Mental fortitude

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Richerd Whitehead shows mental fortitude going up Heartbreak Hill during the Boston Marathon.

It has been said that mental fortitude is more important than physical endurance. I believe that this mental fortitude can be built up through training in much the same way as strength, speed or endurance.

  • Expect to suffer. The limits of human performance are defined by the level of suffering that can be borne. To race well is to experience deep discomfort and misery. It is important to count the cost before you start and understand what racing will entail. I believe that the anguish we suffer while running builds mental fortitude that gives us great strength in other areas of our life.
  • The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune. Everybody experiences suffering to varying degrees as part of normal life. I used to think that my skin condition was a huge impediment to endurance running. However I now believe that the pain and misery of this affliction has prepared me well for the hardship of long distance running. I have yet to encounter suffering on a run the compares to the horrors I have experienced due to my skin.
  • Train hard. Training provides some of the best experiences for building mental fortitude. Training should be looked at not only as a way of changing our physical bodies, but also as a method of forging our minds and spirits. Hard training teaches us the nature of suffering and how to withstand it. Training can give us familiarity with the routine discomfort of hard running and this familiarity helps give us confidence to carry on when things become tough. Training can also teach us about the types of aches and pains which are symptomatic of problems that should not be ignored. Hard training is not just about the length and intensity of the running, but also experiencing adverse conditions. Running in the Dark, heat, cold, or rain, all help bring about greater fortitude.
  • Motivation. It's important to understand why you're undergoing this hardship. Continuing will always be a balance between Motivation and suffering; when the suffering becomes greater than the Motivation you'll quit.
    • Specific goal. Having some concrete specific goal can provide a lot of Motivation. Getting into a race or a training run only to realize you're not quite sure why you're there will undermine any vague Motivation.
    • Fallback goals. You should have a goal as part of your Motivation, but it can be important to have fallback goals. Without these fallback goals it becomes impossible to continue with your primary goal becomes unobtainable.
    • Visualize the glory. Thinking about how you will celebrate your success can be a strong motivator. This might be thinking about what you will tell your friends and family, it might be composing an entry for your training report, or it might be as simple as rewarding yourself with hot chocolate after you finished.
    • Positive Motivation is best. Some Motivation is negative in nature, such as the fear of failure. While negative Motivation can be potent, it can also be brittle. A more positive Motivation, based around desire for success is more resilient.
  • Positive mental attitude. As with so many things in life, a positive mental attitude helps in running. Focusing on what's going well, rather than what's going badly, can sustain us. Being positive to those around us can help support them and reinforces our own positive mental state. Many times I have found that focusing on encouraging other runners and telling them how well they're doing has helped me stay positive. I believe that encouraging others is an important part of contributing to the sport. Some of the most deeply satisfying memories I have of racing are from when I've been able to help another runner through a tough spot.
    • Predator mindset. There are some situations where it is easy to fall into a victim mindset, and be overwhelmed by fear. This is common at sunset on hundred mile races, where runners are tired, cold, and far from home. It's easy to become disturbed, and start jumping at shadows and strange noises. I've learned that it is possible to change your mindset and picture yourself as predator rather than prey. Believing that you are the biggest, baddest thing out in the woods that night helps provide the confidence to carry on. (Many thanks for Doom for teaching me this essential lesson.)
  • Fixing problems. While it's often the case that all you can do is suck it up and keep going, there are many times when there are things you can do to improve your situation. Yet again experience helps here; for instance, knowing how your body and mind react to low blood sugar can tell you that a gel can help fix depression or weakness. When things go badly, it's easy to fall into a 'tortoise mentality', where you try to ignore the suffering and keep moving. This level of disassociation prevents you from fixing problems until they become catastrophic.
