Training Your Brain for Mental Toughness


You can always expect a reaction from a non-endurance athlete when you mention you’re training for a marathon or triathlon. Often, people will discount your training efforts and say something along the lines of: “I get bored running,” “I just don’t like it” or “I lose interest.

News flash: mental toughness is what makes endurance racing so difficult. Yes, it’s hard to run 26.2 miles, but mostly because it’s hard to stay focused and keep mentally tough. Training for a longer distance is as much mental as it is physical. Much of the conversation around endurance sports alludes to mental toughness, although people don’t truly recognize your brain-muscle needs to be trained, and can be, in order to be successful.

As humans, especially with the changing landscape of technology and shortened attention spans, our brains aren’t programmed to stay focused (easily) for hours at a time. Whether you’re a seasoned endurance athlete or new to training for a longer distance, staying mentally tough is equally as hard (or harder) than the physical effort required. Here are a few mental hacks for training your mind to help you go the distance:

Work your way up

Walk before you can run. Run two miles before you can run twenty. The same way we work our way up in training, physically, we need to give our brain the ability to grow mental toughness that will carry you the distance. Start with shorter bouts of timed exercise, and slowly increase the duration over several training sessions.

Break it up

Trick your brain by breaking your longer workouts into mini segments. On a 16-mile run, focus on the four miles it takes to get from your house to the lake; once you’re on the lakeshore trail, focus on the segment that takes you out four miles. Reset for the four mile return and again on the four miles back to your house. “Four miles to start, and then only four miles which is easy (times two); it’s not that far. That’s four, four-mile runs, which is easy,” says any endurance athlete on long-run Saturday.

Find a focus point

Channel meditation methods and find a focus point – whether a motivating phrase, your breath or your steps – find something constant that can draw your mind back to focus when it starts to wander. Every time you come back to the focus point, your strengthening your brain muscle, building your mental toughness.

Trust in nutrition

Longer distances require fuel not only for your body, but a strong mind as well. Longer training sessions burn more energy and calories; when your body starts to get low on sugar or hydration, you’ll feel lethargic and depleted, making it much harder to focus. Fuel properly to help push through physically and mentally.

Honor the distance

If you’re new to endurance sports, honor the distance and respect it. It’s hard, well, because it’s a long way to go physically and mentally. Recognize that you need to build up your “brain power” to go longer distances, but if you work at it, you can become successful.

Stay positive

No matter what, positive self-talk will keep you in a stronger mental state. Reiterate to yourself that you can, that you will and you’ve conquered half the battle of a long run. As soon as you start second-guessing your ability, you’re channeling much-needed mental strength to combat negative thoughts, when that energy should be used to focus on the finish line.

As you slowly build up your distance, you’ll see shifts in your ability to stay focused throughout the course of training. Training for an endurance race is just as much about developing your mental toughness as it is priming your legs for the distance.

Mental Health Mindfulness Think & Feel

About Kelly Molnar

A marketing manager by day, Kelly Magnus has serious passion for keeping active. Kelly believes in making fitness fun by sweating with friends at events like #Sweatworking, or morning run meet-ups. Aside from her day job, she’s an age-group triathlete having completed sprint to half-iron distance races. She’s also a yoga instructor and you can find her teaching strength classes at Studio Three in Chicago. Kelly's hope is that her writing on aSweatLife inspires everyone, no matter their fitness level, to get moving. Kelly is from Wisconsin and attended the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.