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!!!

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Fuelling up for long runs & endurance activity

Today I've got another guest blog. This time from my friend @monicashaw from the smarterfitter blog who has been inspiring me with delicious recipes for over 4 years. Former neighbours in Stoke Newington, she is now based down in Wiltshire as a freelance writer "specializing in science, technology, food and fitness." So an ideal contributor to this blog, particularly as any of you in training for London or Paris marathons should be appropriately fuelling up for your killer 20 - 22 miler in the next few weeks. I owe Monica a lot - she encouraged me both to start blogging and to get swimming lessons, both of which provide me a lot of happiness. Anyway, over to Monica. Please stop by and check smarterfitter in more depth if you like what you see here!

Beyond Bagels: Fueling Up for the Long Run

If you're training for the London or Paris marathons, then you're already well-acquainted with "the long run", that blissful time of the week (usually Saturday or Sunday) when you give up hours of your life to put in those crucial miles that are fundamental to finishing the race. And with marathon day fast approaching (in just over a month? crikey!), those long runs are only getting longer, and more challenging, with each passing week. But you can make those runs a whole lot easier by making sure you feed your body good prior to putting in the miles.

What should I eat the day before a long run?

We've all heard of "carbo-loading" before a big workout, but this doesn't mean eating a massive plate of pasta for breakfast lunch and dinner. Here are a few basic guidelines:

The two days before your long run (and marathon):

  • Aim for at least 65% of calories from carbs
  • Stick to carbs with a low glycemic index (GI) - these are processed more slowly by your digestive system and will make a handy source of fuel during the run
  • Avoid gas-forming foods - do I have to explain why?
  • Stick to low fiber foods - high fiber foods absorb water in your gut and swell, not ideal for a long run
  • Go easy on fatty foods that are hard to digest, such as peanut butter or anything fried
  • Drink lots of water and avoid the booze!
  • Stick to familiar foods that you know will agree with your tummy

Timing is everything - avoid eating solid foods at least three hours before a run. This article in Runner's World offers a few good ideas for people who run at various times of the day:

Food Ideas That Won't Make You Cringe

Here are my favourite low-GI carbs to fuel up on:

  • Root veg - Carrots, yams, sweet potatoes
  • Whole grains - Pearl barley, rye, wheat, brown rice, bulgar
  • Whole grain products - bread, pasta, cereal, pizza bases, pita bread
  • Legumes - lentils, peas, soy beans, kidney beans, chickpeas
  • Fruit - bananas, apples, pears, grapes, apricots, peaches, plums and grapefruit
  • Vegetables - Broccoli, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, green beans, lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini

Meal Ideas

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of articles recommending bagels and energy bars as ideal running foods. Bagels have their place and all (usually under a thick layer of cream cheese), but it's not exactly the kind of thing to get you excited about food. Life is short. Runs are long. Here are a few meal ideas to make both a little better:

For breakfast:

Oats (jumbo oats or steel-cut) cooked with pear and topped with toasted pecans (or any other fruit / nut combo)

Bircher muesli with low-fat yogurt and banana

Eggs on wholemeal toast with avocado, roasted tomatoes and steamed spinach

Boiled egg with wholemeal toast soldiers and fresh fruit

Buckwheat crepes (vegan or not) with fruit and low fat yogurt or cottage cheese


For lunch or dinner:

Baked butternut squash stuffed with puy lentils

Jacket sweet potato topped with veggie chili or ratatouille

Ploughman's lunch with wholemeal bread, a bit of cheese, lots of veggies, pickles and apple

Hummus with wholegrain pita bread, tabbouleh and veggies

Veggie-loaded pizza on a wholemeal pizza base (go easy on the cheese, or skip altogether!)

Do you believe in healthy pizza?

Everything salad of veggies tossed with whole grains, lentils, toasted seeds and a good vinaigrette

Lentil & quinoa salad with basil and lemon

Minestrone soup with good crusty bread

Any combination of lentils + grains + greens (i.e. puy lentils cooked in stock served with boiled brown rice and sauteed kale)

Indian dal with basmati rice (a staple in my household) - photos

Sweet potato and black bean chili - photos

Roasted root vegetable salad with butternut squash, beets, carrots and parsnips

Veggies stuffed with veggies and grains - try roasted red peppers stuffed with smoky chickpeas or stuffed tomatoes

Farinata - a chickpea pancake you can use as a pizza base

Red beans and rice - a creole classic, great with steamed greens like kale or chard


Great stuff from Monica, I'm sure you'll agree. What are you favourite pre-run meals? Please add in the comments section and link to any recipes if you can recommend.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Building self belief to help endurance performance

In Andy Preston's post last week, he proposed emotion focused coping can help change our responses to the immense mental and physical challenges experienced during races to help develop your resilience to successfully negotiate marathon races and other endurance events.

