Running Workouts to Improve Mental Toughness

Running Workouts to Improve Mental Toughness

Training is the best arena for developing mental toughness for racing. You can create all the vision boards and inspirational mantras you want, but if you have not practiced mental toughness in training, you will struggle with it on race day. Workouts do not merely prepare you for the physical demands of racing; they prepare you for the mental demands of racing. Whether you struggle with mental toughness or want to improve your race times, try one of these running workouts to improve mental toughness. 

These workouts are challenging enough to push you outside of your comfort zone. They should not be done every week and should be saved for closer to a race when your fitness is high. When you do complete them, you will likely feel confident and accomplished – and ready to push yourself on race day. 

Running Workouts to Improve Mental Toughness

Obstacle: Mentally sustaining a harder effort for a long time

From the 10K to the marathon, one of the most cognitively challenging aspects of racing is sustaining a harder pace for several miles. Starting out too fast is all too easy, while the middle miles require mental focus. As the race progresses, it takes more mental energy to sustain goal pace.

Workout: Continuous Tempo Runs

A continuous tempo run builds mental toughness. A tempo run trains you to be mentally comfortable with physical discomfort. It also teaches you how to cope with cognitive fatigue after several miles of focusing on your effort. 

Continuous tempo runs should be 20-45 minutes in duration; any longer and they become a race effort in themselves. If you are doing a tempo run at goal race pace, scale it to the duration of your race. The higher the intensity, the shorter the tempo. A tempo run at 10K pace should last 20-25 minutes; a tempo run at half marathon pace can extend up to 45 minutes.

Long continuous tempo runs do fatigue the mind and body. For many runners, long tempos might require too much recovery to be done weekly. Instead, alternate between tempo intervals (such as 2-mile repeats) and continuous tempo runs.

Sample workout:
Warm up: 10-15 minutes easy running
Main workout: 40 minutes at goal half marathon pace
Cooldown: 10-15 minutes easy running

Obstacle: Sustaining race pace when tired

Inevitably, your goal pace will hurt at the end of the race. Racing is supposed to cause your lungs to sear and your legs to feel like wooden block by the end. Usually, the mind begs you to stop long before you physically cannot sustain a given pace. 

Workout: Fast Finish Long Runs

Fast finish long runs train your mind to become comfortable with sustained discomfort after running for a long time. For marathoners and half marathoners, pick up the pace to goal race pace for the final few miles (such as in this workout). 5K and 10K runners can run the final mile of their long run at a hard effort.

Sample Workout:
13 mile long run: 10 miles at an easy pace, last 3 miles at goal half marathon pace. 

Obstacle: Holding back in short races

Some runners struggle to achieve their full potential in the 5K or 10K. They fear the inevitable burn of these races or the risk of crashing and burning, so they subconsciously hold back. Or, as the discomfort sets in, they pull back in the pivotal middle miles.

Workout: Hammer Intervals

Hammer intervals are a twist on a traditional interval workout. You run all the reps at goal pace except the penultimate rep. For that second-to-last rep, you “hammer” the pace as hard as you can and take the same recovery time as you did for all other intervals. Then you attempt to finish the final interval as close to goal pace as possible.

This workout trains you to push the pace even when very tired. The final interval will be mentally demanding and uncomfortable, simulating how you feel near the end of a 5K or 10K. Most likely, you will realize that you can still run fast after hammering that one interval, which is a huge confidence booster as well. 

Sample Workout:
Warm up: 1-2 miles easy running
Main workout: 6x 800m at 5k pace with 400m recovery jog; run the 5th interval as hard as you can
Cooldown: 1-2 miles easy running

Obstacle: You get in your own head about hills

Have you ever seen a hill looming before you in a race and started to panic? How did that experience go? Panicking during a race rarely benefits a runner – a relaxed mind runs well. If you plan on running a hilly race, you want to learn how to run up hills with good form and then transition back into goal pace.

Workout: Hill-Tempo Combo

This is a grueling workout, I’ll admit – but I also have athletes who love it because of how strong they feel afterward. If you are training for a hilly race and nervous about the hills, this workout will prepare you mentally and physically for running hard after running on hills. It trains you how to measure your effort on the hills and how to sustain a faster pace after running hills.

Sample Workout:
Warm up: 10-15 minutes easy running
Main workout:
4-6 x 30 seconds hard uphill, jog back down to recover
5 minutes easy running
20-minute tempo run
Cooldown: 10-15 minutes easy running

As with any workout, you might need to adjust these based on your fitness level and goals. 

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7 Responses

  1. Great info! Tempo runs always seem to scare me on paper but once I’m in the workout, I’m ok. And then afterward I feel super strong (usually). Those workouts are definitely the most confidence building for me!

  2. These are all great! I definitely can get in my head when I’m pushing my pace. It happened to me last Sunday at my 8k and I finally had to stop and walk. I know I could have pushed through it but at the time…

  3. These are all great workouts. I have always loved sustained tempo runs. Another of my favorites is similar to the fast finish long run. I divide the run into thirds, run the first third about 30 seconds below goal pace, the second third at goal pace, and the last third 30 seconds faster than goal pace. This distance is obviously scaled to the race distance. It’s fun and challenging.

  4. These all are great examples 😉 I am not a huge fan of speed work (because it’s so hard LOL), but I have really seen some substantial benefits int he past year. I think hill workouts are my favorite, and Fartleks. Tempo runs definitely are the most challenging for me.

  5. I have my “mental toughness” workout for Duathlon Nationals today so I figured I had better read this as a reminder 🙂 It’s going to be HARD but I know I can do it and I know I will remember it on race day when things inevitably get tough out there! This is so helpful and I think a lot of runners/triathletes don’t do these kinds of workouts but, once you get over the fear, a huge confidence boost is waiting on the other side!

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