Mental Toughness for Runners: Train Your Brain to Go the Distance

Ever hit the wall on a run or during a race, and find yourself on the verge of giving up?

Or maybe your self-doubt keeps getting in the way of signing up for a race, running a longer distance, or chasing a big running goal.

Running more miles isn't always the answer.

Your mindset makes a difference, too.

Want to develop mental toughness to be a better runner? Train your brain to keep up with your body. 

Training with purpose

Runners work hard to achieve their wildest athletic dreams, like... 

  • Going from couch to 5k
  • Tackling your first race or a new distance
  • Aiming for a PR
  • Yearning for a podium finish, or…
  • Coming back from an injury or time off 

These all have one main component in common: TRAINING.

But running more miles isn't always the answer. 

While some runners may be able to take their running from zero to 100, most of us need to build ourselves up to rise to the challenge.

The whole point of training lies in the “cumulative load” theory: 

Gradually increasing workload to familiarize ourselves with higher demands, and build back from the effects of that stress to wind up more capable than we were before.

When athletes think about training, we generally jump straight to actions that help us make physical adaptations and improvements.

Most running training plans include the same general formula to induce a cumulative load, with different focuses and balances depending on what specific goals we’re working towards.

You know the drill: 

  • Long runs to build endurance
  • Workouts to increase speed and power
  • Easy runs to round out the mileage and aid recovery between longer or harder efforts
When Lucie Hanes ran her first ultramarathon, she learned a lot about mental toughness to go the distance.

Could something be missing from your training plan?

There’s no denying that following a training plan, working with a coach, or at least including each of these elements within your regular running schedule plays a crucial role in bringing runners closer to their performance goals.

Regimented training might not make sense at all times of the year or through all seasons of life, and that’s more than okay.

We all need time to step back and focus on simply enjoying the time on our feet without any added pressure.

The structure and direction that training plans offer do make a clear difference when it comes down to crunch time.

But could something be missing from your training plan?  

Running involves much more than just what we do with our bodies.

Any runner who has set and worked toward any kind of goal knows that mental toughness matters just as much as the physical work. In fact, it may matter more.

If you want to chase big running dreams, focus on training your body + your mind.

Mental toughness: Train your brain to be a better runner

It’s tough - if not impossible - to do anything on a physical level without your mind getting on board as well.

Our brains need to make the decisions first so that our bodies can follow through on the action.

Both take a good dose of determination, but I’d argue that the brain has the harder job here.

I know that it’s more difficult for me to actually set a goal and map out the concrete steps I need to take along the way than it is for me to get out the door to follow my plan.

Trouble setting running goals?

For a long time at the beginning of my running career, I had serious trouble setting goals. I even referred to races as “events”, because the idea of challenging myself to race felt too overwhelming.

That’s because setting a goal goes deeper than just saying the words.

In order to make choices that set us up for success, we have to actually believe in our ability to meet expectations. 

Believing in ourselves, truly and wholeheartedly, very well may be the toughest challenge ambitious athletes ever face.

Mindset and mental toughness matters for runners because our brains hold down the driver’s seat. Your brain controls:  

  • What you do
  • How you get there
  • How hard you try, and...
  • Why you care about doing any of this at all

Building internal strength leads to higher levels of...

  • Self-confidence
  • Determination
  • Resilience, and...
  • Focus...

...all of which give our bodies the best chance of fully engaging in and growing from the external work.

 
Here are five ways runners can develop mental toughness to go the distance.

1. Expect motivation to ebb and flow

1. Expect motivation to ebb and flow

Not every run or training session is going to be filled to the brim with the same level of excitement and interest. 

Some days it may be tough to keep yourself from running sun-up to sun-down; other days it can feel just as tough to get yourself out the door at all. 

 

Very few processes in life follow a path of linear progression, especially running.

On the occasions when your motivation to run sinks lower than usual or you fall into a rut, harnessing your mental toughness to remember your larger purpose in running can help keep you engaged by doing things like: 

  • Taking a break. You might just need a little break from running, for the day or a couple, to recharge and pay attention to other areas of your life that training commitments have pushed to the side. Make some progress on your to-do list, spend time with your loved ones, or dive into these tips on yoga for runners to fortify your foundation of strength in body and mind. 
  • Considering your 'why?' But if the ebb starts to feel more frequent than the flow, spend some time considering why you run. These reasons are different for everyone: it could be some aspect of a particular goal you’re working toward, an area of your life that running directly impacts and improves, or simply the feeling of serotonin rushing through your body in motion. 
  • Creating a routine. Once you have a better idea of your underlying purpose as a runner, work on building those reasons into your daily running routines as a reminder that every run taps into that purpose. Warm-ups and cool-downs present ideal opportunities to prepare for and reflect on your run through the lens of your intentions.
2. Practice: Confidence increases with competence

2. Practice: Confidence increases with competence

According to Teddy Roosevelt, “believe you can, and you’re halfway there”. I’d go so far as to say that true belief gets you much more than halfway. 

Beware of burnout

Training can quickly turn into a rote routine of just going through the motions. 

You can put in all the physical effort you think you have, but you won’t come near the actual limits of your capabilities without steadfast self-confidence.

