It's all in your head: Mental Toughness and Body Awareness

It's all in your Head

We've all heard the expression distance running is 90% mental. So what exactly does that mean?  it means that running your beast race comes down to mental toughness and body awareness.

Well I am going to try and unpack that as best I can and explain how I relate to this. I will warn you up front that you may find what I have to say a bit out in left field but sometimes if you have an open mind that's where you find the best ideas.

So anyone who runs knows that there is always a point in a race where things are getting tough and you are presented with a choice. It doesn't matter the distance, believe me I have run the full spectrum 5k-100k and this point always shows up. For the shorter distance races it shows up fast and furious, lung searing, leg burning pain. In Ultra distances it can take a while, and sometimes it sneaks up on you but eventually you end up in a deep dark cave of despair, you 15hrs in and somehow you have 15hrs more to go?? You climb out of that dark cave, up a mountain, only to end back in it again, and again and again.

THE CHOICE: Do I give in, slow down and let up, Do I drop? There is no way I am going to finish. I have un bearable pain in my quads, I can't run downhill hill anymore.... should I keep going? If you haven't read my 2016 re-cap post  you should check it out. I have to face these choices all the time. So I will take any help I can get.

That's me.... soaked head-to-toe in sweat on a 35 degree day during the Brookvale Ultra. Just keep moving forward.... one step at a time. Literally.....


How do you prepare to make the best choice on race day, or in training? I believe that It all comes down to mental toughness and body awareness. Let me give you a hint... It's all in your head!

Mental Toughness

So what is mental toughness? Simply put if you have a goal, and it is really important to you achieve it. Just how far are you willing to go to get there? Its your ability to keep moving towards your goal even when it looks like there is no way you can reach it. Everything is trying to stop you, the world conspiring against you, everything is going wrong. Your body is TELLING you not to continue (I'll get into this later in more depth when I talk about body awareness). But YOU are strong enough, you are mentally tough enough to overcome this.

How do we become mentally tough? That sounds hard right? Well thats a yes and no answer.


Here is the yes answer. If you want to be mentally tough then you need to suffer. Its a simple answer and it makes sense. The more you suffer and the more you overcome you increase your suffering threshold and you become tougher.

What do I mean by this? The more times that you can tough it out the tougher you will get. For example, its -20 degrees C outside, the wind is howling and its 5 am. You have choices, you can go back to bed, you can go do the workout indoors on a track or treadmill OR you can suffer through it outside.

I am not saying that you need to or its good to choose the hardest option all the time (although I seem to just gravitate to the hardest path more often than not). But, think of it as an investment. The more times you accumulate when you overcome a situation when you were sure you were going to have to quite, the more experience you have to draw on in your race when every ounce of your body is telling you that you hurt to much, it's time to let up, it's time to quit. You can say It's ok body, I've  been in worse situations than this and we have survived, YOU ARE GOING TO BE OK let's keep going. Yes I do talk to me self... a lot. Is that weird? I'll leave that up to you.

So Rick... you're saying that I need to SUFFER in order to get tough??

Re-train your brain

NO. You don't have to just suffer all of the time to get mentally tough. You do need to do it. But how do you get to the point of convincing yourself to take the hard way?

Ever notice that sometimes you can have the best plans to change a behaviour but when it comes time to execute you just fall right back into old habits?

Heres an example... I want to be a morning person, I want to wake up earlier and run before work. But when it comes time to get up in the morning you just can't seem to break the habit of rolling over and going back to sleep. It's a thought pattern. Just like when you are doubting yourself at the 30k mark of the marathon and you brain is telling you that you no longer care about your PR anymore, it's ok to walk. It's all just that... they are thoughts.

So what if there was a way that you could re-train your brain to have different thoughts? Well that one I don't know it exists, if you can find it let me know!! Ok then so what if there was a way that you could train your brain to process these thoughts, acknowledge them, but be able to mover forward and change your behaviour? This you can do. Its not not a sexy quick fix but if you work at it you can re-train your brain. How?


Meditation. Yup, this is where we take the first trip out in left field. Yes meditation can make you a better runner, and a better person really.

But Rick, I don't have time to do this meditation stuff, I am way too busy. What if I told you that with 10 min a day you can have profound results. You can learn to acknowledge thoughts, refocus and move forward with the task at hand. Trust me.... Its a game changer. That is how you train mental toughness without the suffering. IT"S PUSHUPS FOR YOUR BRAIN!

Don't know where to start? Check out headspace. Its a great app to get you started and one that I use frequently. The website also has all kinds of great information about the other great benefits of meditation.

For the record, I am not a perfect meditator. I don't do it everyday. I understand it's value, and what it can do to improve my running and my life, and I am actively trying to incorporate as much as I can. The key is not to beat yourself up if you miss a day. Consistency is key, but once a week is better than no times a week and you will start to gain momentum. Give it a try!


Body Awareness or understanding what your body is trying to tell you. This takes practice, but time you invest in doing this pays off big.

This is not hard, I am a person, I have a body and a brain I know what my body is telling me. WRONG! Did you know that most people are so out of touch with their bodies that they don't even know when they are thirsty? If you don't even know when you are something as simple as thirsty how are you ever going to know when your body is trying to tell you that you are approaching overtraining and you need a rest day, or a recovery week?

This is our next stop in left field. But it starts in a familiar place. Meditation. Doing this inner work puts you more in touch with what your body is trying to tell you. Taking the time to quiet your mind and take 10 min to do a thorough inventory of how you are actually feeling can be pretty enlightening.

Going Deeper

What if I told you there was a way to go even deeper into your sub-conscious and actually influence your autonomic responses. Crazy Right? The mother ship has landed, and we are no longer in left field, we have now left the ball park.

There is a man named Wim Hof who has mastered this. He has climbed up to 20,000 ft on Mt. Everest wearing nothing but shorts. Luckily for us he has devoted his life to teaching others how to have better control over the nervous system. You should google this guy and read up on him. What he has done defies logic. Also check out his website for more information .

I have been doing the Wim Hof method training now for 5 weeks. When I started I could hold my breath for 30-45 secs. Now I can hold my breath for over 3 min and 30secs. I can also do 80 push-ups without taking a breath. Before starting the training I maxed out at 35 pushups with normal breathing.... crazy. I can also stand in a ice cold shower for 10 min and not get cold or even shiver. I am becoming more in touch with my body and what it can do when I put my mind to it.

There are many other benefits to breath retention exercises and cold exposure that relate directly to performance enhancement for running.... but this post is already getting pretty long so I am going to save that for another day. I hope I peaked your interest enough to visit the Wim Hof website (link above) and do a bit of research on your own, because really thats what's its all about.

Taking this journey and having a greater understanding of your body you can begin to understand what it is telling you. What pains are ok to run through, or when you need to stop to avoid doing real damage. When you can keep pushing in training or when you need a recovery week. Sometimes you learn the hard way, but if you learn how to pay attention it doesn't always have to be the hard way. Sometimes you can catch things before they become big problems, and sometimes you can push beyond your perceived limitations with faith that you understand your body.

Take your training beyond the workout

After all of that if you are still reading this.... THANK YOU!

I challenge you to step outside your comfort zone and try something new. Try implementing one small thing this week outside of your normal workout routine to up your game. Weather it's 10 min of meditation per day, trying a yoga class. Or you could be crazy like me and try holding your breath for 3.5 mins and take ice showers.

The point to all of that is that in order to really take your training or your life for that matter to the next level, don't forget that IT's ALL IN YOUR HEAD! So take care of your brain and invest in some mental training!