Mental toughness

In Is this sustainable? I quoted Chris Boardman talking about how it feels during a race. He said “There’s a constant calculation going on between … How far is it to go? How hard am I trying? Is this sustainable? And if the answer is yes [to the sustainable question], you’re not going hard enough. If the answer is no, it’s too late [because you’ve dropped time by not going harder] so you’re looking for maybe”. I was thinking about this as I ran parkrun and it occurred to me that how you respond to this question shows your level of mental toughness.

The difference between the mentally tough and the ordinary person is that the ordinary person gives up when they realise something isn’t sustainable. The mentally tough person doesn’t accept No for an answer. As I wrote in Denial, they dig in and try to gut it out. They’ll keep trying, hoping to find some kind of energy reserve – they may find it, they may not. In a race against opponents (especially mentally weak ones) not knowing your limitations can make the difference between winning and losing.

It’s fairly obvious that the mentally weak are happy to continue when the answer is Yes and they’ll give up for a No; but I’d venture that it’s the Maybe answer which is enough to get them shutting it down and giving up. As soon as the answer changes to “I’m not entirely sure this is sustainable” which Boardman says is the very thing you’re looking for; the doubt begins to creep in and they give up and fall back to a safe zone.


In recent years, theories of fatigue have moved on from it being caused by a build-up of waste products in the muscles; to being about the brain taking feedback about those build-ups and subconsciously allowing the athlete to keep going, or the mind tempting them to slow down by experiencing build-ups as pain. Therefore elite distance runners are beginning to add mental stress to training sessions to teach the brain, it can cope with more and it’s safe to continue going. You could liken it to walking up a street in the dark. The first time you do it, you’re tentative with each step because you don’t know what’s ahead. But if you repeat the experience and know you managed ten steps safely, you walk those steps quickly the second time.

If you can push through pain in training or races, it’ll give you an extra dimension to your running – it’ll teach your brain that it’s safe to release the unused reserves. This is the bit where mentally weak athletes have a disadvantage. If they aren’t willing to push through the pain, their brain isn’t going to feel safe to allow them to break into their reserves. I’ve met a good many runners who always play it safe. They start off slowly, start at the back of the field, or ease off when exhaustion or heavy breathing threaten. They don’t try to push through the temptation of giving up, they simply give up.

I believe the role of the mental side of running is overplayed in modern literature. No matter how much you want or desire to be the Olympic champion, you still have to train before you can get close to that stage. Physical limitations are still limitations to be addressed by training, not by thinking you can run harder.  But, when Eliud Kipchoge ran the first two sub-2 hour marathon, it’s possible the knowledge of getting within twenty-five seconds on his first attempt was enough to help him find the extra seconds. That’s what mental toughness and training is about, having a confidence to push through Maybe and give it your all.

When the going gets tough, there’s probably more to be eked out than you realise. Pushing hard occasionally in training and races will help the mind know it’s possible.

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