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How To Build Mental Toughness As a Runner

Do you ever feel like your mind is the ultimate obstacle when running? Are there times you just cannot seem to stay motivated and push through those last few training miles? Do doubt and fear hold you back from going further than before?

Running, especially long-distance running such as a half marathon or marathon, can be physically and mentally challenging. It requires a lot of hard physical training and a certain mental capacity to cope with the pain and unease. But when you train your mind right and develop skills like mental toughness and resilience, it can become so much easier. Learning to stay focused on your goals even during the toughest moments of your workout will get you one step closer to reaching them.

In the next 5 minutes, we’ll look at how to develop mental toughness when running, so that when those challenging hills or steep inclines come up, you won’t give in – instead, you’ll have the strength and endurance to keep going until you reach the finish line. We will learn to develop such a mindset that even a small running injury or terrible weather will be not an excuse to skip the workout. Ready?

The concept of mental toughness

Mental toughness is defined as “the ability to stay focused and motivated in challenging or difficult situations”. It’s an attitude of resilience, determination, and perseverance that allows runners to push through pain and fatigue in order to reach their training goals.

Simply said, it is an idea that whenever your brain is whining about the difficult task that needs to be accomplished today and finding excuses why not to do them, you will find the mental energy to overcome that self-talk and get the workout done anyway. For most runners, this mainly happens before or during long runs when the weather gets cold and rainy or when they feel tired. Pushing through those situations is essential but very hard. It takes a lot of mental toughness training and daily practice to get there, but don’t worry, you will get there. You are making the first step by reading this.

Luckily, there are certain mind tools that will help you to overcome the worst moments of mental fatigue during those hard days. We will get to some of them in the following text, for now simply remember this important rule:

“Always act based on your decisions, not based on conditions.”

Set challenging goals

To develop mental toughness as a runner, you need a goal – something tangible for you to strive towards. When setting your goals, make sure they are challenging enough. How do you recognize those? They are the goals that make you shiver and excited only by visualizing yourself reaching the desired outcome.

Many runners make the common mistake of only setting “achievable goals”. Setting easily reachable goals that are within your current physical fitness will not stress your physical ability enough to experience the mental fatigue necessary to push your mental toughness muscle to a different level.

What is a challenging running goal? Obviously, that may differ from person to person but for most fellow runners, it is running a marathon. Running your first marathon has a meaningful purpose. It requires an effort level that will stress all your current physical and mental boundaries and it will create a framework to build a mental strength you have never even dreamt of.

Break down goals into achievable steps

OK, so you have decided to set a challenging long-term goal such as, for example, running a marathon. What the hell should come next? Well, here comes the simple trick that will make your long-term challenging task possible. You will turn it into a series of smaller achievable steps.

Breaking large goals into smaller achievable steps is an effective way to build confidence and stay motivated while training for a bigger event. When setting these smaller goals, make sure they are attainable within a short period of time. This will give you something tangible and concrete to strive for every day and will put you on the track toward your bigger goal.

Setting up your marathon training plan is a good example. Now, you are on the right track to developing mental toughness. You have set a challenging goal, broken it down into achievable steps, and can start working on it today.

Identify your stressors and focus on mental training

Throughout your training plan, you will need to get through all kinds of runs – long runs, tempo runs or interval runs and soon, you will start to feel annoyed. It will hurt, you will get tired, asking yourself why you actually do this. You will experience negative thoughts, and feelings that will cause you to doubt yourself or give up. Welcome to the running mental game!

Before beginning your run, take some time to reflect on what really stresses you out during a race and what could potentially derail you mentally. Once you’ve identified potential stressors, create a plan to address them.

Problems such as cold, chafing, blisters, dehydration, or bloating may be prevented and should be prevented in order not to drag your focus away from the workout. Solving these issues requires some learning and running experience but once you figure them out, they will not limit you substantially.

For the other issues such as tiredness, spasms, pain, or negative self-talk, you will need to develop a strategy, a plan, a mindset that will get you through the run even though you feel that you cannot go on anymore. Let me introduce a couple of long-run tips, tricks, and mental tools that may help you out:

  • use positive self-talk
  • put some music on
  • visualize the ultimate goal and how you get there
  • remember all the difficult things you achieved

Use positive self-talk

Positive self-talk is essential for building a thing called mental toughness. Before, during, and after your run, use affirmations such as “I’m strong” or “I can do this” to help keep you focused and motivated. It may sound silly but it really works. Keeping things positive keeps you far away from negativity which is your key enemy.

Visualize the ultimate goal

Visualization is a powerful tool to help you create a mental image of success. Before, during, and after your runs, take some time to focus on what you want to accomplish.

Picture yourself finishing the race or reaching any of your goals and use those positive images to give you the strength and intrinsic motivation you need to overcome the current difficulties. Visualizing your successes will help keep you motivated throughout your training.

Remember all the difficult things you achieved

Did you finish university even though nobody in your family did? Yes, you did! Did you get that job that nobody believed you had any chance of getting? Oh yes! Did you quit smoking or drinking? Yes, sir!

