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Mental toughness vs. physical ability

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Mental toughness vs. physical ability Empty Mental toughness vs. physical ability

Post  Jeff F on Thu Jun 23, 2011 1:13 pm

I was thinking about this the other day during a run and thought it might create a good topic to banter around a bit. I think to perform well at the marathon distance it takes both mental toughness and physical ability. However, I think at times some runners who are tougher mentally can out perform some who may have more physical talent. I know that I do not possess any extreme physical talent, as I have always been competitive in sports but never a star or standout. In my marathon running career I think it has been my ability to focus mentallly and overcome the pain and discomfort that comes with marathon running. While at times I read reports from runners who I believe have more physical talent fail to achieve their potential because of the lack of ability to push through the discomfort that is part of any well executed marathon. Most of the discussions on these running boards focus on how we can maximize our physical abilities with the training we do, however, not much is discussed regarding the mental toughness aspect. Given this theory what can we do as marathon runners to improve/increase our mental toughness?
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Post  Julie on Thu Jun 23, 2011 1:25 pm

I agree. I ran my last marathon with a friend who is probably faster at a 10 miler or half than I am but just loses it around mile 16 or 17. Starts talking to herself and just slows down drastically.

I think running long runs solo helps. I love running with friends and it's fun and good but sometimes just being alone that long can make you get better at all the mental stuff. Otherwise, just being positive and having a few good comebacks to tell yourself during the race helps, too. For example, I was running a marathon and up ahead there was a nice tough hill. And I said to myself "oh that hill is tough..." and then I retorted "Yes, I am tough!" and just said, hey I am tough this hill is nothing, I've trained for this. I also look over my training log before leaving for a race just to convince myself that I did the right stuff to prepare for the race.
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Post  Mike MacLellan on Thu Jun 23, 2011 2:31 pm

As the mind controls the body... I'm definitely part of the school of thought that would train the mind as much as the body. Those of you who read my recent marathon report know how big of a factor mindset was in me getting my BQ. I could've easily talked myself out of that race.
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Post  Don S on Thu Jun 23, 2011 2:42 pm

Mental toughness is an absolute necessity in distance running. I also agree that solo training is, overall, better than group training to harness and improve mental toughness. My best training runs are always solo because I can focus on my goal and envision my goal race. I do like the social aspect of group running, but I make sure that it's just a fun run for me and not a workout with a purpose.

I also know runners who are much more experienced and talented than me, but some of them are afraid to hurt. I tell one guy who is so much more naturally gifted than me and has been a runner almost all his life but is not faster in the marathon than me that he needs to toughen up mentally in the marathon. Have fun with the pain, and don't be afraid to hurt. Hurting is what distance running is all about.

I remember lining up for Chicago last year, knowing it was gonna be a hot one and telling myself; "This is gonna hurt, but who gives a cr@p, I like pain, so bring on the fun." That got me through the race and a huge PR. At some point you just have to get lost in your head and thoughts and block out the physical pain or downright embrace it.
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Post  Jerry on Thu Jun 23, 2011 2:55 pm

Race less.
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Post  Schuey on Thu Jun 23, 2011 3:01 pm

@Don S wrote:Mental toughness is an absolute necessity in distance running. I also agree that solo training is, overall, better than group training to harness and improve mental toughness. My best training runs are always solo because I can focus on my goal and envision my goal race. I do like the social aspect of group running, but I make sure that it's just a fun run for me and not a workout with a purpose.

I also know runners who are much more experienced and talented than me, but some of them are afraid to hurt. I tell one guy who is so much more naturally gifted than me and has been a runner almost all his life but is not faster in the marathon than me that he needs to toughen up mentally in the marathon. Have fun with the pain, and don't be afraid to hurt. Hurting is what distance running is all about.

I remember lining up for Chicago last year, knowing it was gonna be a hot one and telling myself; "This is gonna hurt, but who gives a cr@p, I like pain, so bring on the fun." That got me through the race and a huge PR. At some point you just have to get lost in your head and thoughts and block out the physical pain or downright embrace it.

Approval Don I could not have said it better. One of the things I love about the marathon (other distances) is the pain part of it. I love it when that time comes in a race. To me that is were you separate the tough from the not so tough. It's that point in a race when you can look into someone's eyes's and you know whether that person wants it or they have given up to defeat. To me I believe that running/racing especially the marathon distance is 98% mental. Like Don I love the pain also.

Something tells me we were in the same corral and most likely ran by one another at Chicago last year.
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Post  Schuey on Thu Jun 23, 2011 3:02 pm

@Jerry wrote:Race less.

