Mental Endurance Skills: Practice Makes Perfect

Gary Dudney

Gary Dudney, author of The Tao of Running

Most training for endurance sports focuses on the physical aspects: how to build the physical strength, endurance and stamina it takes to withstand the physical strains of prolonged exertion. But there is another type of strength required to succeed at endurance sports: mental strength.

The physical conditioning may be there; but without the mental toughness and extreme patience that are required to get through the punishment of an endurance race, an athlete can fail to reach his or her peak performance or even fail to finish the race.

Runners competing in hundred-mile endurance runs are fond of saying that the first 50 miles are done with the legs and the last 50 with the mind. Another saying, Yogi Berra–like in its illogic, holds that “Ultrarunning is 50 percent physical…and 90 percent mental.” Two-time Ironman world champion Chris McCormack says, “Success in the sport is, above all else, about enduring suffering.” In other words, success is about the mental game.

Don’t leave your mental game to chance. Practice the following mental techniques while you train, and they’ll be there for you during the big event.

Keep your thinking positive. If you allow your mind to dwell on negative thoughts, you open the door to fear and self-doubt, which in turn can cause you to tighten up and make it even harder to continue. Your fear of failing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think about what you’ve already done in your workout or race, not what is left to do. Congratulate yourself with each milestone reached. When you encounter pain and fatigue, associate that feeling with doing your best, putting out a maximum effort and reaching your full potential.

You can also divert negative thinking by repeating a mantra to yourself. Practice with different mantras while you’re training. A mantra should be a short, meaningful phrase that will have the effect of focusing your attention on a single positive thought and renewing your determination to continue. Some examples of mantras are:

“Just keep moving”

“I got this”

Being mindful is another way to strengthen your mental capacity for enduring. Mindfulness, simply put, is focusing your attention on the present with acceptance. If you are crashing down a technical trail on a mountain bike focused solely on what you’re doing, what you’re seeing and feeling (i.e., being mindful), you won’t be thinking about being disappointed in your performance or feeling like the effort is too demanding. When you do have these thoughts, acknowledge them and accept them; but don’t get attached to them and get emotional. Instead, be an objective observer of the thoughts, and then gently shift your attention back to the present moment. That’s the acceptance part of mindfulness: Acknowledge the pain or the strain, but don’t get attached to it; meet it head on, sink down into it and really experience it, and then move on.
Finally, use your training time to practice relaxing while you’re running, biking or swimming. Focus on each part of your body, beginning at the top of your head. Relax your muscles as you work your way downward. Repeat the whole sequence every time you feel yourself tightening up. It will kill time, keep your mind occupied and keep you from unconsciously tightening up.

Your ability to endure mentally gets better with practice. The next time the training is not going well and you start thinking it’s just not your day and that you should quit and try again later, resist that urge. Dig deeper and tell yourself this is a golden opportunity to try out some mental techniques.

So don’t back off – GO FOR IT!