Mental Toughness: Putting our attention on where we focus

Mental Toughness: Putting our attention on where we focus

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It’s no doubt that being “mentally tough” is something that can improve your performance, but the way I hear runners discuss, it feels like it is something that you either have or you don’t. Personally, I found it a fluid ingredient to my personal performance. I was mentally tough in my outstanding performances, but was mentally weak in most of my bad performances. What does being mentally tough really entail? Is it a trait or is it learned? Those two things are what I want to explore today.

What I have learned is that being mentally tough may not necessarily be about the amount of discomfort you can force yourself to endure, but maybe more about where you direct your focus. I have talked about this in race strategy discussions before- that early on, I don’t want to focus on too much because the more dialed in I had to be early on, the longer I had to maintain that high level of focus. For me, that wasn’t sustainable and I would often fade. Now, while I think my idea was solid in theory, my wording might have been off. I’ll explain more, later. The point is, that I was never any more, or less, mentally tough in good races than bad, but my focus was probably not set on the right cues. The idea is Limited Channel Capacity, or the ability to hold a limited amount of information at one time. Try to hold on to too much, or the wrong things, then there’s no room for what is relevant to the task and we lose performance.

When we look at those we consider mentally tough, they tend to show the following qualities. One, they have the ability to focus on their own performance, despite any outside personal issues. Look at some of the all time greats in sports and how messed up their personal lives were. They possessed the ability to flip that switch and not think about those things while in their sporting activity. Now, in your own case, that might simply mean leaving what happened at the office, well, at the office instead of bringing it to the track workout. If it’s taking up space in your head during the workout, we tend to miss the physical and internal cues of how the workout is going and it can often be a sup par event.

Maintain Focus

Secondly, they have the ability to maintain focus on their own performance after both success and failure. I have seen so many times that people overestimate their potential after one good race. I have also seen as many people completely disregard their ability after one performance.

At the end of the day, it’s a step, or a learning opportunity towards the ultimate goal.

Moving Forward

Third, the ability to recover from the unexpected, uncontrollable, and unusual events. This is good for right now. As we read of new race cancellations every day, I see both sides of the spectrum. I see people pull back and assess and then I see people who seem to be in complete despair while going right to the worst case scenario. How we decide to handle adverse situations says a lot about our mental toughness.

Ignore the noise

Fourth, they have the ability to ignore typical distractions in the performance environment. So, this might mean blocking out the dude who’s breathing like a locomotive engine instead of getting annoyed by it and letting it take up real estate in your head.

Focus on YOU

Fifth, they have the ability to focus on their own performance instead of being concerned with opponents performance.  This is a big one, and I see so often with people who train in groups. I also figuratively lived and died by this with my own teammates.

The common theme here is making sure you are focusing or concentrating on the relevant things to your performance. With that, there are four practical aspects  of concentration. The first is selective attention. During a run a relevant cue to focus on would be your stride, effort, and breathing. Something irrelevant is thinking about where you are going to eat afterwards or the houses along the course. Second, being able to focus during the event or workout. Here it might be having a rough workout and instead of just moving on, allowing it to set the trend of progressively bad workouts and then missing the goal. Third, what is called situational awareness, or taking the cues in your environment and making decisions based on that. In a race, this might be turning the corner and right into a headwind.

How do you handle this?

Fourth, the ability to shift your focus on the demands. You have different types of attentional focus like broad/narrow, external/internal, and even a combination of broad external or narrow internal. If you are running a marathon, then what you focus on at the start of the race should be shifting as the race goes on. Now, the list of things may not change but the priority of these things may change.

For runners, the last area of attentional focus may be better described as associative and dissociative properties. Association is monitoring bodily functions and feelings. Dissociation is dissociating from pain and boredom, usually via music, that is usually prevalent during long distance racing or even beginners running their first 5k (it’s all relevant). The interesting thing is that dissociation is pretty common for those who are more beginners and recreational because it can make the event more pleasant and can actually decrease fatigue and monotony. On the other hand, faster runners tend to associate with themselves so that they can monitor where they are at. The association to the discomfort allows them to push harder despite the discomfort because they already know it’s coming and they’ve already dealt with it in the past.

The above paragraph is what I was referring to when I discussed ‘zoning out’ until it was time to buckle down. Like I said, my wording was probably off, but I believe in my idea. Over my competitive career, I have found that you can’t be in that associative mindset all the time. It’s just not sustainable without burnout. For example, if I approached the easy day the day following a tough workout, then it would only be a matter of time before I was hurt. When I say intensity, I am not talking about running intensity, but mental intensity. I can’t be like “YES! A 10 mile run! GET SOME!” However, we have to get in that mindset for a 10 mile tempo. The same is true for the marathon itself. Early on, we may be in more of a dissociative mindset, just generally taking information. However, as the race goes on, we narrow our focus to more associative measures and disregard more outside information. To be that narrow focused for 2-5 hours can be mentally draining, especially when you take dropping blood sugar into account!

Don’t get distracted!

