How to Cultivate Mental Toughness for Running


Running is obviously a physical thing, but there’s a huge mental aspect too. Sometimes, of course, we run to clear the mind and just be in that blissful place of not thinking for a while.

But other times, our mind can be our own worst enemy – especially during races. When your body is spent and your legs are saying no, your degree of mental toughness could be the deciding factor between a PR and a subpar finish.

But do you even have an idea of how to cultivate mental toughness for running?

We’ve done the trial and error thing and today we’re sharing some of our top tips for building a strong, sound mind that could become your biggest asset on the road or trail.

Let’s dive in!

What Is Mental Toughness & Why Is It Important?

There’s not much scientific stuff out there about what mental toughness truly is. But it’s generally accepted that it’s the way we respond when we’re faced with a situation or obstacle that makes us feel uncomfortable, either physically or mentally.

A large part of mental toughness is awareness. Being aware of your thoughts while you’re running can make the difference between pushing through and letting them get the better of you.

Once you get used to becoming aware of your thoughts, it gets easier to consciously change those thoughts to ones that benefit you rather than hinder you.

So, why is this even important? Well, negative thoughts have a negative impact on the body. On the other hand, optimism has much more positive effects.

Mental toughness helps you to ignore or get rid of negative thoughts during your run. Things like “My legs are sore”, “My lungs can’t deal with this”, or “Why am I even doing this?” only impart negativity!

Mental toughness helps you focus on the positive. It can be the biggest difference between getting stuck in negative thoughts and breaking through the tough times to be victorious.

How to Cultivate Mental Toughness

That’s all fine and well, but how do you just ignore negative thoughts and focus on positive ones when you’re sore, tired, and feeling worn out?

It all begins long before you even set foot on that road or trail. Building mental toughness requires practice, just like sport and hobbies.

Here are a few things we suggest implementing into your life to help you build mental toughness. You can start these immediately and do them every day!

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about being in the moment. Often, we’re so busy worrying about work tomorrow or regretting that thing we said yesterday that we forget to focus on the here and now.

Practicing mindfulness is all about quieting the mind and focusing on the moment. Meditation is an excellent way to begin learning how to be mindful. Just 10 minutes a day is all you need.

If you can, try to sit in a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. This is just in the beginning – as you get used to being mindful, you’ll be able to do it anywhere, any time.

Bring your awareness to your own body. Focus on your breathing and make sure you’re breathing down into your stomach and not shallowly into your chest. How do you feel? Do you have aches and pains?

Expand your awareness to your surroundings. What do you hear? What do you see? Is there a breeze, or is the air still against your skin?

Don’t discount the positive effect of doing this for 10 minutes a day. Being able to bring your awareness back to yourself and the present moment is invaluable to break the cycle of unnecessary negative thoughts.

Visualize & Feel

Visualization gets a bad rap as a “new-agey, wishy-washy” kind of thing. In reality, it’s been used as a tool for much longer than anyone realizes.

As the saying goes, “where attention goes, energy flows”. In a nutshell, what that means is that what you focus on will expand.

Have you ever noticed how when you feel a little ill and you start worrying about all the possible things that could be wrong with you, you start to feel worse? This is the power of the imagination. That’s what visualization is all about.

Visualize running hard and crossing that finish line strongly. Imagine pushing through tiredness and hitting a new PR.

The key is to add feeling to your visualizations. Imagine how it would feel to cross the finish line, to hit that PR, to add this race to your list.

You can do this in the middle of your race, but setting aside time to visualize and feel your races, your training, and how you’ll feel afterward can be a huge help.

You’re intentionally creating good feelings, which releases good chemicals in the brain and body. This can help spur you on in the moment, and practicing it beforehand will help you bring those feelings up in the moment during the race.

Create a Reminder

Part of mental toughness is remembering why you’re doing what you’re doing. Why are you running this race? What’s your reason for putting yourself through this?

Create a small physical reminder of that reason. A bracelet, ring, or something similar is an excellent choice as you can easily keep it on your person while you’re running.

