Mental Toughness and Running: A Metaphor for Living

Michelle Folk currently runs cross country for The University of New Orleans and studies physics.  

What separates great runners from everyone else is one thing: mental toughness. I have always been told that running is 90% mental and 10% physical, and I believe it! No matter how much work you put into training, if you are not mentally tough when it counts, you will not be successful. 

While running, your mind constantly tries to find reasons to make you stop, like convincing you it’s too hot/cold out, that you need to slow down because this or that hurts, or that the run is too long and you should turn around early. Everyone who runs has these thoughts pop into their head when they are training or racing, but the best runners don’t let these thoughts impact them. 

Mental toughness is critical to being a great runner, but it takes time and practice to come by, and even then there are times when the mental toughness won’t be there. Being able to push through the thoughts in your mind making you want to stop, or choosing to try and ignore the thoughts, shows how much you want what you are working for. 

Pushing Beyond Your Perceived Limits

Mental toughness for me is being able to push through and not give in to negative thoughts about how you deserve to slow down. Recently, a friend and I were talking about mental toughness and how developing it comes from not giving in to the negative thoughts. So to boost her confidence, I paced her during a time trial, she did much better than she ever thought she could (almost running a personal best) and she beat all but one other girl in the process. Having mental toughness means you can look at a long workout and think, “Okay, this will be hard, but let’s do it!” instead of, “Okay, I’m going to go slow so I don’t waste energy”, or something similar. 

I didn’t develop mental toughness until my senior year of high school, and only did so when I gained more confidence and trust in myself. The best example I have of being mentally tough was the district track meet my senior year.

I was entered in 3200m, not my best distance race, and being such, I wasn’t too worried about my performance; my goal was just to beat my previous best time. The farther into the race, however, the more I separated myself from the other competitors and it just became me and the girl running ahead. With half a mile to go, I began to fade off and let the distance grow between myself and first place. My coach kept yelling and yelling but I did not do anything to close the gap that formed; my mind decided it wasn’t worth the pain and I had decided second place was good enough. But then the gap grew smaller, and with 100m to go, I was within striking distance. But still I was hesitant to push, asking myself, “is it worth it?” Finally, I decided I couldn’t lose this race knowing I could sprint and win, so I pushed aside the thoughts of second place and sprinted with everything I had and scored BIG! 

Your Mind Is the Competitor 

The biggest competitor you have while running is yourself. Running is between yourself and your weaknesses (your mind).  Running is raw, leaving no room to hide. Your true weaknesses, desires, feelings, and emotions will appear in your mind. No matter the course or distance, your mind will try to decide if you will push through the pain of racing or if you will fall off, if the race is worth it or not, if you leave it all on the track or not. 

Your mind will always want you to take the easy way out, whether that is cutting the workout short, going off pace, or slowing down during the race; your mind craves the least amount of pain possible. When the mind wins and decides the race isn’t worth it, it is so painful because you worked hard for the moment but the mental toughness just wasn’t there; you know that you could have finished the run but your mind got the better of you. When you are able to push aside your weakness though and run with everything you have, that is when joy comes. 

Compliment this article with similar ones from the How to Live Category. 

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