3 Mental Toughness Techniques for Endurance Athletes

April 11, 2012

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Whether you're trying to set a marathon personal record or just want to make it through a 10-mile march without passing out, you can benefit from mental training just as much as physical training. For me, mental training was the biggest help in finally breaking the 2:20 marathon barrier. Prior to running a 2:19, I was a 2:40 marathoner. How was I able to lower my time by more than 20 minutes?


The only way to train your mind for the monotony of an endurance event is through long training runs. Although a 15-mile weekly run certainly prepares your body for a marathon, its most important function might be building mental endurance.

Running a successful marathon requires more than patience, however. To thrive in an endurance event, you need the determination to stick with your training even when results aren't coming. I remember keeping up with and outrunning Kenyans during training as part of the Army World Class Athlete program—without seeing immediate results in my marathon times. It was difficult to put in hours of hard work without seeing any real fruit from my labor; but through this experience, I learned to develop patience, trust my training and wait for the results to come.


Former Marine Corps officer Billy Mills became the only American ever to win gold in the 10,000m race at the Olympics. He did it at the 1964 Games. After he won, he spoke about visualizing winning the medal dozens of times a day during his training. The old saying, "Whatever the mind can see and believe, it can achieve," is true. The subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between reality and visualization.

One of the best ways to handle the ebbs and flows of an endurance event like a marathon is visualization. Whether you're training or racing, it's important to constantly be picturing yourself succeeding. Visualize the finish line. Imagine the moment you beat your personal record. If you constantly practice visualizing yourself as a successful athlete, you will become one.


Endurance events allow plenty of time for negative thoughts to creep in. Prepare your mind for such thoughts by pushing your body to its limit during training. While preparing for the 2011 Monumental Indianapolis Marathon, I put in a lot of time practicing relaxation at near maximum running levels. This mental training paid off during the last few miles, when my body was ready to quit.

If you've already pushed yourself past the quitting point during preparation, you'll be able to relax and rely on your training when the time comes to perform. With cheering fans, drink stations and optimal road conditions, a marathon is designed to help you run your fastest times. Every time you feel doubt rising up, draw on your training, remember that you've done this without support many times before—and relax.

Learning how to discipline your mind to stay positive and focused through long miles is the secret to getting the most out of your endurance training. More than anything else, a positive mental approach to long, boring runs will lead you to the promised land in endurance events: the finish line.

Photo:  U.S. Army

First Lieutenant Nate Pennington is a 10-year active duty Medical Service Corps Officer in the U.S. Army. From 2007 to 2010, he was a member of the Army's World Class Athlete Program, where he trained with some of the world's top Olympic athletes. His marathon personal record is 2:19. Follow him at rundreamachieve.com.

Nate Pennington
- First Lieutenant Nate Pennington is a 10-year active duty Medical Service Corps Officer in the U.S. Army. From 2007 to 2010, he was a member...
Nate Pennington
- First Lieutenant Nate Pennington is a 10-year active duty Medical Service Corps Officer in the U.S. Army. From 2007 to 2010, he was a member...
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