If not what about smaller successes? Did you write that essay you have been postponing for a long time? Did you wake up today even if you really didn’t want to?

Should I continue or do you get my point?

All of the tasks above were not easy to accomplish, but you managed. If you managed all these why shouldn’t you finish this race? Yes it hurts, yes you have another two hours in front of you, yes it sucks, but so did the other things above, and still you did them. Going through all the things you achieved in life will give you the momentum that you may use when you struggle the most.

Remember your biggest critics

Remember all the people that don’t believe you can make it? People, who think they know you better than you know yourself? People who think you are crazy or stupid? Do you feel the urge to prove them wrong? If yes, use it! Use their negativity as an energy source and turn it into a positive one.

Nothing feels better than seeing someone who criticized you being surprised by your well-deserved victory. When you are physically and mentally fatigued, imagine how you shut your critic’s mouth when you succeed on that race day. It will give you extra power to go on and finish the run. It will also be another small step on your way toward mental toughness.

Put your headphones on

Listening to music or podcasts can also help boost your confidence and keep you pushing through tough runs. Find what works for you and stick with it. What I personally listen to most are Spotify podcasts and Audible audiobooks. Not only do I finish my runs easier, but I also learn something new.

Learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward

Having set a challenging goal, you will almost certainly fail to accomplish your small daily tasks multiple times. Either you will skip the run or not finish it.

Remember, the most elite athletes are the ones who never give up, even when things don’t go according to plan. When you face a setback or make a mistake, use it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Focus on what you can do differently next time and make sure that you keep pushing forward. Remember, failure is just part of the process toward success – it doesn’t have to define your running journey!

Practice self-compassion

When you don’t reach your goal or make a mistake, it’s easy to be hard on yourself. Instead of dwelling on any setbacks, practice self-compassion by being understanding and forgiving yourself.

Remind yourself that mistakes are part of the learning process and that there is always room for improvement. Having this kind of mindset will help you stay positive even when things don’t go as planned.

Failure is just a part of the process of winning

Many people associate failure with permanent defeat, but this isn’t always the case. Failures are an essential part of the process of winning, and if you don’t learn from them, it’s impossible to become a mentally tough runner.

Facing adversity head-on and learning how to move forward is what will help you become resilient and tougher in the long run. When you do experience a setback, use it as an opportunity to learn and grow.

runner celebrating

Celebrate your accomplishments, big and small

Don’t forget to take a moment and celebrate your small victories! Whether it’s beating a personal record or just finishing the race or training run, recognize the progress you have made and give yourself credit for all the hard work. It will make you proud and positive toward achieving more in the future.

Take care of yourself both physically and emotionally

Your mental and physical well-being are both important for successful running. Make sure to take care of your body by getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and staying hydrated. Additionally, find ways to relax and practice self-care such as yoga or meditation to help manage stress. These activities will help you stay mentally focused and physically strong during the whole training cycle.

Incorporate mental training into your daily activities

Mental toughness isn’t just something you can do only on the running course. Integrate mental exercises into daily routine so that it becomes your second nature. When you seek challenge, you will find it everywhere.

  • Taking the elevator? Take the stairs instead and get to the top even quicker.
  • Driving to the shop? No, get there on foot, unexpected cross-training session!
  • Feel like eating those potato chips? Resist the temptation voluntarily and observe how it makes you feel about yourself.

When aiming for mental toughness, comfort is your biggest enemy. It is nice and comfortable to stay in the bed or in the warmth of your house when it’s cold out there. But remember, seeking nothing else but the comfort makes you weak. That is why I have come up with the so-called Make Yourself Uncomfortable Challenge. It will incorporate mental training into your daily activities boosting your mental toughness.

Read these 5 best books on building running mental toughness

If you’re looking for proven strategies on how to develop mental strength as a runner, these books are the best among the best:

  • Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins
  • Let Your Mind Run by Deena Kastor
  • 26 Marathons by Meb Keflezighi
  • Never Finished by David Goggins
  • Endure by Alex Hutchinson

For more running-related books, check The 6 Best Running Books for Marathon Preparation 2023.

How becoming mentally tough helps you in life

The strategy of building mental toughness is not only useful when it comes to your running accomplishments. Embracing the concept that you need to work hard, get through difficult tasks and learn to tolerate discomfort in order to get to your goals is an attitude that can get you far in life.

Adding mental toughness to your skill set is very similar to learning any other skill such as cooking or driving. It requires you to train your mind repeatedly by finishing small and bigger daily tasks or challenges you encounter in real life. Especially when you don’t feel like doing them. Teaching your brain that comfort is not always the best solution will alter the way you think.

Becoming mentally tough will help you develop a positive attitude and outlook, especially if your personality trait is negativity and anxiety. Tasks that seemed to be impossible will now become available. You will be able to accomplish difficult goals that were unreachable before. And you will feel better. About the world. About yourself.

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