Most of you have experienced the shame of walking away from a race you had hoped to do well in, but instead you “laid an egg”. You just KNEW you were ready. Your workouts had been awesome. You had great sleep all week. You didn’t drink pop all month. This race was going to be THE ONE. And then it wasn’t. So, the only option left must be that you just weren’t mentally tough enough. Great, you have found the missing piece. Except….what does mental toughness even mean? Could you have just “gritted it out”? Did you have too many “negative thoughts”? Let’s be honest. Critiquing ourselves on our own mental toughness is an impossible task. So, unless we build a language of what it truly means to be mentally tough, you really cannot hope to know what to do next and how to prepare for your next opportunity in competition. Let’s walk through 3 things you can learn today that will give you the words and thoughts to understand what is holding you back from busting through with a shiny new PR.

  1. The illusion of control. Distance runners are planners by nature. We plan out when we will run, when we will eat, what time to go to bed, when to buy new shoe…the list never ends. How many times has your favorite pair of shoes gone out of stock and you just KNOW you are going to get a career ending injury in the new pair? Planning and being in control are two entirely different concepts. Planning is putting a basement in your house to have somewhere safe to go in a tornado. Control would be telling the tornado not to hit your house. And this is why it is an illusion that we can control what happens in our training and our racing. Many moments of mental weakness can be traced back to a moment in a race where you had “planned” for something specific to happen (you make a move, the opponent can’t keep up, etc) but for whatever reason it didn’t. So what you believed you had control over was no longer happening. And what happens next? You panic. And when you panic, bad things happen. That is why every safety manual in the world has the phrase “do not panic” as the first step for the majority of the situations. So had do you avoid panic? Accept that the majority of things that will take place in a race are out of your control. All you can control is how you run and how you respond to the other events as they happen. So if you find yourself wondering why you didn’t “cover the move” of an opponent you had previously beaten, maybe ask yourself “was I surprised by that happening?” If so, you had tricked yourself to believing that you had control over something you didn’t. Solution: Accept that things will happen you were not expecting, and believe you are more than strong enough to push through.
  2. The catastrophe conundrum. Have you ever felt pain somewhere in your legs and immediately thought “oh no, I have a stress fracture”, only to remember you had bumped it on the coffee table the night before and it was just a sore bruise? This is what psychologists call “catastrophizing”. You have a headache, so it must be a tumor. You forgot your homework, so you will fail the class. You got passed in the race, so you must not have “it” today. One single negative event does not mean that the whole race is doomed for failure. So if you went out to fast on the first lap you have no chance at a good time? If you a had a bad night of sleep there is no way to run a PR? I can promise you this: At least one bad thing will happen to you in every race. What happens next is totally up to you. The universe is not out to get you if you lose your shoe in the first few steps of the race. It sucks, but you can adjust. If your legs feel a little “flat” in warm-ups it does not mean that you are about to bomb in the competition. These are just momentary events. Some may linger longer than others through the race (lost shoe), but they don’t have to mean you have no shot of success. Solution: Remind yourself that the race isn’t over until it is over. One bad moment will not determine the outcome.
  3. Comparisons suck. You are running along next to someone and all of a sudden they start to get away from you a bit. Your first thought might be that you wished you were feeling good like they were that day. But in reality, what if they just had to pee really badly and wanted to get to the finish line ASAP? Maybe you are warming up next to someone and they have those enormous calves and you think “they definitely will have a better kick than me”. Suddenly you wish you had things that they have and you give away all of your power to them. For all you know they are looking at you and wishing they were more like you in someway. No matter how good someone around you looks in a race, I promise that they are hurting too. But when you start believing that the thing that they have that you don’t is why you can’t possibly beat them, you have no way out but to let them go on ahead. The lie that you are not good enough is without a doubt the thing keeping you from having the mental toughness to push through to your next big PR. Solution: Remind yourself before every race of the amazing things you are capable of that no one else can do. The best version of you is you.

Regardless of whether you are a state champion or a newbie to the sport, doubts are a big part of the game. So take some time to process these 3 points and find ways to use the solutions to your advantage in your next race.


If improving mental toughness is your goal then fill out the quick survey to see how you can ensure you are not wasting your best races by sabotaging your own mental toughness.



Ben Tilus – Owner/Head Performance Coach – XLR8 Performance Lab