Endurance sports are arguably the hardest physical challenge anyone could put themselves through. It’s the “why would anyone choose to do this to themselves” pain that creates wonder and amazement when watching people test their limits. Many would suggest that the reason people put themselves through the torture of running, cycling, swimming, or any other endurance activity is for the results; seeing your goal come to fruition after working your tail off for it. However, I would argue that for most endurance athletes, the allure lies deep within the pain and suffering of training. Yes, the results of a big race are gratifying, but getting lost in the training can sometimes be the best part. It is here where true lessons are learned and character is developed.
One of the greatest lessons learned from endurance training is mental toughness. I have heard mental toughness defined as “giving it your all, regardless of the circumstances”. To me this means, regardless of how tired you are, how sore you are, how un-motivated you are feeling, you don’t give up. You put in work and stick it out without quitting when it gets hard. In simpler words, “rule your mind, or it will rule you.” Mental toughness doesn’t need to be confined to physical activity. It can carry over into career life, home life, or pretty much anything you set your mind to.
My re-found appreciation for mental toughness came from coaching high school cross country this last fall. I witnessed 17 year old kids struggle through long runs, speed workouts, and races for three months. Although I was once a runner on that very team, it came as a surprise to me that each week the kids were able to dig a little deeper and push themselves a litter harder than the week prior. It was a strange and inspiring experience for me to witness the complete mental transformations that happened from August to November. I realized that over time we tend to lose this mental toughness that comes from training and performing at a competitive level. This realization allowed me to think back to my days of competitive endurance training and conjure up some of the mental tips and tricks that helped me in the past and will help get us through our cardio (or any) workouts this week.
Use the power of thought to your advantage. Having a mantra playing on repeat in your head is super helpful. Make sure the mantra focuses on positive trigger words that your entire subconscious mind can target. In my opinion, repeating something like “faster and stronger” is more beneficial than thinking “don’t slow down”, because in the latter there is the subconscious connotation with slowing down.
Set mini-goals. When a workout starts to feel endless and the pain and fatigue have settled in, remember that everything is temporary. To make the workout feel shorter, try breaking it up mentally. My mom once gave me the advice to break up a 400 meter run into four 100 meter sections, and to only focus on the present 100 meters at a time. The same can be said about any workout. A one-minute plank can be broken into 3 sets of 20 seconds… just focus on getting through the first set of 20, then set your intention on the next set, and so on.
Focus on the big picture. I’ll often tell my classes, “when it gets hard, focus on what brought you here.” Everyone is working towards a goal. It doesn’t matter if the goal is to look good in a bikini or to be healthy enough to play with your grandkids; if it got you to your workout, its strong enough to get you through it.
Whether you are training for an endurance event or simply trying to get a few workouts in for the week, focus on pushing yourself past the discomfort. Mental toughness is something that can be improved, and in turn will help improve your quality of workouts.