Maximizing Your Potential by Developing Your Toughness
Who is the toughest runner you have ever seen? How could you tell? It is hard to judge toughness in runners because talent and training contribute to race results as much as mental and physical toughness. Undoubtedly, though, some runners are tougher than others. The toughest runners simply will not be dropped in a race and can conjure up a finishing kick even when they look like they are barely hanging on.
What makes these runners special? Does their ability to endure derive from physical toughness or mental toughness? In running, the two are inseparable. No runner can be successful without displaying mental toughness and a physical capacity for hard work. In fact, mental toughness is a prerequisite for the ability to train hard enough and consistently enough to develop the physiological characteristics that allow you to run intensely for long distances.
Mental toughness will never allow you to run beyond your level of fitness, but it will let you run up to your physical abilities. Many runners only use 70 to 80% of their potential because they have not developed the mental ability to reach their physical limits. Of course, you need to develop your physiological base before you can really take advantage of your mental strengths. Without enough miles under your belt, mental toughness is useless because your body will quickly pack up on you no matter how tough you are.
How tough are you? You must be reasonably tough mentally and physically or you would have chosen an easier sport! If you are a typical skinny distance runner, then you probably appear more likely to avoid conflict rather than to relish competition. The greatest runner at this deception was Bill Rodgers in his prime. Rodgers was always happy to see everyone and seemed only vaguely aware that racing is all about competition. During a race, however, he was different. He was deadly. Like many runners, Rodgers was a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing.
If you look forward to competition, train through any weather conditions and have no problem taking yourself to the absolute limit during training, then you are one tough runner. If, on the other hand, you have trouble staying motivated during training, skip running when it’s raining, or let your mind wander during races, then use the following suggestions to help develop your tough side.
How to get tough
1) Set challenging goals in training: If you are motivated and committed enough to endure hard training, then you will be a tough competitor when racing. Include time trials and other tests in your training to provide opportunities to build your self-confidence. By setting and achieving progressively more challenging goals, you will develop an uncompromisingly positive attitude.
2) Train in adverse conditions: If you always train under ideal conditions, then you are missing the opportunity to develop the perseverance that comes from training in bad weather and darkness. A Finnish study hypothesizes that tough environmental conditions lead to tough runners (perhaps a necessity in Finland with its long, cold, dark winters). Famed University of Oregon Coach Bill Dellinger used to have his runners do hard, callousing workouts at 6 a.m. to help instill the mental discipline to race fiercely. A few months of running through snow and ice or heat and humidity will harden you up for the rigors of racing.
3) Visualize success: Most athletes who exhibit the elusive quality that we call toughness use visualization techniques to prepare themselves to achieve their best in competition. Visualization is the process of clearly picturing yourself succeeding in your mind. During the weeks before every marathon, I would picture myself running strongly and pulling away from other runners during the second half of the race. I would also practice pulling away from my training partners (they did the same thing to me too) during long runs.
4) Train with faster runners: Hanging on to better runners during training is a great way to develop toughness and resolve. It will also develop your confidence as you gradually find that whatever they can do you can do too. Just be careful not to bite off more than you can chew. Only train with faster runners a few times per week so you do not wear yourself out for your races.
5) Do workouts that you hate: Many runners hold themselves back by emphasizing the types of training that they like to do over the types of training that they should do. By forcing yourself to do the types of workouts that you find difficult or tedious, you will gradually gain the confidence that comes with overcoming your weaknesses.
6) Train alone: Running alone makes you self-reliant. It also provides opportunities to push yourself whenever you feel like it without angering your training partners. A few 20 milers by yourself can improve your concentration and sense of toughness.
7) Set meaningful and measurable race goals: Like your training goals, your racing goals should be challenging, yet achievable. Setting motivating goals will help you to focus your mental energy on achieving your goal, no matter what stands in the way. Setting and reaching goals leads to a positive cycle of achievement, self-confidence and success. Other runners will just think you’re tough.
8) Only race when you mean it: Avoid racing when you are not motivated to do your very best because you can get in the bad habit of not being fully committed to your races. The toughest runners take every race seriously.