice simply involves accelerating from a steady pace, for periods of 10 seconds to a few minutes, throughout a training run. The decision to employ surges is another matter altogether. They are unavoidably painful. But do they hurt worse than losing? That depends on your personality!