Monday, 21 March 2011

Mental Toughness for endurance training

Today's post is written by my friend and sport psych colleague, Carlos Taboas on the topic of mental toughness. Though he comes from the world of cycling, the principles regarding mental toughness apply as much to marathon and other endurance running events. Thanks Carlitos!


My name is Juan Carlos Taboas an ex-pro cyclist and now Sport Psychology graduate. I am writing this guest entry because Stuart asked me to share my knowledge and experiences on mental toughness, which I wrote about in my thesis on team mental toughness in a professional cycling team.
The term mental toughness is often used by athletes, coaches, sport psychologists and the media to describe why some athletes may achieve or are the best in the world in their discipline. It is debated amongst the aficionados that marathon runners Evans Rutto or Paula Radcliffe or cyclists Lance Armstrong or Nicole Cooke are the best ever in their sports. One thing that is agreed by these commentators though is that they all demonstrate exceptional mental toughness.

Marathon running and road cycling share one thing – that they can be considered some of the most grueling tests of human athletic endurance performance. During training and competition, marathon runners and cyclists have to deal with different types of terrain and weather conditions and spend huge amounts of time above 70% maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max). These athletes have to learn how to cope with the physical and mental demands training and competition place on them. In other words, they have to learn how to be mentally tough. But what exactly is mental toughness and how can we improve it?

When asking athletes what mental toughness is, they describe it as “doing whatever is necessary to get the job done”, “not letting anyone break you” or “not being affected by anything but what’s going on in the race”. However, these descriptions do not offer us much light to the understanding of mental toughness.

Jones and colleagues (2002) were the first researchers to address mental toughness using empirical methods. They defined mental toughness as a natural or developed psychological edge that enables mentally tough performers to generally cope better than their opponents with the demands and related pressures that occur in sport. Their study identified 12 essential characteristics of mental toughness. These are self-belief, desire and motivation, focus, coping with anxiety, and dealing with pain and hardship.

So, as with physical fitness, mental toughness is trainable. We also know that in order to have outstanding marathon performances we need to train different aspects of our fitness such us endurance, power, strength and flexibility. Equally, in order to improve our mental toughness we should develop several mental attributes.

Mentally tough marathon runners have an unshakable belief in their ability to achieve their targeted time. As Stuart suggested in this (Self belief) article and as Tim Holder stated in the blog post about goal setting, self belief can be enhanced by undertaking mental training. Try starting by reflecting on past goal accomplishments to your enhance your confidence. Visualisation is another useful tool that can be used to enhance self-belief. Taking some time to imagine yourself achieving your goal, has been shown to improve sporting achievement. Used in conjunction with positive self-talk, a repertoire of positive self-statements relevant to you during training and/or competition (to convince yourself that you are capable of performing well), can assist in developing the required psychological edge.

All of us have a zone of optimal functioning and being in your optimal zone has a positive impact on your confidence. You need to recap past performances in order to find the levels of arousal that are optimal to you. Once these are identified, you can use techniques to ‘psych you up’ or ‘calm you down’ depending on what best suits you. Finally, knowing yourself is vital. Developing self-awareness will uncover the unique qualities that make you better than your opponents, that can be used to your advantage.

All of us have internal and external sources of motivation. Try to identify which are your internal sources of motivation and how they match the achievement of your goals. Remember that mentally tough runners have an internalized motivation to succeed. Reframing your goal setting as performance evolves, is useful to enhance your motivation during setbacks. Step back and set goals that will help you to recover from your ‘toughest times,' however incremental or small during difficult parts of your runs. This will help you to bounce back with increased determination to succeed.

Another important aspect to work on is your focus. Being mentally tough is about remaining fully focused on the task at hand in the face of competition-specific distractions. You should create a list of cues that allow you to regain focus. Use those cues in situations that negatively affect your concentration on the task in hand. Pain affects our focus and one important characteristic of mentally tough runners and cyclists is their ability to push back the boundaries of physical pain. There are several techniques that will help you with this. Authors in this blog have suggested us the use of mindfulness, association/disassociation strategies and emotion-focused coping. I would say that no one is better than the other. Try them out and keep whichever it works for you.

The final aspect of mental toughness is our ability to handle pressure. Mentally tough runners thrive on the pressure of competition by stepping into the moment and accepting that anxiety is inevitable in competition. Think about it, how would you feel in a race that does not mean anything to you? Are you going to feel anxious? Most likely you won’t. Feeling anxious is not a bad sign. The important thing is to be able to use that anxiety to your advantage. The use of goal setting, self-talk, and imagery are mental strategies to help you to interpret your anxiety as facilitative to performance, especially when they are used in combination. This does not mean that the use of relaxation techniques is wrong, but such techniques may not be appropriate for the activation and arousal demands of some runners. Again, I would say that knowing yourself and what works for you is vital to having the confidence that you possess the ability to handle pressure when it counts.

To conclude, I would say that in order to improve mental toughness we need to work on the presented aspects as a whole. Mental toughness is multidimensional. Mastering one or two of these aspects is not enough. To become mentally tough you need to improve all of them. And, as it happens with the different aspects of our fitness, it takes time and dedication. Remember that mentally tough athletes are determined to make the most of their ability by taking advantage of whatever mental resources they can. So, take heed of this advice and if you want to develop your mental toughness, contact me, Stuart or any other Sport Psychology practitioner that can assist you develop your mental edge.

As ever, any feedback is welcome. If you're participating in a Spring race, have a good run!!!

1 comment:

Sara Welsh said...

I've been trying to get into running, but I feel like I just can't do it. My friends have all been telling me that it's just myself psyching myself out, but I don't know. I've heard about mental toughness for runners, and I think I'm going to try it! If Greg Meyer can do it, I can too!

Sara Welsh |