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How to Raise Your Mental Game as a Runner

Develop mental fitness and resilience by learning how to face reality like elite runners.

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Pretend for a moment that you’re not a runner. In fact, not only are you not a runner but you don’t work out at all. You neither ride a bike nor lift weights nor participate in group exercise classes (remember those?) nor do anything else to get your heart rate up. The most vigorous physical activity you engage in regularly is walking the family dog. Now imagine that, in spite of your sedentariness, I challenge you to increase your endurance by 15 percent in two days using any means other than exercising. Impossible, right?

Wrong. Several years ago, 18 non-active women between the ages of 18 and 45 did just that. They were subjects in a study designed by Elena Ivanova of McMaster University, who asked  them to complete a fixed-intensity stationary bike ride to exhaustion on two occasions separated by at least 48 hours. In between these two tests, the women received a single, 40-minute lesson in acceptance and commitment therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy in which individuals are taught to accept negative thoughts and emotions so they aren’t ruled by them. On average, the women lasted 15 percent longer in the second test despite doing no physical training whatsoever, while 21 other subjects serving as controls failed to improve.

The Power of Mental Fitness

Light waves in shape of human brain on black background.
Photo: Getty Images

I love this study because it offers a powerful demonstration of the effect of mental fitness on performance. Most runners recognize that mental fitness is helpful to running performance, but few think of it in the same way they think of physical fitness — as something that enables them to run faster and farther. In completely divorcing mental fitness from physical fitness, Ivanova’s study shows that the performance-enhancing effect of the former can indeed be quantified, and it’s big.

Other research has shown that mental fitness enhances endurance performance not just among the sedentary but also among trained athletes. One of the ways mental fitness is expressed is inhibitory control, which is the ability to resist immediate impulses and stay focused on a non-immediate goal. Inhibitory control is the thing that enables a dieter with the goal of losing weight to resist a slice of chocolate cake that’s offered to them, and it’s also the thing that enables a runner with the goal of reaching the finish line of a race as quickly as possible to resist the desire to slow down for the sake of easing their present suffering. A 2016 study published in the journal PLoS One reported that elite road cyclists scored higher than nonelite competitive cyclists on a standard test of inhibitory control, a finding that was consistent with the results of a previous study showing that runners who scored higher on a similar test tended to performed better in a subsequent ultramarathon.

The science is clear: Mental fitness affects endurance performance every bit as much as physical fitness does. But what is mental fitness? In my new book, The Comeback Quotient: A Get-Real Guide to Building Mental Fitness in Sport and Life, I define mental fitness as the ability to make the best of a bad situation. Whereas physical fitness enables a runner to do hard things, mental fitness enables a runner to deal with hard things, and every runner needs both abilities to realize their full potential.

Anatomy of the Mentally Fit

The obvious next question is this: What does it take to make the best of a bad situation? Traditionally, sports psychology has focused on the traits or attributes that enable certain athletes to cope especially well with adversity — resilience, optimism, confidence, and so forth. As an athlete and a coach, I have always found such analyses to be singularly unhelpful, like identifying height as critical to success in basketball. How the heck are you supposed to use this information?

It’s more helpful, I believe, to look at what successful athletes actually do in situations of adversity that enables them to cope successfully. This coping process is something you can replicate in your own running regardless of your current levels of resilience, optimism, confidence, and whatever else. What’s more, insofar as these qualities are essential to making the best of bad situations, doing what the most mentally fit runners do in these situations is probably the most effective way to change your underlying psychology.

My observation has been that, in each and every case, athletes who succeed in making the best of a bad situation do so by facing reality in three key steps. First, they accept the situation for what it is, neither denying the unpleasant reality before them nor exaggerating it. Next, they embrace the situation, committing to making the best of it even if the best they can make of it falls short of their original goal. And, finally, they address the situation to the best of their ability by giving a 100 percent effort and making smart decisions.

Learn to Face Reality Like a Pro

Elite women racing during the 2020 U.S. Olympic marathon team trials.
Elite women racing during the 2020 U.S. Olympic marathon team trials in Atlanta, Ga. on an arduous and hilly course. Photo: Photo by Andy Kiss/Getty Images

It sounds easier than it is. That’s because certain human instincts make us resistant to facing difficult realities. As T.S. Eliot put it, “Humankind cannot tolerate very much reality.” In particular, we are susceptible to becoming psychologically dependent on things going our way. It’s perfectly natural to want reality to roll out the red carpet for you everywhere you go. Only a fool wouldn’t, for example, hope for favorable weather for a race in which they hope to set a new personal best. But when a runner can’t shake off the disappointment of lousy weather on race day, that’s a problem.

Ultrarealists, as I call them — the masters of facing reality when things go wrong — are as human as the rest of us, but they have cultivated the ability to pivot quickly from wishing things hadn’t gone wrong to accepting that they have, and from there focusing on making the best of the situation. There is no magic pill that will turn you into an ultrarealist overnight. It’s a long process.

The good news is that the process of becoming mentally fitter doesn’t require that you make time for any sort of mental training that’s separate from your physical training. All it requires is that you take a slightly different approach to solving the problems that inevitably come up as you pursue your running goals.

Let’s consider a specific example. Suppose you’ve decided to attempt your fist 50-mile ultramarathon, and you complete a trail marathon 12 weeks before that event as a stepping stone toward the bigger goal. But the marathon is much harder than you hoped and expected it to be, leaving you wondering how you’re going to manage to run almost twice as far with less than three months more to prepare.

Most runners in this situation will remain anxious about this uncertainty all the way to race day. In addition to making the remainder of the training process much less enjoyable than it might have been, this cloud of anxiety is likely to precipitate poor decisions, such as overdoing subsequent long runs in search of “proof” of being able to go the distance in the upcoming 50-miler.

An ultrarealists in the same situation would respond very differently. Being human, they would feel the same initial anxiety about their ability to achieve their goal. But instead of holding onto this anxiety, which essentially amounts to a voluntary decision to assume the worst, they would simply accept it as fact that they might not be able to complete the 50-miler. Furthermore, instead of making their happiness to be contingent on a successful outcome, they would make it their explicit goal to do the best they can, getting as fit as possible in the time they had and giving their best effort on race day, not allowing their feelings about the outcome to be unnecessarily dependent on factors they did not entirely control. In so doing, they would enjoy the remainder of the training process much more and avoid making self-sabotaging fear-driven mistakes along the way.

Don’t get too caught up in the specifics of this example. Bad situations come in infinite varieties, and what I want you to understand is that they are all the same beneath the surface. Avoid making the mistake of thinking the next bad situation you find yourself in as a runner is unprecedented. No matter what goes wrong in your training or racing, the most effective way to make the best of it is to face reality fully by first accepting the situation, then embracing it, and then addressing it. Now you try.

Matt Fitzgerald is an endurance sports author, coach, and nutritionist. His many books include The Comeback QuotientRunning the Dream, 80/20 Running, and How Bad Do You Want It?