How Running Builds Mental Toughness

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It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from or what you do. Life can and does get tough for us all. In this article, we’re going to look at how running can help build mental toughness for resilience in life.

The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows

Contrary to what anybody told you growing up, the world can be a harsh place. Though we all have high hopes and good intentions, things sometimes go wrong. Cars breakdown, family members get illnesses, partners break up with us, managers & customers get angry with us, bones break, mistakes happen, wives and husbands cheat and so on and so forth. It’s a sad reality but the sooner we accept that we will be challenged in our lives, the sooner we can develop a strategy to overcome our problems.

Like Sylvester Stallone said in Rocky 6 ‘the world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place… and I don´t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me or nobody, is gonna hit as hard as life.’ I must say, I completely agree.

What is mental toughness?

Rocky continues his speech, saying ‘but ain’t about how hard you hit… It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.’

Sylvester Stallone was referring to something called mental toughness. Mental toughness is a term used to describe the resilience, perseverance and strength people have when faced with struggles and challenges. It’s how committed you are to achieve something no matter how tough the going gets. Having mental toughness means you’re strong and don’t easily fall apart as soon as something gets challenging. Instead, you ‘get hit and keep moving forward.’

Running and mental toughness

You’re probably thinking ‘that’s cool, but what on earth has it got to do with running?’

A good question and I assure you, mental toughness and running are linked. As you probably know, running is not all sunshine and rainbows. You encounter and overcome difficulties all the time. These difficulties build mental toughness.

Being a consistent runner means overcoming difficulties. You face challenges, experiencing pain, you deal with your weaknesses and build stamina (physical and mental).

Facing difficulties whilst you run builds crucial mental toughness which you can apply to other areas of your life. Suddenly, you’re able to face life problems head-on and with courage. The life problems will still be there, but you’ll be willing to tackle them with courage, embracing the dire circumstances. Yes, running can really help build up this trait.

In what ways can you use running to build mental toughness?

Running through bad weather

Something you can’t control is the weather. Ideally, you want it to be slightly mild and dry out when you run as you’ll stay dry but won’t get too hot. However, this isn’t always the case and we are sometimes required to run in adverse weather conditions. Rain, the cold, the dark, sleet, snow and fog are all unfavourable weather conditions we sometimes come up against.

Some decide not to run in bad weather, opting for a warm duvet or going to a nice warm gym instead. Fair enough. However, having the courage to accept the bad situation and running anyway will build your mental toughness. Tying your shoes, even though it’s cold and bleak outside, builds character and resilience. Knowing you’re about to enter an uncomfortable environment but doing it anyway to get the benefits of a workout.

Build your mental toughness and run, regardless of the weather conditions.

Note: Whilst I believe this point and practice it every day myself, there are occasions when this is not appropriate. Please don’t run through a hurricane or severe blizzard, for obvious reasons.

Being disciplined to follow a training regime

A training regime is a set schedule which includes different activities followed throughout a period. The athlete completing the regime will be required to perform each activity on each day exactly as described to obtain its benefits.

A running regime might include a speed session on Monday, a quick 5K on Tuesday, a rest day on Wednesday and a long run on Thursday. The goal of the runner is to follow the regime, no matter what.

Following the regime will build mental toughness. We all have days where we ‘can’t be bothered’ or ‘don’t want to run today’. That’s just part of being human. What separates the better runners is their willingness to complete the activity anyway. Being disciplined by running in the moment for a distant return develops your ability to delay gratification and make you more patient in other areas of your life. Being disciplined enough to follow a running regime will build your mental toughness.

Building stamina on weekly long runs

Whatever we do in life, we all have tasks to complete which require extended periods of focus to achieve a result. Writing a blog post (like I’m doing now), studying for an exam, completing business administration, reading a book, practising an instrument, drawing a picture or even researching something. We all need mental stamina in life. Something which can be developed on long runs.

