Mental Toughness

Training hard, good nutrition and plenty of sleep are key components in ensuring you are prepared for the upcoming race. If you can master all three of these areas, you are 60% of the way to reaching your goal. No, I didn’t miss-type the 60%. You still have 40% sitting on the table. That last bit is the mental part of the upcoming race. Whether you are preparing for a 5K or a marathon, your mental preparation will be the final piece in putting all the elements together.

Let’s talk about the 4 key elements of mental toughness.


When the gun goes off, you begin to place physical stress on your body that increases throughout the event. When done properly, breathing can help mute and manage that stress.

The breath is both a release valve and a trigger for your nervous system. When you breathe in a short and hungry way through your mouth, you are telling your body that you are in fight-or-flight mode. The reaction releases hormones that can help with short bursts of work, but the effect isn’t useful for marathoners.

On the flip side, when you breathe in through your nose, deeply into your belly, and out through your mouth, it has a calming effect on the body and mind. This kind of breathing takes time and training to learn. Slow your breathing and sync it to your steps while you run—breathe in through your nose for three or four steps, then out through your mouth for three. This can help you remain calm and focused.

Positive Mindset

A positive mindset is a combination of attitude and breathing. Deep breathing can help keep the mind calmly focused on breath, and give the runner an opportunity to work on maintaining a positive mindset about performance. If your breathing is out of control, it’s hard to stay upbeat. You slip into negative thoughts like, “I’m falling behind,” “I can’t do this,” “I hurt,”, “Why am I doing this” or “This sucks.”

Negativity destroys performance because you are telling your body that you are not good enough, and your body will follow your mind. Instead, energize your mind with positive thoughts. Creating mantras can help. One of mine is, “I’ve trained hard for this, and I’m ready. The runners around me are hurting and I will NOT show any signs of fatigue”. I say that over and over because it has meaning for me. Synchronize your mantra with your breathing and you’ll enter a focused state of flow.

Mental Imagery

You have to envision achieving your race goal in your mind before you get to race day.

When I say my mantra in my mind, I see myself as a winner. I see myself crossing the finish line. I see myself full of energy and vitality. I see myself just dominating. And it works—your body starts to believe your mind.

Goal Setting

First, you need to understand why you are doing the race. What’s your goal? Is it to finish in a certain time, or are you just running because a friend wanted you to? You have to know WHY you are taking on this challenge because when the going gets tough, if you can’t answer the question WHY, your performance will suffer.

When you know your “why,” you can focus on smaller goals like running one mile at a time, or breaking the distance up into three or four parts. It’s also important to mentally celebrate after you achieve every micro goal. Create a little visual celebration in your mind where you jump up and down and high five people. When you rack up these small victories, it helps maintain positivity.

If you can integrate these four elements of mental toughness into your racing, you will be faster and able to meet your goals more effectively. You are bringing more of yourself—not just your legs and lungs—to the table. You are bringing that extra 40%.

Mike Haedrich
Mike Haedrich


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