Nurturing the connection between body and brain during training can be one of the most important aspects of preparing for competition. We often think of our workouts as exercises to train the legs and lungs, but we forget the important role the mind plays in that process. Indeed, most triathletes can recall a race when their mind limited performance, even when their body could have pushed through. That’s why building mental toughness through training is so imperative.
We consulted a couple of coaches to better understand the brain training that underpins three popular types of running workouts—tempo runs, interval sessions and long runs. They help explain both the reasoning behind these workouts when it comes to building mental toughness, as well as some key things to think about on the run.
Mental purpose: Interval training can help you realize what your body is truly capable of. “Because interval runs push the body physically beyond what is comfortable, it will also push you mentally and teach you that it’s OK to go beyond your comfort zone for a short time,” says Sara Dimmick, a USA Triathlon-certified coach and founder of Physical Equilibrium in New York City. “Once athletes successfully do this over and over, they will have more confidence pushing their physical body past what their mind says is OK.”
Think this: This breed of workout teaches you not to mentally bite off more than you can chew. “Break the workout down to one interval at a time,” says Leathers. “Stay in the moment of the work that’s being done, rather than thinking about how many repeats are left. Take one at a time.” This can be a particularly important skill in longer races. Rather than thinking about the race from start to finish, you are better off envisioning it as a series of distances you check off your list as you hit each milestone.
Workout: Long run
Mental purpose: Your weekly long run serves as an important confidence booster on race day. “Not only does the long run prepare you physically, but also mentally,” explains Dimmick. “In longer events, like Ironman, an athlete can be out on the course for a long time, so if you have practiced and prepared by doing long runs, it will give you the confidence that you can complete the race.”
Think this: Long runs are a great time to employ visualization strategies that are important when the going gets tough in a race. “Visualizing successfully completing the course and crossing that finish line can help push you during long runs,” adds Dimmick.
Workout: Tempo run
Mental purpose: Tempo sessions generally involve anywhere from 10–45 minutes of running at or near race pace to help you get comfortable being uncomfortable. “I love tempo runs because it is as close as I can get my runners to the mental and physical stress that race day will provide,” explains Kevin Leathers, a Road Runners Club of America-certified coach based in Memphis. “Every time we ignore those inner voices screaming ‘slow down,’ we build our mental stamina that we can draw from on race day.”
Think this: These workouts offer the perfect training ground for developing positive self-talk strategies and productive running mantras. Leathers suggests inner dialogue that includes phrases like, “Keep pushing” and “Don’t give up.”