Welcome to Day 11 of our Devoted New Year series! Today we are talking about mental strength! These posts are brought to you by Meridith creator of Devoted Training; a 52 week faith-based training journal, and myself. We hope you enjoy!

There are a lot of directions we could go with mental strength because the brain is by far the most powerful influence in our running. The brain alone consumes 20% of the body’s energy, and when it comes to running, it is the brain that signals gait, pain thresholds, thought processes, and every other factor that gets one foot in front of the other.

The Brain and Mental Strength

First, let’s talk about something called the central governor theory, first coined by Dr. Tim Noakes in The Lore of Running. The central governor theory basically states that the brain regulates exercise by ensuring that the intensity applied to the body cannot threaten the body’s homeostasis. It does this by reducing the neural recruitment of muscle fibers.

An example of the central governor theory at work is when you go out for a 10 mile run. At the end of the 10 miles, your body feels fatigued at the set distance that you had set in your mind. But when you start a run with a 20 mile goal, that same level of fatigue does not present until closer to the end of 20 miles. This shows that we always have a little more reserve in our legs even when we feel like we must stop or slow down. The more an athlete trains, the closer true fatigue can actually be achieved.

The Heart of Mental Strength

Now that we understand more about the physiology of the brain and how it sets limits, let’s talk more about the heart of mental strength. In the book The Happy Runner, David and Megan Roche say, “When unconditional self-acceptance and self-belief mix, anything is possible. Athletes who believe in themselves are more enthusiastic, more passionate, and more confident in what they are capable of. Their workouts are better. They are more consistent. Their perceived exertion is lower. They get faster, year after year. Self-acceptance and belief are the most important parts of training.”

Mental strength is most challenging when the pressure seems the highest. Have you ever run a race “just for fun” and found that you had one of your best performances? How can you run with the freedom of a “just for fun” mindset while also performing your best?

We were created with legs that can run and hearts that chase goals. God knows our passions, and he cares about our goals. In Nothing to Prove, Jennie Allen says, “We are not defined by our worst or our best; we are defined by our God.” If this is the case, all of the mental obstacles should melt away as we run with God as our focus. In reality, it’s not always that easy, but a practice of putting our confidence in the God of the universe is a better bet than trying to put our confidence in our own efforts. There is also a deeper layer of satisfaction when running is no longer all about us.

Practical Tips

So what are some things you can do when the training cycle starts to feel long or the race becomes difficult?

  • Know your “why”. Put into words why you run and what it does for you.
  • Set goals. Small winnable goals stoke the fire for the big dream goals. See more about goal setting in our first post here.
  • Recognize that all of the little things you are doing add up. You could reflect on your training or acknowledge your history as a runner. Or tally up how many early mornings you rolled out of bed to train while everyone else slept.
  • Get comfortable with discomfort. Whether it’s the boredom of a 20 miler on the treadmill or the pain of a foam roller, all of these actions make you a tougher runner.
  • Think of another difficult race or training run that you overcame. Use this as proof that you can do hard things.
  • Replace false beliefs with truth. If you find yourself doubting your ability, replace those thoughts with positive affirmations.
  • Embrace your pain. In Matt Fitzgerald’s book Brain Training for Runners, he says, “When [pain] comes, don’t wish it away, but instead welcome it as an indication that you are working as hard as you should be.”

Mental strength encompasses so much—it trains your neuromuscular signals to run fast, it trains your brain to not perceive fatigue as quickly, and it can condition your mind to have the willpower to push through when it starts to hurt. Finding what works for you is a powerful tool for running, and your mental strength strategy may change from season to season. That’s part of what’s so fun about our sport. It always keeps us on our toes (or heels if that’s your style).

What are some of the best mental strength exercises that you practice?

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