When The Going Gets Tough

"One foot in front of the other...one foot in front of the other...one foot in front of the other..."

I experienced these thoughts just yesterday. I was in the final 1 km of my 5 km (3.11 mile) run. Lungs burning, legs heavy, trying to keep control of my breathing...I kept thinking how easy it would be to slow down the pace. How good it would feel to stop running. I kept fighting off the nagging feeling that no one would know if I stopped running. I momentarily let those thoughts win over and tried to stop running. I allowed my shoes to start skidding the pavement, I let my pace slow and permitted my lungs a moment's reprieve. 

That's when it hits me.

This shows my run - time and average pace.

This shows my run - time and average pace.

I pictured myself stopping. I pictured myself undoing all of my hard work. I pictured myself disappointed at having given up. It's in that exact moment that a switch goes off inside of me. I'm not quite sure how I would describe it...Anger? Competitiveness? Awakening? Whatever it is, it feels like fire. It always shows itself just when I need it to. Just when I'm about to quit. Right then, my legs quicken their pace, my lungs speed up their breath and my mind becomes hardened and focused. I no longer hear the weak parts of myself nagging at me to stop. I will not stop. I'll push myself faster and faster. I'll push harder off the pavement. I'll allow my breathing to lose control. I'll force my legs to move. I will make it to the end. When I finally hear my run tracker say "Congratulations on completing..." I lose myself in emotion. Is it pride? Endorphins? Elation? I probably look like a fool standing in the middle of the street grinning ear to ear with sweat dripping off my face. 

This shows my pace for each mile.

This shows my pace for each mile.

Even with having come to an almost halt I ended up increasing my pace for the last mile. I shaved 13 seconds off and ran at an average pace of 8.46 min/mile (a new 5K record for me!)

On my walk home, I'm excited at the prospect of doing it all over again. I look forward to battling through the struggle again. I've come to realize that I often tap into this 'fire' during any number of my crazy endeavors (fitness comps, obstacle course races, nutcase workouts...) I know that some read this and think I'm crazy. I also know that others read this and it reminds them of their last run. They read this and they can picture themselves doing exactly as I've described. They remember the moment the switch went off inside of them.

Put aside any athletic ability (I'm hardly a gifted track athlete - my average pace is evidence of this) - what makes some of us grit our teeth and push through hard workouts? What makes others shy away from struggle? I'm currently reading 'The Sports Gene' by David Epstein which explores the nature vs. nurture relationship of an athlete. Although, I agree that there are some things that you can't change about your nature (genes) I believe that nurture (environment) helps some parts of you flourish and makes other parts squander away. 

Here are a few tips for mental toughness (whether you have the gene or not):

  1. Visualization - Imagine yourself completing the task in advance. Imagine yourself pushing through moments that are hard. I have done this prior to a heavy lift and also during a run (I have yet to smarten up and try doing it PRIOR to a run). Do this everyday if this is a lifestyle change or in moments that it counts if this is a performance change.
  2. Focus on the goal - Focus on what you've set out to do. This helps you reignite the craving to accomplish your goal. You'd be surprised by how much you're capable of doing when you stop focusing on what your mind is telling you. Your body is stronger!
  3. Remind yourself of 'why' - WHY are you doing this? WHY is this a goal for you? Know the answers. Be honest. Do this prior to starting a workout/competition/race that way when you're hitting a mental low you won't be able to talk yourself out of your 'why'. 
  4. Have a mantra - This may seem silly, but using a mantra that means something to you will do wonders when you're needing strength. You need to practice using your mantra during practice/workouts that way your mantra becomes linked with success. During hard times you'll be able to draw on the previous workouts where your mantra helped you push through. Need help finding a mantra? Read The Magic of Mantras and Finding  Your Personal Fitness Mantra.

The next step? Practice, practice, practice. It won't happen overnight. You won't even realize that it's happening until one day you'll feel the fire and you won't give up. 

Thank you for reading!

Feel free to leave any feedback. 

Want to read about some kick ass athletes who prove they are mentally tough?  'It's All in Their heads: The Mental Edge of Athletes Who Win'.