How to Have Mental Toughness in Races and Workouts
Young champions remind us how running goals are the most powerful key to success.
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We hear a lot lately about not tying ourselves to outcomes in our running. It’s good advice: There is a real danger in having expectations that exceed our realities and in not taking into account conditions out of our control. Most of us could benefit from being more adaptable in our training and racing, and those of us in the masters ranks have to learn to scale our aspirations or else give up on the sport.
But sometimes learning to accept reality can lead to complacency. We take comfort in giving our best effort despite circumstances, but lose the joy of stretching ourselves as we strive toward something out of our reach—and actually grasping it. In talking to the nation’s best high school runners at the Brooks PR Invitational last weekend, I was reminded of the power of wanting things.
These are driven, high-achieving youth in all of life, no doubt. Case in point: I talked to two seniors who are headed to Princeton in the fall, one to Stanford and one to the Air Force Academy. The underclassmen are equally impressive: Focused, organized, intelligent, articulate—undoubtedly excellent students and citizens.
They hold similarly high standards of excellence for their running as they do their academics. But their standards don’t seem to stress them—they’re not unhappy or bitter about never being able to live up to expectations (as I’ve seen many age-groupers become). They set goals, and achieve them. Goals provide the motivation for them to get better, and in that improvement is joy.
I didn’t set out to ask them about goals. I was hoping to get some insight into how they kept themselves motivated and pushing during those dark moments halfway through a race or workout when it is suddenly harder than you expected and the end is nowhere in sight. They had answers, but they didn’t talk about focusing on the process or about positive self-talk—they talked about wanting.
Cole Sprout of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, who came into the meet with the fastest time in the 3200m (8:41)—and ended up atop the podium—said, about tough moments in a race, “At that point, it comes down to asking myself how bad I want it. Cause it does hurt, going for it.”
Sprout says sometimes he’ll tell himself affirming phrases like, “I’ve got this, just keep going’” or “You started it, might as well finish it.” He says during a particularly difficult race he may focus on taking it lap by lap, or will try to stick on someone’s heels. But mostly, it comes down to desire.
“Dig deep and ask yourself how bad you want it,” Sprout says. He doesn’t sugarcoat it: “You kind of embrace the pain, and keep going. That’s running—you have to be OK with the pain in order to be successful with it. You can’t be, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect it to hurt.’ You have to be OK with it, and come to terms with it.”
A Circle of Success
Katelynne Hart, from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with a 9:56 2-mile PR, says about that moment of panic in the middle a race, “I tell myself to have confidence in my training. I think about the training that goes into the two mile—it’s more than two miles—and just have confidence in the training when that pain hits.”
And how does she get through rough patches in a tough workout? “I think about how bad I want to race, how bad I want to run certain times,” Hart says. “I think about that during the workouts when it gets tough.”
Similarly, Johnson City, Tennessee 9th grader Jenna Hutchins—who owns a mind-blowing 4:43 mile PR—says that what she tells herself in the 3rd lap of the mile is, “Stay focused, think about what a good time you can get if you keep the pace.” And to deal with the mental difficulty of a hard workout, she says, “I keep thinking about how it will help me later. How much it will help me in the long run, help me have a better season.”
The goals motivate the training and the training provides the confidence during the races—it’s a nice cycle, leading to excellence.
These runners don’t have to find ways to motivate and bolster themselves to keep pushing when the race gets so hard they don’t care anymore. They keep caring—they’ve already settled what the cost is going to be, decided the goal is worth it, and learned to endure more than race-day pain in practice.
The only time they say they have to rely on things like focusing on form or simply gutting it out with a bad mindset is when they have a bad race—they go out too fast or aren’t ready for the pace. Which makes me think many of us who end up in a bad place in races and have to dissociate and drown out our negative self-talk have unrealistic expectations and inadequate training for our goals.
The champions I interviewed, in contrast, have realistic short-term goals they’re ready to accomplish, as well as audacious long-term ones to spur them ever onward.
“I definitely set goals for the season—time goals more than place,” Hart says. “I have overarching goals I don’t talk about a lot, but in the back of my head. I like that about running: There’s a time to go for, you can track your performance with each race. You can make it an individual sport with each race trying to get better.”
Sprout says, “Freshman year, I started to see some success. Even that summer, I was like ‘Hey, maybe I could be good at this,’ and started to make goals for myself—and they were pretty lofty goals.” Many of those lofty goals, like running sub 9 in the 2 mile, came true quicker than he expected. But he’s got others to shoot for, like breaking the 4 minute mile. Sprout says he makes realistic, short-term goals every year as well, but he keeps making lofty, big goals as well.
“Whatever mindset or place in your life you’re at, you’ve got to meet those goals,” Sprout says. “Biggest thing is having those goals to hit—you never really know what the competition is going to be like, so you have some sort of standard to hit every year.”
Armed with goals and the training to make them reality, these champion runners view races not as tests but opportunities.
“You don’t have to, you get to,” is the mantra of Charlie Hicks, an 8:49 3200m runner from Jacksonville, Florida. “It hurts, always. But it’s a way to think about stuff that is difficult in a positive mindset, and appreciate opportunities.”
Drew Bosley, a senior from Mequon, Wisconsin with a 14:51 5K PR, says he considers a race, “A really nice opportunity. That’s all you can ask for: Get fit, and go for opportunities.”
And about those results? “Win or lose, it will be glorious,” Bosley says.
Even if results are the motivation, these champions don’t seem so tied to the outcome after all. They don’t settle, but neither do they get depressed when they fall short of goals—they just work harder and smarter, keep aiming high, competing, and getting better.