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6 Ways to Improve Your Mental Toughness
Marathon season is in full swing, so it's time to get your mental game dialed in.
A running coach I know once asked me which part of my body gave up first in a marathon: my lungs or my legs? The answer was neither. It’s always my brain.
For me, the marathon has always been more of a mental challenge than a physical one. No matter how many miles I run in training, how well I eat going into race day, or whether I do strength training or not, I always hit this mental wall in the final 10K that I just can’t push through. Sometimes it shows up as emotional fatigue, other times it’s a lack of confidence, and at least once it’s just been a general “over it” feeling. (Obviously, I’ve still gotten faster over time; I just feel like there’s this untapped part of me that could unleash even faster finish times if I just got out of my own way).
If you listen to or read accounts from pro runners, mental toughness is a common theme. It has to be, because how else would they be able to override every red-alert signal from their body while running at record-breaking paces? But the real question is: How do they develop that kind of mental toughness? Just like physical training, mental training takes practice. And these science- and expert-backed strategies are proven to help.
1. Hype yourself up.
No spectator is a bigger cheerleader than you can be for yourself. Motivational self-talk was shown to boost athletic endurance in an older meta-analysis published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. There’s a few ways to dial this in even further: Talking to yourself with compassion can boost your energy and lower heart rate and sweat response, a 2019 study in the journal Clinical Psychological Science determined (on the flip side, being self-critical activates your body’s threat system). And addressing yourself in the second versus first person—“You can do it” as opposed to “I can do it”—can help you run faster, according to research published in the Journal of Sports Sciences.
2. Visualize success.
One commonality I’ve found in the athlete memoirs I’ve read recently is how often these runners visualized themselves winning a race/making the Olympic team/whatever. That trick doesn’t just work for the pros; athletes who most often used mental imagery scored highest for mental toughness, an older study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology reported. Practice visualizing yourself successfully completing the race: Imagine your form, your breath, the environment. And don’t forget to picture any obstacles you might have to overcome. Try imagining the worst part of a race (hello, Heartbreak Hill) or the worst possible conditions you might encounter, then visualize yourself persevering. That’ll help prepare you for any scenario.
3. Stay in the moment.
Coaches remind athletes to “stay in the mile you’re in” all the time, but that’s a lot easier said than done, especially when you’re 14 miles in and still have another 16 to go. They’re right, though; runners who practiced mindfulness—a mental state prioritizing being present—twice weekly over five weeks exhibited longer times to exhaustion in a 2020 study published in Neural Plasticity. If you haven’t already embraced meditation, try focusing on your breath: Just being aware of your breath patterns is enough to encourage a slower breathing rate (which relaxes your body) during running, according to research published in 2022 in Frontiers in Physiology; a focus on breathing versus feeling also led to higher oxygen consumption in an older study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.
4. Reframe your pain.
Negativity is one of the quickest ways to derail your race experience. “Negative thoughts … represent your mind trying to protect you,” Steve Magness writes in Do Hard Things. But protection equals safety, and optimizing your performance is about pushing past your self-conceived limits. In Deena Kastor’s memoir Let Your Mind Run, she writes about practicing positivity: “It took tremendous effort to control those [negative] thoughts. … I told myself: Find a thought that serves you better.” I loved this sentiment. In Tokyo, instead of telling myself you’re so tired, I thought, you’ve been so strong maintaining this pace, and instead of marathons are too GD long, I thought, you’re one step closer to the finish. That tiny shift from negativity to positivity helped me put the moment in perspective, and gave me a little boost to keep going.
5. Focus on what you can control.
The marathon is so challenging because all kinds of variables can pop up over the course of 26.2 miles: inclement weather conditions, surprise stomach issues, the jet lag you still haven’t gotten over. “When we believe we have influence over an outcome, we’re more likely to persevere, even if we face a setback,” Magness writes in Do Hard Things. “When we have control and can actively choose, we turn on our prefrontal cortex, giving us the ability to regulate our emotional response to stress or adversity.” So you can choose to quit. Or you can choose to focus on running the rest of that mile in a specific time, or running to the next lamp post before deciding to walk, and so on—the point is, just giving yourself a choice is proactive instead of reactive, and allows you to better adapt to the circumstances.
