There’s a voice that often pops inside my head every time I’m out on a run. It says, “Why aren’t you tough enough?” If I successfully avoid these negative whispers, it’s because I summited a butte without pausing to catch my breath, or conquered a trail at full force. Those days are few and far between, but when they do happen I feel like I can do anything. Like I am tough. Unfortunately, that voice of doubt always seems to return.
Building mental toughness in athletes requires training the body and mind to play your best, which is what James Loeher, Ed.D. wrote about in his book, Mental Toughness Training for Sports, published back in 1986. His training included seven stages of toughness that he says can be developed over time: self confidence, attention control, minimizing negative energy, increasing positive energy, maintaining motivation levels, attitude control, and visual and imagery control.
If I would have heard this as a naïve 19-year-old hiking down the trail with an 8-foot crosscut saw draped over my shoulder and a full pack on my back, I would have laughed. And later that season when I saw two women, one holding each end of a crosscut saw as they carefully tip-toed on the single track in front of them – I knew I was tougher, which is probably how I survived the physical labor of a strenuous summer job. I had self confidence. The other six stages that Loeher wrote about probably played a large part in my ability to succeed day after day, but at the time all I could think about was putting one foot in front of the other.
When it comes to ultrarunning, the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other is a piece of advice that’s been doled out time and time again. Because that’s the only way to get to the finish line. Self-confidence will pull you back on your feet after collapsing in a chair at an aid station, and minimizing negative energy will keep you from quitting during a low point. Attention control can help bring awareness to how you’re feeling from mile to mile, while increasing positive energy because you’re moving forward. Keeping yourself motivated by looking ahead to each aid station boosts morale (or attitude), and visualizing yourself crossing the finish line is why you’re there. One foot in front of the other.
During one of my first hikes on trail crew, another crew member made a comment about the elevation gain on a particular trail. After a period of climbing, we reached the top and I thought about how it wasn’t as terrible as I had expected. Ever since, I’ve made a point to remember that every mountain, butte, hill or bump in the road has a summit and once you’ve reached it, it’s never as bad as it seems. Which is why, every time I hear that negative voice in my head telling me I’m not tough enough, I remember how amazing it feels to stand on that summit. And I continue putting one foot in front of the other.