I wanted to dwell a little further on mental strength as it is both required in endurance and is a much researched subject in Sport Psychology currently (under the title 'mental toughness'). Given that a lot of readers are competing in European spring marathons and will be undertaking some of their longest runs in training at the moment I'm going to explore self belief this week. Next week we'll touch on mental toughness. We'll explore what sport psychologists do to help build improve these characteristic with clients. My colleague Juan Carlos Lorenzo (a former pro cyclist on the Vuelta de Espana) will guest blog on how mental toughness relates to endurance competition.

Self belief (in sport psychology literature most often referred to as self efficacy) relates to the task at hand in performing within your discipline, as opposed to your general overall confidence as a person. As most sport psych students would be taught in year 1 class Self efficacy is defined as “belief in one's own ability to perform a specific task.”

In my MSc research I investigated the psychological skills needed for successful marathon running. As well as excellence in coping, self efficacy/belief was a crucial factor with the runners I interviewed before and reviewing their performance after the race. Of my sample, one runner had unshakeable belief in their abilities for race day, and achieved the time they wanted. The other runners said they had belief before the race and then afterwards said in hindsight, they knew deep down that they would not achieve their target time.

It would seem therefore, that excellence in self-belief is also required to excel in a race. As a psychologist I'm interested in knowing how an athlete can prepare in such a way that as they get to the start-line they know that they will achieve optimum performance (or be able to negate any barrier that may interfere with achieving it). If you'd asked me after my pre-race interviews whether I thought that all runners had self-belief, superficially I'd have said 'yes'. What was most interesting, listening back to the tapes for transcription and analysis, was that after multiple listens, I could make out the doubt in the voices of the runners who didn't hit their targets. You may say, well that was achieved with the benefit of hindsight! but listening closely, I think I can pick out 1 or 2 instances where I can hear their belief wavering prior to running.

So how was self-belief achieved prior to racing by the most successful of my participants? (and by elite athletes). Unsurprisingly, prior performance gives us a very strong indication for potential achievement. Chris Evert Lloyd famously said that having achieved success at an early age built her confidence in her abilities as she progressed in her tennis career into her adulthood. In the case of my runner, he had an ever improving record in races and a healthy way of framing his progress in his running 'career' even though he only started running at 28.

His goals were achievable each time he raced, never trying to take huge chunks off each event. Instead, he had steadily chipped away at his times, so now he is down to a projected finish time of 2 hours 45. In my study, he had previously just missed out on his first sub 3 hour marathon (by a minute). So for London 2009, he 'only' had to take a minute off to achieve his target time. No mean feat, as the margins for that kind of difference are much smaller as race times come down. However, he had assessed his previous race data and performance meticulously and worked with his coach to work out where this difference could best be overcome through his 16 weeks training.

Having a structured plan from the off, he barely missed a run or other training, but really built in rest time as well. He made sure that when he had a rest day, he properly rested. No little 2 or 3 mile runs. But horizontal, relaxed, REST! Its so tempting to always do 'a little bit more'. I find with friends and clients, building in proper rest is a tough challenge. Everyone always wants to cycle, swim or do something when they should be putting their feet up!

The other main point I found was how this runner also framed prior negative results, i.e. those races which had been painful or where they had just missed out on a pre race goal. He hadn't obsessed about what went wrong, or that it would happen again. He carefully rationalised the situation on race day and took steps to ensure the same mistakes or situations didn't occur in the race being prepared for. He put that to bed, focused on the task at hand and given he had trained to the best of his ability on race day, was confident enough 'to know' he'd finish in the desired time. But what worked for him won't work for all. We're not all carbon copies of each other!

Its an inexact science, and if I could give you a formula, I'd be the most successful practitioner! Hopefully this has gone some way to help you. But additionally, if you haven't done all your training and fear you may miss out on a time, don't take that as read! It's all about the quality of the work you do (and life gets in the way!). Ultimately, we sport psychologists can work with you on confidence, but once you're at the line its up to you and how you perform and cope on the day. The training runs are the place to experiment and go through the pain, but through collaborating together, sport psychologists and athletes can work to minimise those naughty distractors and inhibitors. This won't guarantee you'll definitely achieve your desired result, but its more likely you'll be nearer to getting it.

Any tips you care to share about how you build your self-belief, please add in the comments section or get back to me. What I've covered is by no means exhaustive, and it'd be great to hear what has inspired or worked for you.