Yeah race less, I do that. So Jerry I'm excited now that we are in the same AG. When are we going to have a 1v1 deal going on?
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Post  Don S on Thu Jun 23, 2011 3:10 pm

[quote="Schuey"]
@Don S wrote:

Mental toughness vs. physical ability 424776184 Don I could not have said it better. One of the things I love about the marathon (other distances) is the pain part of it. I love it when that time comes in a race. To me that is were you separate the tough from the not so tough. It's that point in a race when you can look into someone's eyes's and you know whether that person wants it or they have given up to defeat. To me I believe that running/racing especially the marathon distance is 98% mental. Like Don I love the pain also.

Something tells me we were in the same corral and most likely ran by one another at Chicago last year.

Yeah man, the pain let's me know I'm alive and am pushing myself to my maximum for that day. I was in corral A at Chicago and finished in 2:54. Tough day, but after some quality time in the med tent I walked out like nothing happened, found the free beer and had several Goose Island Ale's before my wife finally found me. Great day!
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Post  Alex Kubacki on Thu Jun 23, 2011 3:20 pm

This is a great topic. I think once you hit the marathon distance and above the mental side becomes critical. You simply cannot run these distances without experiencing pain and that is when the mental side comes in. My favorite quote is from Vince Lombardi: "The difference between successful people and others is not in a lack of strength or lack of knowledge, but rather in a lack of will." I comletely agree.

I do think you can build it from training if you lack experience to draw on. Doing the long run solo, doing a run in the heat or cold, or just getting out and doing a hard session when you don't want to all help.
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Post  Dave-O on Thu Jun 23, 2011 3:27 pm

Ok, I'll offer a counter-point for the sake of argument, though I absolutely acknowledge that mental toughness plays a major role in racing a successful marathon.

That being said, there are certain pysiological limits that have nothing to do with mental toughness. For example, when you run out of glycogen and are forced to rely on fat stores, you are going to slow down. That's just a fact. Scientifically your muscles cannot convert fat to energy at the same rate it can convert glycogen. You can't "will" your body to process fat at the same level of efficiency as glycogen. Same thing with cramps. If your muscles cramp, either due to dehydration or muscular damage, you can grit your teeth all you want, but that isn't going to unlock your muscles.

Now, mental toughness can mitigate the effects of these pitfalls, but to act like running a strong last 10k is simply a matter of being "tough" just ignores the pysiological aspect of the sport.
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Post  Jerry on Thu Jun 23, 2011 3:30 pm

@Schuey wrote:
@Jerry wrote:Race less.

Yeah race less, I do that. So Jerry I'm excited now that we are in the same AG. When are we going to have a 1v1 deal going on?

2012 when my daughter doesn't want to talk/play with me and you have all those diapers to change nights and days. lol!
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Post  Schuey on Thu Jun 23, 2011 3:40 pm

@Dave-O wrote:Ok, I'll offer a counter-point for the sake of argument, though I absolutely acknowledge that mental toughness plays a major role in racing a successful marathon.

That being said, there are certain pysiological limits that have nothing to do with mental toughness. For example, when you run out of glycogen and are forced to rely on fat stores, you are going to slow down. That's just a fact. Scientifically your muscles cannot convert fat to energy at the same rate it can convert glycogen. You can't "will" your body to process fat at the same level of efficiency as glycogen. Same thing with cramps. If your muscles cramp, either due to dehydration or muscular damage, you can grit your teeth all you want, but that isn't going to unlock your muscles.

Now, mental toughness can mitigate the effects of these pitfalls, but to act like running a strong last 10k is simply a matter of being "tough" just ignores the pysiological aspect of the sport.

Point well taken and yes I do believe that has a role in it. I guess I was taking physical ability to be something different from glycogen and other nutrient type of things or as you put it pysiological aspects. Good point though Dave-O.
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Post  Don S on Thu Jun 23, 2011 3:44 pm

@Schuey wrote:
@Dave-O wrote:Ok, I'll offer a counter-point for the sake of argument, though I absolutely acknowledge that mental toughness plays a major role in racing a successful marathon.

That being said, there are certain pysiological limits that have nothing to do with mental toughness. For example, when you run out of glycogen and are forced to rely on fat stores, you are going to slow down. That's just a fact. Scientifically your muscles cannot convert fat to energy at the same rate it can convert glycogen. You can't "will" your body to process fat at the same level of efficiency as glycogen. Same thing with cramps. If your muscles cramp, either due to dehydration or muscular damage, you can grit your teeth all you want, but that isn't going to unlock your muscles.

Now, mental toughness can mitigate the effects of these pitfalls, but to act like running a strong last 10k is simply a matter of being "tough" just ignores the pysiological aspect of the sport.

Point well taken and yes I do believe that has a role in it. I guess I was taking physical ability to be something different from glycogen and other nutrient type of things or as you put it pysiological aspects. Good point though Dave-O.

