mental strength

These strategies will supercharge your performance.

A fellow runner recently asked what tactics people used to push through the last portion of a hard workout?  This is a brave question because we all like to think of ourselves as hard units who never quit or back down.  It resonated with me as I often battle with the eternal question “Could I have pushed harder?”. 

“I wanted to quit because I was suffering.  That was not a good enough reason.”  Ted Corbitt.

Being mentally tough takes practice and the only way to get tougher is to suffer more and get used to it.  There are no shortcuts.  I have always doubted how hard I push.  It is a daily battle to negate the doubter in my mind to increase my mental strength.

A book that helped develop my mental toughness quotient is “The Brave Athlete – Calm the F*ck Down”, by Simon Marshall Ph.D. and Lesley Paterson (elite athlete).  The book is frank and easy to understand.  It provides magnificent tools for you to become a “brave athlete” and become mentally tough(er).

To answer the question on how to push through the pain, I reviewed the tactics in Chapter 11, “I need to harden the f*ck up” and give them to you below.

1. It starts with preparation.

How often do you look at your workout and think; “This will kill me?”.  These thoughts are natural considering you know the session will inflict immense pain.  But those questions or thoughts frame the future experience in a way that sets us up for failure.  Marshall and Paterson float a pre-suffer prayer as the first step, so you’re committed to persist when the time to suffer arrives.

This prayer is a practice in welcoming the pain to your lair.  If you take time to sit and consider what you are about to do, you can frame your mind and body to accept the onslaught.  It’s like building fortitude for the future.

Before a hard workout, I often ask myself, am I all in or not?  Pain is inevitable in the back half of the workout.  The final torturous intervals or hill repeats will be mentally and physically severe. 

What I want to know is this – Am I prepared to suffer when the going gets tough?  

This simple dialogue before you start will lock in your commitment to pain and get your head in the game.

This tactic helps when the intensity ratchets up to level 10.  Your mind and body know it is coming, and you set a rock-solid intent you will push through. 

It makes all the difference what you say to yourself before you start.

Now you have arrived at the moment your body is screaming and your mind is squealing to stop the torture.  How do you stay in the moment and not become overwhelmed?

2. Break it down:

You know the end sometimes feels so far away.  It’s an eternity, a lifetime.  It is all you think about.   At the moment all you think about is the end of the pain and this is a sure-fire way to wreck your head.  What you are doing is telling your brain you have a lot more suffering to do.  It is overwhelming, and to quit is a legitimate option.

One of my favorite things to do on almost every run is to break it down – moment to moment.  Long, short, hard, easy.  I love to think about the moment and nothing else.  To think about the end would make it feel a bridge too far.  I find pondering the end is overwhelming.  It kills my focus and connection to what I am doing in the current moment.

Marshall and Paterson state the harder the intensity, the shorter the segments need to be.  So if it’s all out balls to the wall stuff,  chunk it down to 30 sec or a target not far away.  Commit and conquer one segment and your brain will absorb the dopamine reward.  Then reset and go again.

Focus on getting to the next point.  That is all you have to do.

3. Counting

Constantly judging your pain is a useless waste of time.  Focus your energy on something else to relieve the torture.  Your mind cannot multitask.  Implementing a secondary, more “complex” task can be a useful method in distraction.  Counting is one strategy recommended by Marshall and Paterson.  Count your steps.  When you get to 10 start again.  Rinse and repeat.  Time will disappear.

I count breaths.  In a long run, I will try to count to 100.  I am going slower and counting to 100 provides a decent amount of time to think about something else.  Plus, it is hard to do.  I always get distracted and have to start again. 

On shorter, harder sets, I’ll count to 5 or 10. That is all I focus on.  Breathe – 1, breathe – 2.  Nothing else matters.

4. Mindfulness

On the flip-side, paying attention to and embracing pain is helpful, if conducted correctly.  To observe what is happening to you, in a judgment-free nature, is a wonderful skill to learn.  You instigate a distance between the pain (experience) and your mind (observation).   A fresh perspective can help you choose what you do next.  Marshall and Paterson recommend 3 components of mindfulness to use: passive attention, curiosity, and acceptance.

Passive attention is noting what you are feeling, then let it immediately pass.  In their analogy, they use leaves floating down a river.  You give one leaf a name and then it drifts off, so you name the next one.  One leaf to the next without lingering on any leaf in particular.

When buried in the pain cave you can pay attention to an area and say “that’s a physical pain” or “that’s an emotion”.  You can scan your body to locate and label what you notice.  Then move on to the next one.

Curiosity is asking yourself some questions about what is happening.  My heart rate is through the roof –  How does it feel?  How do I know?  Can it go higher?  Give focus on a spot and be genuinely curious.  The key here is to not judge. 

Be curious, that is all. 

It gives lightness to what you experience.  You can play a game like a child would and increase the joy ledger and decrease the perception of pain.

Acceptance is when you sit right in with the pain and embrace it.  You get right in there and you love it.  You know it hurts and yet you challenge yourself to go harder.  “What else you got?”. 

I love this strategy.  Not because I love the pain, I don’t.  I love the challenge thrown down to me to find something else to give.  I like to believe I am up for a challenge like that and so my mind fires up and I’ll squeeze another drop out of the rag. 

Bonus Tip

One other strategy I love is what I call Fake It Till You Make It.  This is where you take on a new persona when the proverbial sh*t is hitting the wall.  I first experienced this at a running club to help us push ourselves through the pain.  At the last 2 intervals a call “Wild Dogs” would go out.  When the interval started people took off like mad, running like wild dogs.  I couldn’t believe it.  I’d put my head down and try to keep up.  At the end I’d look at my watch and see those last 2 intervals were the ones I was always most proud of.  They hurt the most.  They may not be the fastest, but they were the hardest and respectable times.

This strategy is powerful.  Marshall and Paterson talk about this elsewhere in their book.  They offer an exercise where you create a persona of someone who can push through anything.  You own that personality when the time arrives. 

“Step into the ring Billy Big Balls” give it all you’ve got.  Watch your level rise to the occasion as BB Billy pushes you deep into the pain cave.  This is what Billy is for – to take you places you won’t take yourself.

Acting, or faking it until you make it, is a powerful tactic to flick the switch and bury yourself even further and subsequently build mental strength.

I don’t pretend to be the hardest trainer out there, and I’ve balked at plenty of sessions over the years.  Through experience what I know is:

When I prepare my mind and have my tactics ready, I can bury myself in a session.  The goal is to feel 100% satisfied knowing I put it all out there. 

Give it a go.  As Marshall and Paterson state: 

“Success depends on the ability to suffer through your exertion”

So go suffer.