Training your body is just a start if you want to run at a high level. Understanding and building mental strength can boost your performance, too.
A missing piece in the performance puzzle
Many runners spend lots of time and energy on the physical aspect of the sport. They train to better their stride, increase their speed, and build their endurance. The physical aspect of training is essential, but it’s not everything. If you want to improve performance, you may need to take stock of your mental strength. But what exactly is mental strength?
The multiple factors behind mental strength
There are simple ways to measure physical strength — how much you can lift, how far you can throw, or how fast you can run. Mental strength isn’t quantifiable like physical strength. You’re not counting reps or miles when you are building mental toughness. Being mentally strong means that you are confident, determined, prepared, and able to cope with pressure. Mental strength can also go hand in hand with happiness, which is something many athletes don’t even consider when thinking about mental toughness.
Dr. Kristin Keim is a sports and performance psychologist. As a former competitive cyclist, she learned how the mind and body can work together to improve or hinder performance. Keim now helps clients by providing integrative, holistic, and strength-based approaches through her practice, Keim Performance Consulting.
She explains that while the overarching principles of mental strength are broad, they apply differently to each individual. Tiger Woods has a specific path to building mental toughness, while Des Linden has another, for example. These athletes may have different paths to building mental toughness, but both understand their individual needs.
“Each person has a recipe of motivators. That means that in order to be mentally tough, you need to have the ability to learn about yourself. Being better at your sport can’t just be about suffering through your workouts or training. Mental strength is about learning how to not have to suffer to do well,” she says.
Dr. Keim has worked with plenty of Olympic athletes, and she’s found that a surprising amount of them didn’t enjoy their experience. Some would overtrain and others battled toxic relationships with coaches or other athletes.
“On paper, or on Instagram, these seem like mentally tough athletes who can handle anything. But I’d say that they actually lacked mental strength because they suffered through this experience. Can you imagine how well some of these athletes would perform if they were happy? Even if they didn't do as well as they were hoping, at least they'd be happy. I think that should mean something.”
Putting it all together
Just like improving your stride, mental toughness takes practice. Do you want to get mentally stronger? Here are some tips and practices to help build confidence, become more self-aware, and be happier.
Develop a mantra
A strong motivational sentence or phrase can go a long way in building confidence. Your mantra should be affirming, but simple. Repeat it often in training and competition.
Visualize your goals
Create a clear mental image of a running goal like finishing a bucket list race or breaking a PR. Then focus on the image and imagine what it feels like to perform in those situations. Be sure to write your goals down, too — it will help with accountability.
Simple meditation for 20–30 minutes a day can help manage stress, reduce negative emotions and increase self-awareness. Sit or lie comfortably in a quiet space. Close your eyes, breathe naturally, and focus on your breathing and your body.
Take a break
“Sometimes, nothing is something. Using rest days to cross train isn’t really resting. To get stronger, you need to learn how to rest harder, or better,” says Dr. Keim. It’s okay to take a break and do something that has nothing to do with your sport.
Want to improve your run performance? Don’t let your mind get out of shape. Train your brain as well as your body so you can run happy.