The Missing Ingredient

“In running, the cruellest of opponents, is runner against himself.”

Many articles written on improving race performance often miss one of the most important areas. You will often read of the importance of working on speed, endurance and strength which is entirely true, but what about mental toughness? And is nature or nurture responsible for this?

About 30 years ago, I rocked up at the Silverstone 10k, confident a personal best was there for the taking. My training had been consistent over a long period and my training times were impressive whether it be for time trials or intervals. Surely I only needed to turn up to record a new best time? As you can imagine, this did not happen. Afterwards I tried to analyse what went wrong. The answer wasn’t immediately obvious. During the race I remember feeling like I was running with the brakes partially applied. I knew extra speed was there, I just couldn’t tap into it.

Despite training being varied enough to give me a certain amount of toughness, what I was lacking was the added fortitude you develop from racing. Silverstone had been my first race after several months training. What I know now is that, as it was my intention to attempt a fast time, I should have pencilled in some races in the build up to Silverstone.

The same applied to the Parkrun last summer. I was 2 miles in and well on course for a pb according to the GPS on my watch. I missed it by one second! Though frustrating, I knew why I had slowed so much on the third mile: I was concerned about burn out and thought any decent pace from the 2 mile mark would yield a personal best, so I eased up. The next week I took 47 seconds off my best. When it started to hurt in the third mile, I dug in and gave it everything to maintain my pace to the line.

It is difficult to comprehend how your mental state can differ so much between 2 races so close together. The workings of the brain provide some of the answers. It has 2 hemispheres which do not interconnect. The left side of your brain steers us towards pleasure and away from discomfort, and the right side connects us to our hidden strengths. When you are physically stressed like you are in a race, it’s the left side of your brain which prompts the negative inner voice, telling you to ‘slow down’ or ‘this isn’t your day’ or even ‘why are you doing this?’

To further support this, studies of the differences in brain structures between more or less tough participants found there was a positive correlation between high mental toughness scores and more grey matter tissue in a person’s right frontal lobe. In short, racing is essentially impulse resistance which can be dampened down with practice.

Although the research supports the part of nature, what part, if any, does nurture play?

As previously stated, I have found that races can be used to improve mental toughness, but there are other means to achieve this. As runners we train in adverse conditions during the year. Driving rain, high winds, cold weather and running at night all aid in this, as does training alone. You take sole responsibility for motivating yourself and training at the required intensity. It is not always easy to pull on your running shoes and get out the door. If I don’t feel like training I tell myself that I will do a shorter session. Sometimes I stick to this, but often getting started is enough for me to train as originally intended.

So mental toughness can be improved, whatever level we possess in the first place. We can all learn and improve our willpower, to ignore that negative inner voice which wants us to avoid venturing outside the safe walls of homeostasis. One word of caution though: willpower is not an infinite source. Use too much at the start of the race and you will be left flagging by the end. Overtraining in the build up to a race will have a similar effect.

Finally, think positively about your racing. Imagine yourself remaining strong even when you’re tired and try to maintain good form. In the lead up to a race, don’t allow yourself to dwell on negative thoughts. On race day, take the pressure off by having more than one goal.

Happy running


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