How To Build Mental Strength For Runners

runner dealing with injury

You can have the best running plan and training gear in the world, but if you do not train your mind as hard and as often as your train your body, you’ll struggle to achieve your running goals.

As a matter of fact, mental training is as important as physical exercise, maybe more than so.

Here are some of my favorite mental training tools to help you build new motivation, confidence, and drastic improvement in your running, fitness, and overall life.

But first things, what is mental toughness, and why it matters?

Let me unpack this.

What is Mental Toughness?

Mental toughness can be described as your capacity to perform consistently at the best (or highest level possible) regardless of thoughts, inner state, difficulties, external conditions,  and distractions, typically under stressful conditions.

This might mean different things for different runners, depending, mainly, on the type of challenges they’re facing on a regular basis.

Wondering why it’s important? Then let me explain more.

Mental toughness is what separates the wheat from the chaff in all areas of life.

It separates the superstar athlete from the struggling amateur.

It separates the best from the mediocre.

You get the picture…

Without it, you can have the best genes in the world, but you’ll ALWAYS be of average ability, period.

And once you start cultivating mental toughness, you’ll definitely stand a better chance of reaching your running goals—short, medium, and long term.

Now that we have the definition out of the way, let’s look at some of the ways to train your mind so you can become a much more mentally tougher runner.

Define Mental Toughness

As I have already stated, mental toughness is an individual affair. That’s why you need to come up with your definition; otherwise, you’ll never grasp what it is all about.

Here’s what you need to do:

Grab a piece of paper, and in line with your own experience and training goals, write down what mental toughness means to you.

Whatever comes first to your mind, jot it down. Don’t judge it. Even if you have to brainstorm a long list of definitions, do it. You can’t do this exercise wrong.

Here are a few common definitions:

  • Keeping your runs consistent for at least one month.
  • Becoming a morning runner.
  • Starting a running program from zero.
  • Increasing your weekly running mileage without succumbing to pain or boredom.
  • Venturing into uncharted territories.
  • Running alone in adverse weather conditions.
  • Saying no to junk and processed food for a month.
  • Grinding out an extra 200-meter sprint at the end of your track workout.
  • Doing the workouts you hate—whether it’s a long run, hill reps, or a challenging trail run.
  • Running with an elite group and keeping up.
  • Finishing an ultra-distance event.
  • You name it…

The next thing to do is to make your definition as precise as possible, then keep updating it as you get stronger.

Nothing is written in stone, buddy. There is always, always, more room for improvement. So don’t settle. Just keep in mind to use your current fitness status as the benchmark. Don’t try to chew more than you can swallow. Start from where you are at right now, not from where you want to be.

Visualize Mental Toughness

Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve, as the saying goes. This might sound like a new age, self-help nonsense, but when it comes to the world of performance—provided that you are realistic—it’s really practical.

What mental imagery is all about is seeing yourself ALREADY achieving your running goals and winning before you actually get to do it in the real world.

It’s just like what the Navy Seal says “We win in our mind before we enter the battlefield.”

Here’s what you need to do next: take at least 5 to 10 minutes each day to mentally rehearse your running (and life) goals.

Here is how:

First, put yourself in a relaxed and calm state. Breathe deep and slow. Remove all distractions and get your mind focused on your breaths. Relax and let go…

Next, create a series of images in your mind’s eye of what you want to accomplish.

Imagine yourself in the perfect running situation—whether it’s an everyday run or a challenging race you’ve been training for months. Make it clear and as detailed as possible.

Then, run that mental movie over and over again until feelings and sensations of strength, resilience, self-confidence, and power start to emerge within you.

That’s how you’ll know that you are on the right track.

runners running miles

Set The Right goals

By having a clear objective in mind, your training will become meaningful instead of just going through the motions of clocking up the miles.

Here’s what to do next:  Grab a piece of paper and start the goal-setting process right NOW!!

Do you want to lose weight?

Are you looking to complete your first marathon?

Do you want to get faster?

Or do you just want to stay in decent shape?

Is it to improve form, work on your speed, increase mileage, tackle technical terrain, develop on-the-run hydration and fueling strategy, or mainly to challenge yourself?

Whatever it is, define it and go after it.

What’s more?

Once you pick your running goals, monitor them in a training log. This is a must since you can monitor your progress and stick to your training system.

Break Your Goals Down

I’m pretty sure that nobody will argue with me if I say that one of the biggest mental hurdles to running—especially when doing long runs or hard intervals—is feeling overwhelmed when you know you still have a long way to go.