6. Smile like you mean it.
There aren’t many ways the average runner can emulate Eliud Kipchoge, but here’s an easy one: Smile. Runners who smile run more efficiently and report a lower perceived rate of exertion compared to those who frown, 2018 research published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise found. Smiling makes an effort feel noticeably easier, an older study from the School of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences at Bangor University in Wales confirmed—even if you don’t feel happy. It’s said that there are 43 muscles involved in a frown and 17 in a smile, which means smiling is significantly less taxing on your body, but smiling is also associated with happiness, which is a relaxed state, while frowning indicates a state of tension. Worst case scenario, your race photos will turn out a lot better!
Thanks to ASICS for their support!
Now that the Tokyo Marathon is over, I’m back to logging miles in the ASICS Novablast 3, which quickly became one of my go-to daily trainers after it was released in September. The FF Blast+ foam is so lightweight and springy that you can pick up the pace if you need to, but there’s plenty of it for ample cushioning on long runs. It’s also 30 grams lighter and more stable than its predecessor, and the colorways are 🔥. Check them out at asics.com.
Adidas Ultraboost Lite
I ran five of my first six marathons in the OG Adidas UltraBOOST—I loved how cushioned they felt, how springy the Boost foam was. Then the brand played around with the shoe design, and it got heavier in a way I didn’t love (with the exception of the 2019 version). So I was excited about the Ultraboost Light, which uses 30 percent lighter Boost material. I finally got around to testing these post-Tokyo and…I don’t love them. They were comfortable enough—although I definitely prefer Adidas’s faster shoes, like the Takumi Sen and Adios Pro—but the whole time I was running, I felt like the ankle collar was slightly off and rubbing the side of my ankle; turns out they had actually rubbed my heel bloody (yes, I wore low socks; I also always wear low socks with the Ultraboost and never experienced this before!). I’m not sure if I’ll find my way back to these.
This Atlantic Article on Ugly-Cool Shoes Is Excellent
I can’t remember the last time I wore heels or even flip-flops (even my sandals are now considered “recovery” footwear). And this ode to “orthopedically healthy shoe styles”—think: New Balance, Hoka, Birkenstock, Teva, and Merrell—is such a great piece of trend writing aimed at millennials like me. It’s interesting how hip-hop, athleisure, normcore, the pandemic, and a surge of interest in running and walking all intersected to make chunky dad shoes a sensible fashion staple over the past decade.
Nike Echo Shield Sunglasses
I’m always skeptical when shoe/apparel brands make sunglasses, because in my experience they don’t really compare to those designed by performance optics-first companies (see: Oakley). These shield-style shades from Nike were no exception. They look super cool—I’m a sucker for the wraparound single-lens silhouette, and I love the metal frame across the top—but these are not meant for activity. They’re just a little too heavy and put a little too much pressure on my ears for me to seriously consider them for running (I tested them while hiking). But I’ll definitely wear them as everyday sunglasses.
Tracking Data Can Help Boost Performance
I don’t value all feedback from my wearables (call me “unproductive” one more time, Garmin, I dare you…), but there are benefits to these devices. Wearables offer something called “augmented feedback” —AKA information from an external source that humans can’t obtain solely from our sensory system. This kind of feedback benefits us, according to a recent study in the European Journal of Sport Science, in two ways: It either enhances our motivation or provides information about the execution of a task. The motivation aspect is more at play during maximal tasks with lower complexity; translation: We try harder when we have a number to beat (so that’s why I liked Flywheel so much). This doesn’t necessarily translate directly to GPS running watches, but it does help explain our fixation with numbers.