The last area I wanted to talk about was some of the issues we have with attention because we get distracted easily, especially when tired. There’s really two area of distractions- internal distractions. In this case we tend to think about past events or future events. I think we all relate to these. Past events would maybe go back to a time where you were in the same position (say the 20 mile mark of a marathon) and things went rough in a hurry. Even though you might be a different runner than you were then, by going back to that place we take away from focusing on the right now. The second is thinking about future events. These are “what if” type statements. For example, “what if I get 25 miles and I completely run out of gas?” “What if my side starts hurting?” “What if I cramp?” These all project the future and take away from the right now and the focus that is currently required for the task at hand.

The flipside is external distractions, in the form of visual and audio. A great example of both the visual and audio is Wellesley College at about the 12 mile mark of Boston. It’s in a spot where you grow from being pretty quiet to just a solid roar of screaming women with all kinds of crazy signs that are not fit for family discussion. The first time I ran Boston, I was blown away. I wasn’t expecting it and it just completely got my adrenaline going.

You instantly go from focusing on yourself in relative quiet to a roughly half mile noise tunnel and kaleidoscope.

It makes you do things you may normally not do- like high five and fist pump. While a great pick me up, it shifts your focus away from things that may not really benefit you a few miles up, when you hit the Newton Hills.

What can you do to improve your concentration?

The biggest way is self talk. I don’t recall where I saw it, but I recall seeing a stat that was to the effect of ⅔ of our internal talk was negative self talk. Yikes! We all have done it. We’ve all been critical of a decision made on the fly. Unfortunately, that doesn’t do anything to improve our performance. On the other hand, Instructional self talk and motivational self talk can improve our performance. The basis of these are self explanatory as motivational focuses on motivation for increasing effort and energy. Instruction focuses on technical aspects of the skill (running). Now, instructional self talk seemed to be better at increasing performance while motivational self talk seemed to work better for exercise adherence. So, while the data wasn’t really looking at experience, I immediately wonder if more novice runners go to motivational places where more experienced go with instructional? Considering the trends in association and dissociation, it wouldn’t be a far leap.

The 6 rules for self talk:

  1. Keep it short and sweet (mantra)
  2. Use the first person and present tense
  3. Construct positive phrases
  4. Say your phrases with meaning and attention
  5. Speak kindly to yourself
  6. Repeat phrases often

The second is routine.

We all have morning routines, right? We try to get our kids into a routine. Why? Because it becomes a habit. It becomes automatic. My theory is this- that if we create something habit, we don’t have to overthink it. It’s on our list of cues, but it’s not overemphasized. In other words, what’s in our routine is not overwhelming our Limited Capacity. I feel like one good example is our nutrition and hydration routine for your race. To those who practice their routine regularly during long runs and workouts, they don’t stress about it as much during the race itself. They know how their stomach is going to react. They aren’t concerned with how they are going to store the gels. It’s already been worked out and isn’t requiring extra attention.  On the other hand, I had athletes who talked about what they wanted to do, but never practiced regularly. On race day they were so laser focused on this, that they let that take up too much real estate in their head and didn’t take in any other cues (or they did and got overwhelmed). Even worse, since they didn’t have a routine, as soon as it got difficult, they abandoned the plan and ended up paying the price by bonking. What other routines can you think of that would carry over nicely to performance?

The last one is self monitoring.

It has been shown to improve concentration and performance. Two major areas come to mind for me and that’s food tracking and training logs. The biggest reasons to track are to see patterns, consistency, and to compare to similar days. This is true for either food tracking and training log. The key though is the detail that you are putting into it. For instance, Final Surge syncs to Garmin Connect (and others) to pull data from your watch and populates the appropriate fields. Oftentimes that’s it. The runner offers nothing else, even though there’s only raw data. Why? Well, to them that’s all that’s important.

They are only concerned with the mileage,, pace and that the day was done. If I am a coach, all I see is raw data and that doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.

When I ask an athlete they have to go back and try to sort through that one run 10 days ago with the time between being filled with other runs, work, life, and Netflix Tiger shows. The details get fuzzy. Not only does that hurt a coach’s ability to help, but it also hurts you because we don’t really have anything to compare to later on. If we did the same workout a month later, how do we know if it really went better or worse? The raw data only gives us part of the story. A perfect example would be doing a workout on February 1st here in Michigan and then turning around and doing the same workout on March 1st. On February 1st, you may be in full snowmobile suit with snowshoes on. On March first you could be in shorts and a long sleeve. See where having those details written down may help?

Details help.

They put the story to the headline. I also think that just making it a priority to log in detail cements its importance to you. It’s like wanting to become more organized so you start with simply making your bed every day. One small habit of priority leads to another and another and over time you have completely transformed your mindset, attitude, and physical surroundings.

That final piece really sums it up.

None of these things are massive undertakings. They are small items that often get overlooked, but lay a foundation to changing how we live and how we see ourselves. The fact that they may help us run better is a pretty attractive fringe benefit. The key to all of this is starting small, recognize that it’s going to take time, and you are going to probably catch yourself lapsing. Don’t give up on it. Just right the ship when you see it drifting and stay the course. Over time, I think you’ll notice big changes in a lot of aspects.


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