Working to build mental stamina, toughness

June 11, 2013 at 1:11 a.m.

What exactly is "mental toughness?"

Although sport psychologists, coaches, and athletes have all tossed the term around over the years, as well as determining what helps to develop this attribute, there has been some difficulty in actually defining it.

A group of sport psychologists from the University of Wales came up with this definition: "Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to cope with adversity better than your opponents with the many demands that sport places on a performer and, specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and controlled under pressure."

A perfect example of how this can play out was at the 2010 Ironman World Championships.

After being caught by his opponent and then going stride for stride for miles, Chris McCormack looked to Andreas Raelert and said, "No matter what happens, you're a champion."

He then shook his hand and proceeded to surge the last four miles pulling out the win by two minutes.

Endurance sports were designed to test mental toughness. At the very basic threads of endurance sport, it is about going the distance and overcoming every conceivable obstacle in your way.

Often an athlete will be able to overcome the first step in developing mental toughness, which is to cope with the huge training loads that are required, many times while juggling a busy personal and professional life.

However, many times, these same athletes melt under pressure when the start of the race ensues, performing poorly because they have no conscious control over the decisions they make in regards to pacing, race tactics, and nutrition.

So how do you develop mental toughness? Here are some key strategies for being psychologically strong on race day.

Enduring tough training sessions

Enduring tough training sessions can form the foundation for developing mental toughness. I have often told my clients, "put that training session in your back pocket for later."

When I have said that to them, it usually means they worked through a really tough training session and came out the other side of it- having underestimated what they were capable of.

When the race becomes tough, reaching back for those tough training sessions that you overcame can help you pull it together mentally and help you overcome those rough patches in the race.

I know in my own training there have been those sessions that I've had to overcome mentally as much as physically.

As uncomfortable as some of endurance training is, it is a necessary component to push through those tough sessions to help build mental toughness.

Utilize your racing experience

I know when I go to the start line each time I race, I typically think about previous race starts and how I have handled the initial contact from other swimmers encountered typical of an open swim race start.

Each time you go to the line in a race, you walk away with new experiences, some good and some bad.

I often tell my clients, especially if it is the first time for an event, to use each race as a learning experience.

Falling back on these experiences in subsequent races will help you handle your future races with a more positive and confident attitude.

Using life experience to dig deep

Not only are racing and training experiences essential in developing mental toughness, but sometimes the lives we lead, as well as the experiences we have had throughout our lifetime help to aid in developing mental toughness.

I won't go into details here, but I often think of the circumstances of my life and how I overcame many difficult situations.

I think about those tough times a lot when I am training and when I am racing, and am thankful that I am out there training and racing in the first place! Life's journey can sometimes be a difficult one.

Using your life's experiences to draw on when the race gets tough can help you pull through mentally and push where you didn't think you could go.

If you have overcome any obstacles in your life, you can use them to gain insight into your own reactions to difficult situations and help you gain perspective on racing.

Simulate challenging situations

I have often chosen routes where I have to ride straight into the wind for miles and miles.

I have made myself swim an excessive amount of meters in the pool, both at threshold and on the clock.

I have chosen to run some of my longest training runs alone at 4:30 a.m.

Putting yourself into challenging training situations allows you to push through physically and mentally and further build mental toughness and focus.

Conquering the sport of endurance racing takes a lot of mental focus, determination, and toughness. Using strategies and experiences to develop your mental toughness will serve you well the next time you toe the line for an endurance challenge.

There must be a persistent focus on the doing the work and mastering the task at hand. Results can never be controlled; you can only control your effort, skill, and mind. I typically go to the start line relaxed, knowing that

I have trained well and done all that I can do and the race will be what it is. When you have given it your all, crossing the line with no more to give, having reached the limit of your potential for that day, you can be proud.

Missy Janzow owns Fit4U, a personalized coaching and nutrition service. You can reach her with your questions at



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