Training your mind and body: Building mental strength through running
November 24, 2022|By Jonathan Thompson
Mental strength is incredibly important for runners, and it can affect your life outside of running, too. So, how can you develop this particular skill?
For those of you who don't know me personally, it's important to understand that I do not have a reputation for self-discipline. In fact, I generally am not what one would call "motivated". And yet, I can confidently say that my decades of running have significantly improved what athletes often call their mental strength or toughness.
While a bit difficult to define, this is the quality that allows runners and other athletes to persevere despite the mental and physical hardships of training and competition. And, though this trait may not be inherent in many of us, Amby Burfoot – the winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon – once said, "Motivation is a skill. It can be learned and practised".
Defining mental strength
We've already given a brief, somewhat simplistic definition of mental toughness or strength. But this trait is really more about positivity than just raw tenacity and persistence. Those things are definitely involved but, as used in the research, "mental strength" often refers to a person's ability to overcome common negative feelings like exhaustion, self-doubt or pain to achieve a particular goal.
In fact, some argue that mental toughness is closely related to the skill of focus. Which does make sense. It takes a tough athlete to stay focused on the event in front of them regardless of the weather, the condition of the course, other runners, or anything else that might limit their performance. A mentally strong runner does not allow these distractions to discourage them.
When I think of this type of mental toughness, I always think of an old friend of mine, Dan. In many ways, Dan has always been my opposite – primarily in the fact that he is an incredibly self-disciplined and focused person. One day, we were running at a gym together, each on a treadmill, when I noticed he had no earphones and wasn't even glancing at the TV. I, on the other hand, was both listening to music and glued to the screens while running.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Dan greatly outperformed me. While literally watching the clock. To this day, I can't even imagine watching the seconds tick away and not losing my mind. But Dan can do it. Easily and contentedly. Put simply, Dan's natural toughness allows him to set all of these other things aside and be completely absorbed in his run.
The importance of mental toughness
Clearly, mental toughness is a complex concept that envelopes many of the psychological aspects of endurance sports. To really understand the impact of this particular skill and how to cultivate it, though, we need to go a little deeper and discuss the natural enemy of mental toughness, mental fatigue. A fascinating study on this topic was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 2009 A group of physiologists took 16 subjects and asked them to cycle at 80% of their maximum effort for as long as they possibly could. As extra motivation, the scientists promised a $50 reward to the top performer.
Before the actual cycling began, though, the subjects went through one of two 90-minute experiences. They were asked to either complete a mentally challenging task at a computer or watch a documentary on cars and trains. Granted, that may seem like a strange choice of viewing material, but this film was selected specifically as a control for its emotionally neutral content. Presuming that none of the participants had any strong feelings about trains, I guess. The subjects were then asked to fill out a questionnaire to assess their levels of mental energy and motivation. Finally, everyone was strapped into a host of monitors that tracked their physiological performance and asked to cycle their little hearts out.
Interestingly, the group that had just spent 90 minutes performing a demanding task at a computer always fatigued sooner than their documentary-watching counterparts. And this was an entirely mental reaction. According to all of those concrete scientific measurements of their cardiovascular performance and lactate levels, these individuals should have been able to keep going. Additionally, they reported high levels of motivation before the workout. So, they wanted to do well and just didn't have the mental energy to follow through.
The study's authors concluded that "mental fatigue limits exercise tolerance in humans through higher perception of effort rather than cardiorespiratory and musculo energetic mechanisms". Or, put in less fancy terms, your brain will typically give up before your muscles do. This somewhat startling conclusion was reinforced in 2017 when another group of researchers performed a review of 11 studies on this topic. Across all of these studies, it was clear that mental fatigue — or a lack of mental strength — directly contributed to reduced endurance. It is important to note, as well, this review found no negative impact on strength or power. Instead, mental toughness was entirely connected to endurance sports. For runners, then, this is a pretty big deal.
Up to this point, we've mainly talked about how mental toughness relates to running. And that makes sense. We are, after all, concerned with that particular sport here. It should be mentioned, however, that the perseverance you develop through endurance training can be useful in many areas of life. I'm sure there are plenty of things you have to do on a regular basis, whether you want to or not. As mentioned, doing so is a skill. And running provides a perfect place to practise and develop that ability.
Beefing up your brain
So, the logical question then is how does one develop this all-important quality of mental toughness? It's actually similar to the process of building physical strength. That's convenient, at least. As you probably know, developing muscular strength requires you to challenge your muscles to perform a given task. Once that task is over, your muscles and brain have a serious conversation about what just happened and decide the muscles need to be made bigger, stronger, and generally be better prepared for the next time that particular challenge comes along.
While the exact biological mechanisms are, of course, different from increasing your mental toughness, the theory is roughly the same. By exposing yourself to certain mentally fatiguing challenges and overcoming them successfully, you gradually build up this resilience. And fortunately – for our purposes, at least – there are infinite ways you can challenge your mental energy reserves. At least once per week, for example, try to run at a time of the day where you're naturally exhausted, like after work. Generally, most runners do the opposite. We try to run when we are at our best. But giving yourself this added mental hurdle helps build mental toughness and the ability to run even though you don't feel like it.
And that's really the idea here. Find times to run when you don't want to, and prove to yourself that it's possible.
Strategies for building mental strength
Of course, you don't need to just power through these workouts running on spite alone. There are tricks and techniques you can use that increase your mental strength and help you overcome these additional emotional challenges.
One tool athletes have used for a long time is positive self-talk – the practice of hyping yourself up by essentially giving yourself a little pep talk. Interestingly, a 2019 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences found that second-person self-talk, speaking to yourself as if you were talking to another person, had an even greater impact on performance than practising the same thing in the first person. Although the exact reasons for this are a bit cloudy, the general thinking is that using the second person allows you to distance yourself from the effort and consider it objectively.
Another strategy, which my buddy Dan apparently has no need for, is the use of music. The idea that music can be a powerful motivational tool and even affect mood is an old one that likely won't surprise you. But this approach is based on much more than just anecdotal evidence. We have science.
A particularly exhaustive review of the research into music's impact on our physical state was published in the International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology after about two decades of research and more than 40 years of findings. It's a big one. Basically, though, the article's authors found ample evidence to suggest that music can prepare you for your workouts, increase your endurance during exercise, and actually reduce your level of perceived exertion. That's right: A well-selected song can make your workout seem easier than it really is.
You'll notice I specified the song must be well-selected. Researchers have found that music you pick yourself, enjoy, and find motivational has a much more potent effect on your performance than music that's selected for you. Interestingly, any music seems to be better than none in most cases.
Running through distraction
Mental toughness is an oft-forgotten but important aspect of physical fitness, especially for endurance athletes. In fact, if you aren't mentally and emotionally prepared for a run, there's a good chance you'll stop running with plenty left in the tank.
Learning to run through discomfort and distraction, through whatever strategies work for you, is an important part of your training routine. Don't be afraid to run when you don't feel like it. In fact, on those days when you really don't want to run, remember: You'll be a stronger athlete — both physically and mentally — when it's over.
Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your doctor or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition or fitness routines.
My interest in fitness started young, primarily as the survival strategy of a scrawny asthmatic. After receiving my certifications as a personal trainer and nutritionist, I started writing fitness articles. At this point, running is a non-negotiable part of my life.