Withstand the pressure

There’s a cap on how much strength, power, speed, or distance our bodies can access.

In many cases, poor confidence triggers that cap faster than any physical limitation.

For instance, consider a situation in which a runner has trained well for an upcoming race:

  • Completed a training plan to a T. Check.
  • Hit pace goals in workouts. Check.
  • Tapered properly before the event. Check.
  • Staved off injuries. Check.
  • They’re ready to hit the ground running on race day. Check.

But when that day finally comes around, they crack under the pressure.

No matter what they’ve done to prepare, the act of toeing the start line saps away their confidence. 

This runner falls far short of their pace goals in the race despite having the physical ability to meet them, as proved in their training. 

 

This is an example of a runner who experiences situationally low self-confidence.

How do you get past a mental block like this? Here are some things you can do. 

  • Learn to relax. This runner could strongly benefit from learning familiarization and relaxation techniques specific to the race environment. 
  • Be more aware. Other runners may experience generally low self-confidence that affects all aspects of their training and performance endeavors, to the extent that they might not have any awareness of where their actual limits even lie. 
  • Build self-esteem. These athletes might need to take a more broad approach to discovering the roots of their struggles and building self-esteem across the board. 

Either way, confidence directly impacts the way we show up both on a daily basis and at go-time. 

3. Set big goals

3. Set big goals

This one has a lot to do with the same issues around self-confidence. 

  • Setting a goal means taking the first step toward achieving that goal. 
  • Define your goal. Putting your dreams into words gives us much more power over them than if we let them remain nebulous ideas in our minds. 
  • Break it down into smaller goals. Once we determine the goal and make it clear, we can start breaking it down into bite-sized pieces that we can digest one at a time. Small bites go down easier than large gulps, and add up to get us where we want to be faster than if we try to jump straight from point to point in one fell swoop.  

However, with big goals come big fears.

  • What if I don’t meet this goal? 
  • What if I run out of time to take all these steps? 
  • What if I’m not even capable of reaching this goal, no matter how well I train or how many small steps I take?  

Yes, what if?

Think about it this way: What’s the real harm in setting goals with the chance that you won’t meet them?

You are a runner, but you are also so much more than a runner.

Consider what other aspects of your life hold value and fulfillment for you (and if you can’t think of anything, that’s a sign to start diversifying your life beyond running). 

Those other aspects will stand strong no matter what happens with your running goal. 

I would rather an athlete set a huge, ambitious goal and put in their best effort toward it than not set one at all for fear that it won’t play out perfectly; at least then they give themselves a fighting chance. 

4. Choose quality over quantity

4. Choose quality over quantity

When athletes feel insecure in their abilities, many jump to the conclusion that they’re simply not doing enough.

This can sometimes be true, especially when a runner just isn’t hitting the weekly mileage that their plan calls for in terms of the goal at hand, but I’m talking about the runners that always want to “go the extra mile”.

The idea that more = better lays a tempting trap

In reality, more runners that take this route will end up overtrained and overstressed than stronger and faster.

 

The phrase “no junk miles” means that runners should turn their focus to quality instead of quantity.

Extra miles may make you feel like you’re doing something productive toward your goals, but those miles only hurt you if they’re thrown in willy-nilly without a clear intention behind them.

Instead of adding in more, first look at how wisely you’re using your current training time:

  • How’s your form? 
  • Are you warming up, cooling down, stretching, and strength training? 
  • Are you including the right balance of endurance, speed, basic mileage, and recovery? 
  • How’s your nutrition, sleep, and stress?  

These questions take guts to pause and ask, because they ask runners to slow down and take time for introspection.

Doing more often means taking the easy way out via distraction and blind faith. 

5. Learn to navigate setbacks

5. Learn to navigate setbacks

For runners who do follow a regimented plan, that schedule can often offer a sense of calm and control over otherwise chaotic lives.

I definitely fall into this category...

  • As long as I get my run in as prescribed, then I’ll make it through the rest of my day no matter what it throws at me. 
  • If my schedule changes and I have to rearrange my run, or even - gasp - miss it completely...Let’s just say that those days turn into some of the most stressful that I’ve ever experienced, simply because of the loss of structure.

Setbacks, changes, misunderstandings, and emergencies happen.

They’re inevitable, and our running routines often get mixed up in the mess.

That’s life. No one day determines our overall health, fitness, or character.

If you're struggling with a setback, face it head on like this:

  • Dig into your discomfort around change
  • Understanding why you are relying on consistency in your running to stay sane
  • Make mindset shifts that help you embrace change rather than fear it.

When you deal with setbacks in a constructive way, it can help you adapt in unpredictable situations - and still meet your training goals in the end.

👉🏃‍♀️🏃‍♂️Run with Lucie. If you’re a runner who resonates with these scenarios and struggles with building or maintaining mental strength, you deserve to spend some time with your mind. Think about these concepts, and reach out to Lucie at Inside Out Athlete for individualized support. 

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Lucie Hanes
Ambassador
Eagle, CO

Ultrarunner, rock climber, occasional artist, fond of good wordplay. Small human on big adventures with big goals and big feelings.

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