  • Dissociation. It's quite common for runners to "let their minds wander", which is a form of dissociation. Dissociation is where your thoughts and focus are separate from your current reality. This approach can be actively used, such as picturing yourself somewhere else. I have used the image of lying on a beach, taking time to imagine each aspect of this fantasy. Visualizing the color and texture of the sand, the sound of the waves, the feel of the sun on my skin, the relaxation of my body, all helps to build a detailed image in my mind. This technique can provide a remarkable level of isolation from reality. It's even possible for one runner to talk another through the visualization steps. However, dissociation is not without its downsides. Being disconnected from reality can allow us to ignore important symptoms and causes us to neglect our body's needs. Dissociation is also generally incompatible with a high level of performance. The optimal solution is a balance between association and dissociation; a state I call Stillness in Motion.
  • Focus on the short-term. One important technique for withstanding suffering is to focus on short-term goals. Don't think about finishing the whole race or training run; just focus on getting to the next landmark. Sometimes this focus will be on the next mile marker, or the next aid station, but occasionally it can be the next tree. I often find the half-way point of any race to be the toughest; I'm often hurting and knowing that I have to do the same distance again can be quite crushing. At that stage I have to focus on a much shorter term goal until I'm nearer the end. Promising yourself some simple reward at a given point can help. This might be a gel or a drink, or on a longer ultra it might be a change of clothes.
  • A trouble shared is a trouble halved. Companionship while you're running can provide a lot of support. Humans are hyper social creatures, and our need for companionship is especially strong in times of suffering. I've seen this most clearly in 100 mile races, when people form groups during the tough night time hours. I've had races were I don't think I'd have been able to keep going through the night had it not been for the kindness of strangers and their compassionate words. However, be aware of the mental attitude of your companions and avoid those who drag you down. You want mates that are positive and uplifting, full of mental strength and perseverance.
  • Count down, not up. In the latter stages of a race or hard training run it can be much easier to count down rather than count up. For instance, at mile 22 of the marathon, it's better to think about "4 miles to go" than it is to focus on the 22 miles that have been completed. A variation of this is to visualize yourself on a familiar course with the same distance to go. So if I'm at mile 22 of a marathon I will picture myself 4 miles from home on my usual running route. I found that this familiarity brings a surprising level of comfort.
  • Thoughts of loved ones. There is some evidence that viewing pictures of those we love can reduce the perceived level of pain. It does not seem unreasonable therefore, that thinking about the people we love most can help us withstand other forms of suffering.
  • Stay relaxed. It's important to stay relaxed and fluid while running, and avoid letting the pain cause you to tense up. Don't rail against the anguish, but accept it, let it flow through you and out of you.
  • Pray for strength and solace. Faith and belief in God can provide Motivation, strength and comfort. Prayer can also provide a form of dissociation, as well as providing spiritual inspiration.
  • Know when to quit. Sometimes we need to mental fortitude to keep going when we have the overwhelming desire to quit. But there are also times when we need the mental fortitude to quit when we don't want to. If continuing is likely to result in long-term damage it may be better to accept defeat so that we can fight on another day. Yet again, experience helps in determining when a problem is one that should be overcome or not. I've undergone agony while running, but known but it's something that I'll bounce back from in a short time. I've also felt minor twinges which caused me to stop running because I knew they were symptomatic of a more significant problem and one that would quickly become ruinous.
  • Mantras. A mantra is a sound word or phrase that is repeated to bring about "spiritual transformation". A mantra can help focus the mind on something positive and provide some level of dissociation. Common mantras while running are things like "I can do it" to stay positive, "slow and smooth" to stay relaxed, or "pass no one" to stay slow at the beginning of the race.
  • Rest. Fatigue and exhaustion undermine fortitude, leaving us as mentally weak as it does physically. Therefore, rest and recuperation are an important part of building mental fortitude. There can be value in training hard when fatigued, as this increases the difficulty. However, this should only be done periodically, and with periods of complete restoration. Lack of respite from stress leads to burnout, Overtraining, Overtraining Syndrome, and clinical depression.
  • Know yourself. Hardship is an opportunity to learn who you are and can be a self-revelation. Running can provide solitude and time for introspection, allowing us to meet ourselves. This self-knowledge is a valuable part of mental fortitude.
  • Suck it up, cupcake. Accept that sometimes you just have to suck it up. "When you're going through hell, keep going." Winston Churchill.