By Coach Lora Erickson “Blonde Runner”
Mental toughness is a characteristic of successful athletes; but how do you obtain it? Is it something that we are born with or develop? In my opinion the answer is a little bit of both. I think some people are naturally born with the ability to push themselves through pain and do well under pressure, while others seem to crumble when the pressure is on.
For me I was born with the desire to push myself but often have a difficult time performing under pressure especially when I was young. Over the last 27 years that I have been a competitive runner & triathlete I have found a few things that have really helped me develop the mental toughness required to perform under pressure and to take me to the finish line. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t always perform well, but I do better than I used to. Several things have contributed to this.
First, I find that my attitude can really determine the outcome of not only my race but my workout. The old adage “attitude determines altitude” rings true for me. I usually perform better in a workout and/or race when I go into it believing I can do well. It’s a self full-filling prophesy. I also try to be realistic with my expectation of myself which can still be a challenge for me at times. Having expectations that are too high can lead to constant disappointment and frustration. It is much better to expect the best you can do at that time, not what you have done in years past or 20 pounds lighter. As you meet your expectations you will build your confidence to achieve more in the future.
The second thing I do to help build mental toughness is to be adaptable. Life rarely goes as planned just like races. Over the years I have competed in hundreds of races and I always go into it with a plan. A plan of what pace I want to run, what time I want to hit my first mile in, when I will take my gels, how much water and Elete I will consume. Rarely (if ever) has the race happened exactly as I have planned. Sometimes it’s due to a route changes, weather, the race starts late or just not feeling good that day. Although I still have a plan “A” I try to be ready to adapt and take on anything that might come my way. As my Mom would say, “Roll with the punches.” This allows me not to be too side tracked when the triathlon transition set-up is not exactly like it was on the map on the event site. I think it’s important to be adaptable. Recently I competed in the USA Triathlon National Championships in Vermont and was struck on the head during the swim later to find out I sustained a concussion. Needless to say, the race didn’t go as planned, but I pulled through and was able to finish the race. I believe it was because of the hours of training I have put in causing my body to go on “auto-pilot” and because I had decided before the event that I would give it everything I had. I believe everything happens for a reason and we often learn more from disappointment than winning. Read more
Another thing I do that helps build mental toughness is train in all kinds of adverse weather conditions. I practice in the heat, on hills, in the rain (many races occur in a down pour anyway), cold, on trails, in snow, at high elevation and in wind. It’s these training sessions that build my confidence to know I can handle whatever is thrown at me, basically I try to mimic and practice any race situation I might face. It helps me to role play as if I were in a race and repeat encouraging comments to myself in my head like “You can do it!” or “You’ve got this girl.” With endurance sports you tend to need to be your own cheer leader out there on the roads alone for a long time. It helps to practice this. When I finish a tough workout especially one in which I might have doubted that I could really finish, and I do – I feel great and know there is NOTHING I can't do. This helps me to build mental toughness to help me get to the finish line in a race.
Before I race I will often visualize the event in my mind. I can hear the crowd cheering just over my breathing. I review the route and recall hard workouts that have lead me up to the race and rally my own support to believe in myself and that I can do well. I remind myself to stay focused and be ready and adaptable to changes and roll with the punches as they may come and if need be change my course of action or goals as I go. All these things have helped me to have a healthy attitude so I can reach the altitude I am hoping for.
Coach Lora Erickson is a USATF certified running coach and nationally ranked triathlete. Contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.blonderunner.com for more information.