Coaching focus – mental toughness

Control your mind to race better

In the words of Amby Burfoot, runner, author and ex-editor in chief of Runners World “if you train your mind for running, everything else will be easy”.  I’m not sure I totally agree with that but he has a point.

As runners, most of us are diligent about our sport. We practise our running, log our miles, analyse our splits, fuel our runs and attempt some form of strength and conditioning. We get that all of this matters, and put in the work. Many runners, however, don’t deliberately focus on the mental aspects of running – or train the brain to keep running when the going gets tough. Some believe you’re either born with mental toughness, or you’re not. And sometimes it can even be used as an excuse not to push hard in races. Undoubtedly, backing off is sometimes the right thing to do, but not every time. Sometimes its the golden opportunity to practice mental toughness.

There are lots of ways to build your mental toughness, but today I am focusing on two areas in particular that may help you gain control of your mind and banish negative thoughts that may undermine your race performance. These are the art of being present and the importance of deliberate practice.

Running in the Present

In a race, remembering past issues or fearing the discomfort that is to come is common, but unhelpful – its more information than your brain can, or needs to process at that time. An ability to be present just in the moment – exist only in the current breath, the here and now, will help you to calm your mind and find a state of flow. You are not the same you as you were on your last run, or will be on your next run. You may have had more or less sleep, may be more or less well hydrated, your nutrition might be better or worse, and what are your stress levels doing? Your capacity to run will vary day by day. By existing in the moment, you can step back from the negative chatter, the doubts and other thoughts in your head and make better decisions based on your current sensations and your immediate environment.


Meditation or mindfulness are great training tools for training the skill of being in the present. Training your mind to meditate means stepping back from the chatter, doubts and other thoughts in your head, becoming aware of them and allowing them to pass. Don’t expect to clear your mind but work towards disengaging or managing your thoughts instead of fighting them.


These techniques are best practised for the first time outside of running, when you’re calm and have time rather than when you are being physically (and sometimes mentally) challenged.

Try some of these to start with, but there are many ways to meditate or be mindful, and lots of very useful resources on the internet or apps you can use to help.

Start by finding a quiet space and setting a 5 min timer on your phone. Lie or sit comfortably, where you are not actively engaging muscles to stay upright.

  1. Imagine your mind is a clear blue sky and your thoughts are puffy clouds that move across the sky. Simply watch the thought clouds pop in and out of your mind. They are temporary. They don’t have to distract you. Be aware of your inner monologue – once you are aware of it and can separate who you are from what you are thinking, you can begin to identify and dismiss non-productive thoughts both in rest and on the run.
  2. Try lying on the floor and breathe slowly. Notice your breath. Without trying to change it, count how long it takes you to inhale (count at a slow pace). Then start to draw out and lengthen your exhales to match the count of your inhales. Keep your breathing relaxed. If you lose count, start again, it doesn’t matter, just keep coming back every time you drift away.
  3. Lie on the floor in a passive position. As you breath out, imagine that your bones are getting heavier. Start at your head. Imagine it sinking into the floor. Move to your shoulders, your back, your arms etc all the way down to your feet. If your mind wanders, pull it back to the present and continue.


The next stage is to adapt one of these techniques to practice on the run… which brings us neatly on to the art of deliberate practice.


The importance of deliberate practice: 

Drawn from the book Bounce, by Matthew Syed, there is an often quoted fact that we need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at something. This is often misquoted as 10,000 hours of practice, but there is a big difference between practice and deliberate practice – its not enough to just show up and go through the motions – in running terms, it’s not simply the miles, its the quality of those miles that makes you better.


Something for you to try:

– At the beginning of every workout, identify something you struggle with and set an intention to practice that thing. For example, if you struggle with negative self talk on the run, try adapting some of the mindfulness techniques talked about above.
– Focus on being present in the run, on your breathing in and out, or on your form. Set yourself a mantra to remind yourself of being present, count your in and out breaths, your footsteps or count from 1-100 repeatedly (as practised very successfully by Paula Radcliffe).
– Try identifying your negative thoughts, seeing them as clouds or bubbles floating by, dismiss them and replace each one with something more productive.
– Set yourself a mantra to address your target – if you fade, the mantra “be strong” or similar may work. If you find you start shuffling, a mantra like “pick up” or “bounce” or “fast feet” might help.

These are just a handful of suggestions – find something that works for you, that you deliberately practice on your training runs and can fall back on when you race. Even the elites find the going tough, and need to work on their mindset, as Olympic gold medal winning triathlete Jess Learmonth with testify to.


Do you work on your mental toughness on the run or in a race? If so how?

Do you meditate or practice mindfulness regularly? Does it help?

Share your thoughts and ideas with us below. 


Other useful resources:

MH Runners Club webinars on marathon training and nutrition

MH Runners Club Ask the Coach sessions



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Martin Hulbert

Running Coach & Personal Trainer Leicestershire

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