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Does 'mental toughness' exist? Probably not...

Anyone who tells you that endurance racing is all about 'mental toughness' or 'mental strength' and NOT about physical training, probably hasn't done enough miles in training. I'm not a fan of the terms 'mental toughness' as I think it's a load of rubbish. In fact, the people who spout how 'mentally tough' they are the ones who generally drop out, whilst the quiet, unassuming, unnoticed person just keep going. The reality is this. If you've done a lot of training, you'll feel fine for most of the event. If you haven't, you'll start to get tired and your mood will change. That's when things start to go wrong.

Now... the sports psychologists amongst you may react with various journal articles which explain that 'mental toughness' does in fact exist. Let me make this clear, it's the terminology which I disagree with and it's the terminology which causes confusion. Sports psychology plays a critical role in terms of planning and managing your mind during an endurance event. But it's the application of a structured process / plan, rather than just 'being tough'. Being resilient doesn't just happen by chance, either physical or mental.

Mood state

Mood state refers to your state of mind at any given time. Are you happy or are you sad? Are you enjoying the bike ride or have you just about had enough and want to stop. There will come a time in any ultra running event or Ironman where you've had enough and you just want to stop, your mood will deteriorate and you'll make the decision that you just don't want to be doing it any longer. Ideally, you need to stay upbeat, because if you're happy, you'll probably keep running. So what kind of things can help your mood?

1. Fitness

The obvious one is fitness, if you physically break down then it's hard to remain positive. As above, mind over matter can only get you so far. It's critical to understand that your physical fitness is by far the single most important thing for success. If you don't feel tired, you generally wouldn't consider stopping or dropping out. The people who have done the most training will generally go further in the event, whilst maintaining a more positive outlook. Don't ever fall into the trap of listening to someone who tells you that training isn't important and it's all 'mental'.

2. Goal Setting & Expectations

Setting targets can be very positive, but it can also catch you out. If you're taking part in a marathon and your target time is 3:30, then it's very hard to maintain a positive state of mind when you reach 20 miles and find yourself 15 minutes down on your required split time. If you enter an Ironman and you think that you'll run the whole marathon, how will your mood be affected when you walk at 6 miles?

There's nothing wrong with optimistic goal setting, but perhaps have a back up plan. Go through those 'what if' scenarios and how you'll handle them. Generally most people stay positive and upbeat when things are going to plan. It's when things go wrong that they start falling apart... as they hadn't considered that outcome and don't know how to react. 

3. Perception, Distance & Time

This is an interesting one. Why is it that when you ride 50 miles on your bike, the last 10 miles feel quite hard and mentally as you reach the magical 50 figure, you've just about had enough. By contrast, if the following week you set out to ride 100 miles, you cruise past 50 in the blink of an eye, without it being a significant milestone. The same applies to running and any other endurance sport. The distance you set out to complete is a 'target' set in your mind. As you approach that target, no matter what distance, you're always feel happy to finish!

Another thing to consider is how much time you spend on your long ride or run. If you are training for Ironman and anticipate riding your bike for 7 hours, then your training rides should be longer. If you never ride for more than 4 hours, then after 5-6 hours on race day, you run the risk of reaching a point where your general feeling can be summed up as 'Is this ever going to end?' That's not great when you still have an hour to ride and then a marathon to run! In training, you need to go for long periods of time, even if you have to slow down, ride or run for longer periods than you'll have to endure in the race. That way, the race passes quickly by comparison. You can't enter a 50 mile ultra distance running event and never run further than 3 hours, then expect to remain upbeat.

4. Familiarisation / Experience

The more experienced you are, the easier it is to maintain a positive mood. People who don't exercise have a very low pain threshold. When they complete even a moderate intensity workout, it feels like a '9 out of 10' on their pain threshold. By comparison, experienced athletes have to train at a very high intensity to reach '9 out of 10'. As you train, your perception changes, so moderate exercise starts to feel easier and you have to push harder to score higher on the pain threshold. Key thing here is that the experienced athletes aren't necessarily better at dealing with pain, it's a change of perception. Unfit people feel a similar level of discomfort, but it occurs at a lower intensity, to them... it feels like '9 out of 10'. This is simple... the race is going to be hard and uncomfortable, you need to familiarise yourself with that sensation.

5. Play with your mind

So here's the key question, can you play with your mind to stay positive? Ultimately, you need to stay happy / stay in a good mood. Try to enjoy yourself as much as possible during the event and smile / talk to others around you. When it gets hard, can you turn that into a positive? Can you smile and recognise the challenge which is about to confront you? You entered this event because you wanted to challenge yourself, so when you're at your lowest... congratulations... you've found what you came for. It's at that moment when you'll find out whether that's 'really' what you came for.

As I mentioned earlier, there isn't an endless pool of positive mood so you need to conserve it early on. If you are well trained and have done the time/mileage, then you should make your way through the first 75% of the race with little issue or challenge. In the final 25% it will get difficult and that's when you'll need your positive mood.

Don't waste your mental energy early in the event. Don't overly focus from the first mile, relax and switch off, you'll need to focus later so save your energy. Nobody can keep going in a negative mind state for hours upon end, that kind of mental toughness just doesn't exist and it's not a enjoyable day!

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