Agreed. Excellent point. I think we've all hit that point the marathon (or beyond) where all the toughness and will-power in the world won't make the legs continue to go at the same speed we started, much less faster. But having the toughness to gut it out and move as fast as the body will let you is the mark of mental toughness vs. throwing in the towel.
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Post  John Kilpatrick on Thu Jun 23, 2011 3:56 pm

@Jeff F wrote:I was thinking about this the other day during a run and thought it might create a good topic to banter around a bit. I think to perform well at the marathon distance it takes both mental toughness and physical ability. However, I think at times some runners who are tougher mentally can out perform some who may have more physical talent. I know that I do not possess any extreme physical talent, as I have always been competitive in sports but never a star or standout. In my marathon running career I think it has been my ability to focus mentallly and overcome the pain and discomfort that comes with marathon running. While at times I read reports from runners who I believe have more physical talent fail to achieve their potential because of the lack of ability to push through the discomfort that is part of any well executed marathon. Most of the discussions on these running boards focus on how we can maximize our physical abilities with the training we do, however, not much is discussed regarding the mental toughness aspect. Given this theory what can we do as marathon runners to improve/increase our mental toughness?

Good topic - I firmly believe in the need for mental toughness. In fact, one of the reasons why I wanted to run a marathon was the fact that it scared the crap out of me, so I felt like I should try and see what I could do. Dave makes an obvious point when physiologically the body is at it's limit, but I also believe there is a lot of wiggle room between mind and body before you get to that point. I definitely can relate to not having extreme talent (that may be an extreme understatement!), but I'm really proud of where I've been able to get to by talking my body into doing things it sometimes does not want to do! I also agree with Shuey that sometimes it really feels good to suffer. I don't think many people understand that...

As for improving mental toughness, I knowI have to work on my confidence. The more time I put in the better I feel, so maybe its as simple as that. I haven't ran a "good" marathon, but learned something about the feel of it last time - hopefully this time my mind and body will work better together.

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Post  Vivian on Thu Jun 23, 2011 5:13 pm

Can someone describe to me what you mean by "pain" and welcoming it and embracing it? Do you mean the kind of pain that comes from a cramp or muscle tear or are you talking about something else? I am embarrassed to say that I've run 12 marathons and am not sure what you mean by "pain".
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Post  healdgator on Thu Jun 23, 2011 5:19 pm

It's a sliding scale, but I would take mental toughness over physical ability almost every time. The really good ones (in anything, really) have both. The really great ones are usually separated by more than simply ability.
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Post  Dave Bussard on Thu Jun 23, 2011 5:28 pm

I don't get all the 'embracing the pain' sentiments...Maybe that's why I'm such a big wuss when it comes to the marathon. I just don't like that horrible feeling that always comes around 20 miles...
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Post  JohnP on Thu Jun 23, 2011 6:00 pm

Just to keep perspective - someone may think they have great mental toughness, but in reality, they have a lot of skill/genes for long distance running.

To me, the mental toughness comes more into play in two areas - shorter distance racing, where you can drive your body to achieve more with mental toughness. And in the mental toughness it takes to train day in and day out and complete some tough training runs, that leads to PRs and great marathons.
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Post  Jerry on Thu Jun 23, 2011 6:01 pm

@Dave-O wrote:Ok, I'll offer a counter-point for the sake of argument, though I absolutely acknowledge that mental toughness plays a major role in racing a successful marathon.

That being said, there are certain pysiological limits that have nothing to do with mental toughness. For example, when you run out of glycogen and are forced to rely on fat stores, you are going to slow down. That's just a fact. Scientifically your muscles cannot convert fat to energy at the same rate it can convert glycogen. You can't "will" your body to process fat at the same level of efficiency as glycogen. Same thing with cramps. If your muscles cramp, either due to dehydration or muscular damage, you can grit your teeth all you want, but that isn't going to unlock your muscles.

Now, mental toughness can mitigate the effects of these pitfalls, but to act like running a strong last 10k is simply a matter of being "tough" just ignores the pysiological aspect of the sport.

When I think of mental toughness, I mean when I have a good day in the race, I can tough it out to hold myself together to the finish line. It's more of I can use the enjoyment of the successful race to mitigate/ignore the pain.

I don't think I can fight/overcome a bad day for a better result, though I may pretend it in my race report.

lol!
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Post  JohnP on Thu Jun 23, 2011 6:03 pm

@Vivian wrote:Can someone describe to me what you mean by "pain" and welcoming it and embracing it? Do you mean the kind of pain that comes from a cramp or muscle tear or are you talking about something else? I am embarrassed to say that I've run 12 marathons and am not sure what you mean by "pain".

