Top Ten Ways to Become a Tougher Runner

By Rick Morris

A publication that holds a secure spot on my all time favorite training books list is “Mental Toughness Training for Sports” by James E. Loehr. Dr. Loehr was one of the first to recognize the importance of both physical and mental toughness in sports performance. There is no sport that requires more of that psychological staying power and physical ruggedness than distance running. No other sport or activity places more demands on your physical strength and mental will power. Would you like to become a tougher runner? Here are our top ten ways to become a tougher runner.

No Retreat, No Surrender

Many runners have mantra’s that they repeat over and over when they need to focus on a specific phase of their running. This is one, which I borrowed from a song by Bruce Springsteen, that I use when things become difficult. Whenever fatigue begins to take a stranglehold on my physical and mental will power I begin to repeat the mantra “no retreat, no surrender” over and over again.

To become a tougher runner you need to develop the ability to keep going no matter how tough things become. You can practice this skill during both training runs and races. When your muscles are burning in the final miles of a 10K, don’t allow yourself to stop or slow down. When you develop those leaden legs during the final 5 miles of a marathon it’s time to get tough and keep going.

Don’t let anything keep you from reaching your goal. Of course there are exceptions to every rule. If you begin to suffer from a dangerous or potentially dangerous medical condition or injury you need to stop, but if you are fighting the physical and mental effects of running fatigue, get tough and keep going. You’ll become a tougher runner and a tougher person.

Train Tough

Training for any sport is relatively easy in theory. You simply practice the same movements, motions and levels of activity that you perform in your sport. As a runner you want to practice the specific phases of your goal race. That means a training program composed of a mixture of long endurance runs, stamina building tempo runs, lactate turn point training, speed enhancing VO2 max interval sessions, event specific goal pace running and strength building hill training.

There is one more phase that is often left out – toughness training. How do you train to be tough. Again, it’s simple in theory but difficult to carry out. To train for toughness you need to take your body to high levels of fatigue and then keep going, just like you do in a race. Some good ways to improve your toughness in training is to do a lot of compound or super sets, fast finish workouts and progressive workouts. Those type of workouts force you to run hard when you are already fatigued. They toughen both your mind and your body.

Become an Action Movie Director

Did you even have the desire to get into movies? Well – maybe you can. It won’t be a public movie, it will be one just for you. A good technique that will help you become a tougher runner is visualization. Visualization is much like directing a movie in your head. You are the star, director and producer of your own running movie. Play a movie  in your head in which you are smoothly gliding along the ground with quick, light and efficient strides. Imagine yourself successfully carrying out your running plan and meeting your running goal. Imagine a tougher runner in your inner movie and your body will do its best to meet the standard you have set in your head. You will become the tough runner you have visualized.

Take Baby Steps

Sometimes becoming a tougher runner means taking a step back. When you are running a long race such as a marathon, the task ahead can be somewhat intimidating. It may seem that being a tougher runner means sucking it up at that point and fighting that feeling of fear. A more effective toughness technique is many times being tough enough not to fight. Instead, quit thinking about the entire distance and break your race down into smaller segments. If you’re running a marathon, only think about the next 5K. You will always have the toughness to run another 5K. You can break shorter races down into mile segments. This one small concession to intimidation will make you tougher in the long haul.

Run for a Reason

It’s hard to be tough when you don’t know what you’re fighting for. Weakness will often win out over strength if you don’t have a reason to battle through the tough times. Always have a reason to run and make sure that reason is mostly an internal one. An internal reason is one that you are doing for yourself and not someone else. Running to set a new PR, to compete for top positions, change your lifestyle or just for the pure joy of running are all mostly internal reasons. Examples of mostly external reasons for running include to impress someone else, because someone is forcing you to or because of job requirements. You will run much tougher when you are running for a reason and running for yourself.

Fool Your Manager

You may think you are in total control of your running. There is actually a hidden part of you that sometimes takes control of your running – your central nervous system (CNS). Actions taken by your CNS are partially to blame for your running fatigue. When you run at or faster than your lactate turn point in a short race or when you become glycogen depleted in a longer race your body loses a homeostasis that it likes to maintain. At that point your CNS may begin interrupt signals to your muscles to force you to slow down. Your CNS may also be involved in your pacing.

There is some evidence that your CNS may subconsciously calculate how much energy will be required to get you to the finish line of your race and attempt to set your running pace accordingly. The good news is that you can sometimes fool your CNS. One way is to focus on your stride, your competitors and the environment around you rather than how many miles are left in your race. This can override the “pace setting” tendency of your CNS. Another way to fool your CNS is by training at harder intensities than will be required by your race. Your CNS will learn the hard workouts and your race pace will feel easier. You will become a tougher runner.

Know Thyself

Part of being a tougher runner is knowing and acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses. We would all like to be a perfect runner with no weaknesses, but none of us are. We all have our Achilles heels. If you are weak on the hills, a slow starter or have a weak finishing kick be sure you know and accept that. During training pay special attention to those areas and work to become stronger. During a race know and plan for your weaknesses. If you know you have a weak finishing kick, work hard going into the final mile and then focus on maintain toughness to the finish. Are you weak on the hills? As you approach a hill you need to focus intently on being tough on the incline. Use your visualization skills and imagine yourself gliding smoothly and powerfully up the hill. After you have crested the hill congratulate yourself on staying tough.

Focus, Focus, Focus

Maybe I am an old school runner, but it makes me just a bit nuts when I see so many runners today listening to their portable music players when they are competing in a race. It’s true that the music provides a distraction but it also takes away from your toughness. To become a tougher runner you really need to focus on your stride, your pace, your competitors and the environment. Even a small distraction will affect how you react to both internal and external events during your race or training run. I strongly believe that to become a tougher runner you need to focus on your running, not on the latest top ten charts.

Make Every Day Thanksgiving

There are several phases of toughness. There is physical toughness and mental toughness. There is also emotional toughness. I don’t think there are any of us that don’t feel sorry for ourselves from time to time. Speaking for myself there are many times during races or hard training runs that I begin to give into the stress of fatigue and pain. I begin to feel sorry for myself because of the pain I am feeling. At times like that we need to realize how lucky and blessed we are that we have a strong body that allows us to enjoy the great sport of running. There are many less fortunate individuals out there that are unable to run for various medical, political or social reasons. There are even more that have some sort of physical handicap but still fight through their pain and difficulties to meet their running goal. So make every day Thanksgiving and be grateful for your ability to run.

Get in the Zone

There has been a lot of attention given to “the zone” in recent years. The zone is basically a state in which everything comes together at the same time. A runner will often refer to the zone as a “runners high“. You are never going to be a tougher runner that when you are in the zone. The emotional, psychological and physical aspects of your running are all operating at peak efficiency and your running feels almost effortless. Sounds great, but how do you reach the zone? If you put together the above nine tips at the same time you have a great chance of getting into your zone. You need to be completely focused on your running. You must be emotionally strong with a clear cut and achievable goal. You must know and work within your strengths and weaknesses. Your body must be strong and you must have developed an almost “automatic” running stride through your training program.