Guy standing stretching his back leg preparing for a run.

How Running Has Taken My Mental Toughness to the Next Level

Each run is a battle with myself.

Guy standing stretching his back leg preparing for a run.
Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

“I don’t stop when I’m tired. I stop when I’m done.” — David Goggins

AsI looked in the toilet and realized I was pissing blood, I thought maybe I had overdone it.

I had just returned from my longest run in about 24 years and was TIRED.

It was nothing crazy — a 70-minute gallop down the road in which my coaches instructed me to go out “easy” and push it a bit on the way back if I felt good.

Having had a strong run only two days earlier, I was excited to see how far I could get in the 35 minutes before turning around to come home.

Once my phone announced I was at the 5.2-mile marker at the halfway point, I realized that having to cover that same distance to get home and maintain the same speed was probably NOT going to happen.

Even though my legs were telling me they were tired with about 3 miles to go, I managed to push myself still to cover the distance averaging a respectable 6:34 per mile.

And while the realization of what this effort yielded was staring me back in the face as I looked down at the toilet, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of pride in being mentally strong enough to push through the pain and not give up or slow down too much.

This run made me think about how running has helped my mental toughness in a number of ways in other areas of my life.

I can focus and concentrate for longer

One of the biggest advantages of getting used to going on hour-long runs is that my ability to focus for extended periods has improved dramatically.

When you are in a situation in which you are doing the same thing over a long time, you have to find ways to keep yourself engaged and focused on the task at hand.

This has translated into me creating various games that I play with myself during my runs that are geared around ensuring I am consistently keeping my form solid and pace consistent.

Easily, I could allow my mind to drift off about other things, but that could result in my relaxing my arms too much or slowing down my running pace. Therefore, I keep my focus solid for certain periods and then allow myself a breather at certain milestones to refocus my commitment to maintaining the proper running form.

This mental focus has also slipped into my non-physical activities, as I now find myself able to stay focused on mental activities longer than I could in the past by using the same technique.

Similar to the Pomodoro method, I focus for a specific amount of time to achieve a goal and then give myself a break when that time is up. I can typically stay engaged for a little less than an hour before needing a break.

It’s not that I couldn’t study for an hour at a time in the past, as this is a practice I have been following for some time. However, I can now concentrate for that entire hour and focus more on the task at hand than I could.

I find my mind comparing it to my running, in which I am focused on maintaining a certain level of rigor in my form to be as efficient as possible. Now, when I’m studying, I put this same rigor on my mind to stay in a flow state and eschew distractions to maximize the effectiveness of that hour versus in the past.

I think more long-term about the decisions I make

As shared in a previously written post about the surprising benefits I experience from training for a 5k, the concept of thinking long-term about my decisions regarding future effects has bled into several different areas of my life.

As shared, the main area in which I recognized this effect was related to my diet. I have always been pretty strict regarding my diet, as I believe in the importance of eating your way to either health or ailment.

However, as I began to train for my 5k, I recognized that a simple decision to eat more than I should on a random Tuesday night could translate into me not seeing any progress this week in my overall training.

The thought of hindering my efforts by succumbing to something I wanted to do in the short term versus what I truly desired to achieve in the long term helped me refuse to allow these little slip-ups to happen.

As I think now on several other areas in my life, I use this same mindset to understand that even though I might not see how a decision might affect me immediately, if it is going against my long-term goals of success, I can keep myself from doing it much easier than I could in the past.

Life has now become analogous to a race, and every little thing can help me or hinder me from my goal, so I have to consider it as such.

I embrace pain more readily because it is an indicator of growth

Let me be clear here…pissing blood is NOT fun and isn’t something I would recommend for anyone to push themselves physically to do.

However, it was an exciting indicator of my ability to push through the pain to still achieve the results I wanted for myself.

Taking a page from David Goggins and the Navy Seal 40% rule, I know that when I reach a point where I feel like I might want to quit or pull back, I’ve only reached about 40% of my maximum ability. Therefore, instead of stopping or slowing down, I just put my mind in a zone and push my body to the max to force it to continue to grow.

Fortuitously, I’ve also been reading Anna Lembke’s Dopamine Nation recently and have learned how connected pain is to pleasure. In it, Dr. Lembke shares that your body’s physiological and neurological connection to experience heightened pleasure is correlated to the amount of pain you are willing to go through beforehand.

One way that this can be interpreted is the more pain you experience to acquire something, the greater the sense of pleasure you’ll receive once you get it.

I know the pain that I am temporarily feeling during my workout is an indicator of the increased ability I am building in my legs to push to maintain the speed I want to ultimately hit my sub-18-minute 5k goal.

In the same way that I felt ultimate pleasure and excitement at hitting my sub-20-minute goal in the past, I know this one will be even more pleasurable because of the increased level of effort and work I‘ve put into achieving it.

And while I don’t want to have another toilet episode anytime soon (or ever, to be honest), I will continue to reap the benefits of this newfound commitment and ability to take me as far as my discipline will allow.