Fought on Competitor.com and written by JoAnn Dahlkoetter, PhD
How many of the seven key traits of mentally tough runners do you have?
Do you know what makes runners mentally tough, especially when workouts or races are not going well? Do you know the best way to develop resilience in tight situations? To answer these questions, you must first understand what mental toughness means to a runner.
What is mental toughness for runners?
Mental toughness is the capacity to reliably perform at your best regardless of external conditions, distractions or internal emotions.
As a champion athlete and sports psychologist who has worked extensively with Olympic athletes and runners of all levels over the years, I have developed a constellation of key traits and habits that define mental toughness.
The good news is that you do not have to be born with mental toughness. Mental toughness is an acquired trait. You don’t have to go through a life-threatening experience to gain it. You can learn to be mentally tough through your workouts every day. You will be challenged many times to keep moving forward and reach your goal. The more you learn, the more mental toughness you gain.
What are the qualities of the mentally tough runner?
Here are some of the common themes I’ve observed among runners who succeed. There are several key traits that make up mental toughness. Regardless of where you are in your training, you can become a mentally tough runner and make this your strength.
Resilience: The ability to bounce back from adversity, pain or a disappointing performance. The mentally tough runner can realize and admit a mistake, understand a missed opportunity, isolate the lesson, and quickly move on to focus on the immediate goal ahead.
Focus: The ability to focus in the face of distractions or unexpected circumstances. The mentally tough runner doesn’t avoid situations, but instead addresses them right away. For example, when you’re in the last miles of the marathon, you feel dead tired, you’re hurting, and you want to quit. That is the time to focus. You say, “I must keep moving forward, just this step, one more step.” And you’ll likely get to the finish line when you are mentally tough.
Strength: The ability to handle an unforeseen turn of events and remain balanced and calm, continuing to be competitive. The mentally tough runner remains both strong and flexible, able to respond to any situation that arises.
Preparation: The ability to anticipate situations ahead of time and feel prepared so there is a plan of action for anything that might happen. The mentally tough runner doesn’t panic in a crisis (falling back in a race or a workout, for example). For instance, you may be in a race, and your competitor moves in front of you. You have a method to stay mentally calm, adjust your pace, and follow through with your plan.
Vision: The ability to keep moving forward with your objective, even when there are no immediate signs of getting closer to the finish line. The mentally tough runner creates a clear picture of the goal, visualizes it often, and keeps that image in the forefront no matter what. You imagine all the possible scenarios, and have a plan for moving through each one successfully.
Openness: The ability to learn and be open to all possibilities. The mentally tough runner is willing to listen and take feedback, knowing that’s where real changes take place. You listen to that inner voice that says, “I can do this. I have all the tools and resources inside to create my own success.”
Trust: The ability to have faith in oneself. The mentally tough runner learns to trust that the body will know what to do when it’s race time. You trust in your training and your plan. You trust in your coach. You believe in yourself, even when there is no one close by to boost your confidence. You go with what you know, even when your support system is not present at the race. You stay mentally tough and keep moving forward, even when the finish line seems far away. You say, “Every step brings me closer to my goal.”