Building Mental Toughness for Distance Running

Written by Brendan Davies, Head Coach UP Coaching

To have a successful race, whichever event, no matter of your goal, it is vital that we sufficiently train our body systems. Physically; we train our aerobic system with our long run, our muscular system with our hilly runs and our speed and top end energy systems in workouts. However, what usually has the biggest influence on the success of a race, particularly long events, is our Mental Toughness.

No one is born with the same amount of Mental Toughness, nor does it miraculously appear on race day. Just like training our body, we must also train our Mental Toughness through experiences. By doing this, we collect a repertoire of skills and experiences to call upon on race day when the going gets tough.

What is Mental Toughness?

Mental toughness is hard to define, and everyone will have a different opinion on what it incorporates. But for me, I think the most important aspects are discipline and dedication, mindset, focus, resilience and adaptability. In short, it’s coming to the race ‘Ready to Race in body and mind’. This means that you come to the start line mentally prepared and ready to deal with any thing that may hinder you reaching your goal.

How to Develop Mental Toughness in training

1: Being disciplined and dedicated

I believe that developing Mental Toughness and discipline go hand in hand. Training, recovering and, yes even resting, requires a great deal of discipline. Doing this day in and day out and following your program requires dedication. When we are both disciplined and dedicated, you’ll start to build your stockpile of experiences that you can draw upon in the future. Think about it as an investment fund. Every time you knock off a tough session, or make the time for that recovery session, you’re investing in your future success.

Once we have discipline and dedication down, we can begin to break it down even more and develop other aspects of Mental Toughness. This is all to do with our behaviours and our thought processes when we train.

2: Come to training with a ‘tough’ mindset

Prepare for training by looking positively towards it and project confidence. Don’t focus on things you can’t control like what the weather is like or what session is down in your program. Negative feelings will only bring about anxiety and doubt. Embrace the fact that the hard sessions are going to hurt and there will be discomfort involved. Be motivated by that deep satisfaction you’ll get once that session is over knowing that you’ve invested in your future fund. Be prepared to grit it out at times and just get it done as these are some of the most valuable experiences.

3: Have a goal and keeping focused

Have a clear and achievable goal for each training session. Is it to build strength, work on your technique, gain technical skill, grind up a hill, build speed or totally run out of your comfort zone? Having this clear outcome will keep you focused and motivated and training becomes purposeful and a lot more than just clocking up the kilometres.

Try not to over analyse things in training by thinking about how you are feeling too much. in simple. Often I’ll just concentrate on my cadence or my breathing. In other words, keep the focus on the running, in the present moment. Try not to think ‘how far you have to go’, or ‘how many reps you have left’. Focus in the moment, metre by metre, rep by rep.

4: Build your resilience

We’ve all had those days when the session is simply a shocker, we feel flat, down spirited or simply not in the mood to train yet we push through and get it done. Guaranteed when this happens; these sessions are the ones that are often the most beneficial and we draw on these when times get tough during the race. Try not to take short cuts in your training but on the days when it all goes pear shaped; make sure you see these setbacks as a way to practise resilience. Give yourself 10min to reset before making any decisions. Often in training I find myself running out of that rut in that time and the session is back on track and can become the session of the week. If you do need to modify the session, be honest with yourself with what you could be taking away out of it. Don’t be a perfectionist either, ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’. If something doesn’t quite go to plan, don’t hold onto it.

5: Be adaptable

Knowing how to adapt your physical output and controlling your mental state for variability will bring confidence and decrease anxiety come race day. Make sure you choose training sessions and locations with this in mind. Also, be adaptable to the things you can’t control, like the weather or the course conditions. Make sure you’re mentally tough enough to handle these variables by trying as much as possible to train in these conditions or using positive mental imagery to prepare yourself for these. Often in training I will throw in spontaneous additions to my training. For example, at the top of a big climb, I may make an unplanned decision to go back down and up again! Or in my squad sessions, I will throw in extra reps or km on suspecting athletes, for ‘thy will power’s sake’!

While of course I can’t cover everything on this topic, I hope I have given you some tips to take into your own training. Practising some of these strategies in your training will, over time, develop your Mental Toughness and come race day, it hopefully won’t seem so daunting after all.

© Brendan Davies, UP Coaching

UP Coaching was founded by Brendan Davies, current Australian Ultra Runner of the Year in 2015. He and his team of 12 accredited Coaches have helped hundreds of athletes Australia wide achieve personal and performance running goals; from track events, to road and right through to trail ultra marathons.

UP Coaching is an Athletics NSW affiliated club and hosts weekly junior and adult training sessions in the Blue Mountains, Penrith, The Hills, Bathurst and the ACT as well as coaching athletes from all around Australia online.

See our Webpage and Facebook Page for more information.

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