Here’s the truth.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. The same thing applies to running. When you break down the process, you manage to achieve your goals with much more ease.

Sure, this might sound easier said than done, but here’s how to put it into practice.

Think about shorter distances rather than the whole lot. Break your running sessions into small, manageable chunks of the run or small effort that feels doable, and focus only on the first portion, not the entire session.

Next, set intermediary targets and get working on them.

Of course, 15 miles is just 15 miles. But by breaking down the total distance into five 3-miles, each portion will feel a little less overwhelming. And sometimes, that’s all you need to get some edge.

Build a Positive Mindset

“If you think that you can, or can’t, you’re probably right. (John Ford).

This might sound like the corniest thing ever, but I haven’t come across a successful person who hasn’t invested time and effort (consciously or unconsciously) in building a positive mindset.

In my experience, developing a positive mindset boils down to your self-dialogue—the way and how you talk to yourself on a daily basis, period.

One powerful tool I use to build a powerful mindset and overcome negativity is mantras.

Also known as power words, mantras can help you overcome negativity and develop the mental toughness needed to excel. Statements like” I can do it,” “I’m capable,” etc., are some fine examples.

Check my post here for a long list of powerful mantras.

You can also find plenty of mantras and power words with a simple Google search or check my posts here.

Pick a few mantras or shorts phrases to help motivate you and keep you going strong even when all the odds are stacked against you.

What’s more?

Come up with your own list of mantras that work the best for you. Personal experience and personal meaning are what matters the most. Make sure the choice of words you use is positive. Even though some people are better motivated with negative thoughts, stick to positive thoughts.

To make the most out of it, make sure your mantras are personally meaningful. Some of my favorite mantras include statements such as ‘one mile at a time’ or ‘I can do it,’ ‘push,’ etc.

Here are more mantras :

  • Stay strong
  • Run hard
  • Be tall. Be light
  • Finish strong
  • Push!

Cultivate Focus

All of the ancient traditions emphasize the importance of developing a focused mind. As far as I can tell, the most effective tool to do so is meditation. It’s not only sitting still and breathing.

I have already written about meditation a couple of times on my blog, and I believe that

Meditation—as in staying this ancient tool is a practice you can never ignore. Focus on the present moment—may help increase both your training performance and enjoyment, research revealed.

Here’s what to do next: Meditate for at least 15 to 20 minutes every day, especially before a hard session, like a long run or an interval session.

Find a calm and peaceful place and commit to spending at least ten minutes to settle down and focus on your mind.

Focus on breathing deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth, aiming to clear your mind of extraneous thoughts, aiming to achieve a sense of equanimity and total calm and focus.

Don’t get me wrong. Meditation isn’t just about sitting with legs crossed in darkroom. You can also try what I call meditation in motion.

One simple strategy is the count your step game, in which you sync your steps to a count. You can count up until you get to 10, then repeat.

Dissociation

This technique is all about distracting yourself from how you feel at the moment by either thinking about something unrelated to your training or engaging with an external stimulus.

By stepping back from your situation and becoming the observer instead of the observer, you’ll be able to create some mental distance. Dissociation is especially helpful for beating the boredom on a long run.

You can dissociate yourself while running in many ways. You could count landmarks along your running routes, such as houses, trees, cars, or telephone poles. You could also sing along to your playlist, brainstorm ideas for a project you’re working on, or creating a shopping list for later. In short, multitasking.

Or better yet, try this awesome NLP trick :

Run in Adverse Conditions

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if you only train under the ideal conditions, then you’re missing out.

Here’s the truth.

Building a strong inner running game boils down to running outside of your comfort zone—both literally and figuratively. Training for the worst helps you to overcome any bad conditions that might happen.

So do you put this into practice?

Easy peasy. Do the workouts that makes you feel less comfortable—these consist of sessions you usually hate and avoid like the plague.

Here are a few examples:

  • Run somewhere unfamiliar.
  • Tackle a mountainous route.
  • Run in the snow.
  • Tackle a technical terrain with lots of obstacles.
  • Run in the rain.
  • Run in the middle of the day during the summer.
  • Run long distances alone and with no distractions.
  • Pair up with an elite runner and go training together.
  • Practice mindful running…

All of these runs will inevitably force you out of your comfort zone.

Conclusion

There you have it!

If you’re looking for some of the best mental training strategies in sports psychology, today’s post should be enough to point you in the right direction. It’s really up to you to put it into practice.

Please feel free to leave your comments and questions in the section below.

In the meantime, thank you for dropping by.

Keep training strong.

David D.