When you begin to feel like you’re having a hard time in a race, you’ll feel the bracelet or ring on your hand and remind yourself why you’re running.

This alone can be motivation for pushing through the harder sections of your run!

Push Yourself

Don’t just go through the motions when you’re training. Commit to pushing yourself during your training sessions.

Be careful, though. If you suffer from shin splints, for example, don’t go out and run 10 miles more than you usually do. Be smart about it – maybe incorporate a cycle instead of a run, which challenges you and gives you a great cardiovascular boost.

Don’t push yourself to the point where injuries could occur. But don’t allow yourself to end your workout without having had a proper challenge. If you’ve still got some fuel in the tank at the end of your session, end off with a hard finisher.

Another thing we suggest is intentionally training in harsh conditions. If you can push through a run in rain, snow, heavy wind, or rocky ground, you can handle any conditions that come your way in a race.

Constantly pushing yourself out of your comfort zone primes the body and brain for excellent performance.

Surround Yourself With Positivity

Join a running group or find a running buddy who supports and motivates you. Find ways to surround yourself with positive feelings and people.

If you need to leave yourself notes on the mirror, do it! If writing out your goals or keeping a journal helps you to stay positive, then start doing it every day.

Not sure what motivates you? Try a couple of different things. Put up a poster of a runner you admire. Write your goals down and place them where you can see them. Find quotes that inspire you.

Surround yourself with things that make you feel good, motivated, and driven to reach your goals.

Be Consistent

Just like you should be doing something every day to improve your running (whether training or recovery), building mental toughness works best when you work at it consistently.

We recommend setting aside a few moments every day to be mindful, to visualize, to feel, and to remind yourself why you do this.

Try it for 21 days – build a habit of doing mental toughness exercises, and it will soon become part of you!

How to Stay Tough During a Race

It’s great to spend time every day creating a mental toughness habit, but we understand that it can be hard in the moment to bring your mind back to these things. Here are some quick, easy ways to stay mentally tough in the middle of a race.

Give Yourself a Pep Talk

If hardcore, “Inch by Inch” speeches get you going, give yourself one of those. If not, talk yourself through this in the best way you know how.

You know yourself best – what really spurs you on and pushes you forward? Give yourself a pep talk to push you forward.

Find a Mantra

Running can be hypnotic, and adding a mantra into the mix can be an excellent way to distract your mind from whatever pain and discomfort you’re going through.

Instead of thinking of negative things, like “My legs are sore”, you’ll be pumping out a positive, impactful statement to your own brain and body.

Choose something short but sweet. Trying to beat out “I’m an awesome runner and I can get through this without passing out” is a bit long and not very rhythmic.

Try something like “Keep calm, run on”, “I am strong”, or “One more step”. Repeat it rhythmically and feel the feelings that go along with it.

Play Mind Games (the good kind)

Playing mind games is an excellent way to distract yourself. Try to name animals or places with each letter of the alphabet, or list foods in every color of the rainbow.

Or, count how many arrows you come across on the road, or how many runners you see wearing yellow shirts.

You can focus on almost anything you want to in the moment. You’d be surprised at how much of the race goes by when you’re not actually thinking about running!

Encourage Someone Else

You may be surprised at how much passing on a word of encouragement to another runner can help boost your own energy.

Bringing a bit of positivity to another runner along the way is an excellent way to keep positivity all around you.

Pick Your Music Carefully

Your music can make or break your run! Not all races will allow music, so this may only be relevant in certain cases. But if you are running with music, make sure it’s filled with songs that psych you up.

It may be a good idea to start with more chilled music to get you off to a relaxed but effective start. Once you get to the end of your race, upbeat tunes can help draw the focus off of sore muscles and push you through those hard moments.

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Shanna is a writer who runs... And cycles, jumps rope, and lifts weights. She lives in beautiful South Africa and enjoys sharing her knowledge and experience with other avid athletes.