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.

Olympic thoughts – Is this sustainable?

Day 5 of the Tokyo Olympics had me watching cycling again with more commentary from Chris Boardman. This time it was the men’s individual time trial which was eventually won by Primoz Roglic of Slovenia.

Boardman accurately predicted it would take around 55-mins to cover the course, not too difficult maths when the riders are going at 48km/hr and the course is 44.1km long. At just under an hour it’s an event that’s comparable to elite men’s half marathon running, or in physiological terms it’s being run at Threshold. For lesser runners that might be a 10-mile run or only a 10K – it’s applies to whatever you can cover in an hour.

The nugget of commentary that really struck me was Boardman’s description about riding at Threshold. He stated:

“The first five minutes is free, you don’t feel the pain. That’s the bit where you have to use your head rather than your heart and then it becomes self-regulating, you start to get a feel for the pace, the pain sets in and then you manage it”

What he was describing was how, when you begin a race the legs are free of lactate and waste products that eventually begin to make them feel heavy and the effort to keep them moving gets tougher. With fresh legs it’s easy to go off too fast – build up the lactate quickly and then suffer; the ideal is to ration the build-up evenly over the course of the race. This is true at all race distances and even true during interval training.

After co-commentator Simon Brotherton mentioned that there’s a “fine line between pushing as hard as you can but not going too far into the red” to viewers, Boardman responded with more gold dust:

“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, you’re not going hard enough. If the answer is no, it’s too late so you’re looking for maybe”

What a fantastic piece of commentary. I must admit the idea of maybe seems quite novel to me. I’ve probably always pushed myself into maybe without realising it and just aimed to hang on, but I’d usually coach people to keep in the comfort zone of yes. We like things to be black-or-white, yes-or-no; Boardman showed that the best in world are risking playing on the edge with maybe!

Next time you’re on the start line at parkrun remember these quotes from Boardman and see how they reflect your experience. The great thing about parkrun is you can test “yes”, “no”, “maybe” over the weeks and begin to learn what each feels like.