I don't think I have actual pain in a marathon either - it's more the gradual losing my grip on reality that comes from dehydration or using up the glycogen as Dave describes. So don't be embarrassed, I am in the same camp.
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Post  healdgator on Thu Jun 23, 2011 6:05 pm

@Vivian wrote:Can someone describe to me what you mean by "pain" and welcoming it and embracing it? Do you mean the kind of pain that comes from a cramp or muscle tear or are you talking about something else? I am embarrassed to say that I've run 12 marathons and am not sure what you mean by "pain".

I think that means you are mentally tough.
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Post  Mike MacLellan on Thu Jun 23, 2011 6:06 pm

@Dave Bussard wrote:I don't get all the 'embracing the pain' sentiments...Maybe that's why I'm such a big wuss when it comes to the marathon. I just don't like that horrible feeling that always comes around 20 miles...

@JohnP wrote:
To me, the mental toughness comes more into play in two areas - shorter distance racing, where you can drive your body to achieve more with mental toughness.

As a counter-point to Dave B and to +1 John, I absolutely hate the type of pain that comes with races shorter than an hour. I prefer my beasts to approach slowly, give me plenty of time to become aware of their presence, and then to do battle with them for quite a while. On the other hand, I can't stand redlining.

That said, I've never experienced the physical limiters that Dave-O mentioned. I've had muscle fatigue and soreness, but never have I truly bonked on a run (done it on a bike) or "hit the wall" in a marathon.
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Post  mul21 on Thu Jun 23, 2011 7:14 pm

@Vivian wrote:Can someone describe to me what you mean by "pain" and welcoming it and embracing it? Do you mean the kind of pain that comes from a cramp or muscle tear or are you talking about something else? I am embarrassed to say that I've run 12 marathons and am not sure what you mean by "pain".

@Dave Bussard wrote:I don't get all the 'embracing the pain' sentiments...Maybe that's why I'm such a big wuss when it comes to the marathon. I just don't like that horrible feeling that always comes around 20 miles...

I think there are some physical pains to overcome on the marathon. My most recent race had my right hip flexor absolutely on fire for the last couple of miles and my left hamstring on the verge of cramping during the same period. I know I slowed down, but being mentally tough enough to keep going was certainly a factor. Not to say that I'm some ridiculously mentally tough guy, but I know I have a relatively high pain threshold.

The stuff Dave is talking about, yeah, there's no way you can will yourself through that, but the shorter race pain where it really just hurts, that's where you can have a huge amount of mental toughness pay off. Just look at Pre!
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Post  Peg Coover on Thu Jun 23, 2011 8:06 pm

After 5 marathons and a plenty more halfs, I should never have thoughts of not finishing a race. But I am one of those who when I start to hurt, I start to doubt. I've never DNF'd but I've entertained thoughts of it. And in shorter races, when there is practically no chance of my taking a DNF, I doubt my ability to push through. I don't know if it's fear of pain, fear of looking like something the cat drug in, or what. My husband tells me I should be able to hurt a little more in a race, after a recent 5K when the hill in mile 3 was causing me to doubt myself and slow down to conserve energy. For a 5K.

That all being said, I know that I have a limited amount of physical ability, BUT I also have mental toughness issues. I would love to work on that if anyone has any suggestions!!!
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Post  Diego on Fri Jun 24, 2011 8:58 am

@Schuey wrote:
@Dave-O wrote:Ok, I'll offer a counter-point for the sake of argument, though I absolutely acknowledge that mental toughness plays a major role in racing a successful marathon.

That being said, there are certain pysiological limits that have nothing to do with mental toughness. For example, when you run out of glycogen and are forced to rely on fat stores, you are going to slow down. That's just a fact. Scientifically your muscles cannot convert fat to energy at the same rate it can convert glycogen. You can't "will" your body to process fat at the same level of efficiency as glycogen. Same thing with cramps. If your muscles cramp, either due to dehydration or muscular damage, you can grit your teeth all you want, but that isn't going to unlock your muscles.

Now, mental toughness can mitigate the effects of these pitfalls, but to act like running a strong last 10k is simply a matter of being "tough" just ignores the pysiological aspect of the sport.

Point well taken and yes I do believe that has a role in it. I guess I was taking physical ability to be something different from glycogen and other nutrient type of things or as you put it pysiological aspects. Good point though Dave-O.


I agree with a caveat. I think if you run out of glycogen or get cramps, then you have made some training errors during marathon preparation, which also goes back to mental preparation. Figuring out how to prevent those issues may require harder training or better nutrition during the race. I know that the prevention of those issues may also be more difficult to figure out than a 4x4 Rubik's cube for some.
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