A weekly long run not only builds physical stamina to make you fitter, but it will also build your mental stamina. Sure, your body needs to work to keep muscles moving and the lungs pumping oxygen. However, the mind also needs to be in a constant state of arousal to analyse your environment and guide you safely through the run.

Building mental and physical stamina on your weekly long run means you will be able to take on more for longer in other areas of your life. I was sceptical of this idea at first, but after running consistently for a month I found my ability to concentrate skyrocket. Suddenly, I could read for an hour at a time and practice an instrument for extended periods.

Make sure you complete a weekly long run to build stamina. You won’t regret it.

Grinding through pain

We all know running can be uncomfortable. Whether you’re pushing yourself out of your comfort zone on purpose or going for your first jog as an overweight person, running can feel painful. You gasp for air, your muscles hurt, the sweat cascades from your forehead and you long for a soft sofa and a beer or glass of wine. We’ve all been there, so don’t think you’re the only one.

Being able to run through this pain builds your pain threshold which can make you mentally stronger in other areas of your life.

Think about someone pushing through a difficult fourth quarter of a marathon. They’ve hit the wall and feel physically spent, but they push through the pain and soldier on. When the individual crosses the line, they now have a new reference for the pain they can tolerate and push through. Other areas of life that were once ‘too painful’ like dealing with angry customers or completing lots of admin in one sitting are suddenly not too bad. After all, they can’t compare with the pain of pushing yourself through a running wall of discomfort, can they?

Run to experience pain and you will build your mental toughness.

Getting up early

This one isn’t for everyone as not everybody runs first thing in the morning. If you don’t run first thing, I’d personally recommend you give it a try and see what it does for your mental toughness.

There really is nothing quite like going from a warm, cosy and protecting duvet cover straight into some running shoes and out into the cold, dark morning. It’s an exhilarating way to start the day off and one which builds discipline, self-confidence and the ability to knowingly enter an uncomfortable situation for a long-term benefit.

If you’re able to consistently get up first thing and go for a run, suddenly those ‘unbearable’ tasks in other areas of life don’t seem too challenging. If you’ve gotten out of a warm bed for a run first thing, surely you can do other things like cleaning your house or asking your boss for a promotion.

It might not seem like the two are linked, but from experience, I know they are. I used to be terrible and would constantly press snooze or bail on the run first thing, only to feel guilty when I got to work. These days, though, I’m running first thing in the morning and it makes doing other tasks in my daily routine I don’t particularly look forward to, more bearable.

Try getting up early for a run first thing, even when you don’t want to. You will have more mental toughness for other areas of your life.

Setting a goal then achieving it

Something I love about running is how you can always set yourself a goal and then work to overcome it. You bet your bottom dollar the road to overcoming a challenge will be difficult and have obstacles. If you can overcome these difficulties and accept temporary defeats because you have a desire to achieve your goal, you will develop mental toughness.

An example of a mental toughness building running goal

For example, say I wanted to run a sub 1 hour 30-minute half marathon by the end of the year. Perhaps I train 3 days a week up to 15 miles, and I feel happy with myself and confident I will beat it. Race day comes and I fail, miserably, with a 1-hour 40-minute time.

Determined to achieve my goal, I shrug off the failure as a learning curve and start training extra hard with 7 days a week. Unfortunately, I injure myself and take 2 weeks out. I could get upset and give up, but then the goal would not be achieved, and I would have let myself down. When I’m better, I train 5 days a week and have an immediate rest day when I start feeling any muscular discomfort. 6 weeks later I run a half-marathon and smash my target with a 1 hour 25 time.

The goal is complete and the road to achieving that half marathon time was loaded with mistakes and failures. It was my determination and drive to achieve the goal regardless that allowed me to achieve it, a trait which can be applied to other areas of life like at work or with relationship difficulties. Running can teach you to not back down on the accomplishment of a goal, even if you fail initially. An essential skill for success in life.

Make sure you have goals to strive for in your running. You’ll develop mental toughness and have a more enjoyable life.

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