Support and mental toughness

"Your body will argue that there is no justifiable reason to continue. Your only recourse is to call on your spirit, which fortunately functions independently of logic."

- Tim Noakes

Timothy David Noakes is a South African scientist, and an emeritus professor in the Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town. He has completed more than 70 marathon and ultra-distance events. He is the author of ‘Lore of Running’, ‘Waterlogged’ and ‘The Real Meal Revelation’.


There are various things relating to ‘support’ we can talk about. The support you give others, the support other runners give you, and the support from your family and friends.

Although most runners go at it alone, we often do better in a group than on our own. Running together is great, especially if you can find others with similar goals and abilities to yours. If you stick with a group, you will probably find that you do much more running, compared to going at it on your own. And it is not as boring.

Getting support from family and friends will vary greatly from person to person. In the end, you will need to figure out how important that support is, and what you will do if you don’t get it. It’s difficult for a non-runner to understand what you are doing and why. No matter how you try to explain it, they just won’t get it. Count yourself lucky if you do have support, and make sure the person knows you appreciate it. In the end it comes down to how determined you are to reaching the goal you set. If you really want it, you will make a plan.

Despite support from family, friends and running buddies, on race day you will be on your own. You need to run your own race. Don’t expect other runners to stick with you, and they should not expect that from you either. You have spent too long training to give it all up on race day to run someone else’s race. To prepare for this make sure that you spend some time each week running on your own. This also helps with building the ‘mental toughness’ you will need on race day.

Mental toughness

Mental toughness has many definitions. I think of it as ‘your ability to REFUSE TO GIVE IN’. It’s an ‘acquired’ trait – you are not born with it – you can learn how to get it. And it takes time. Countless books have been written on this topic, here are just a few tips.

I have told this story often, but it sums up what mental toughness is all about: On the Cairns to Karumba bike ride a few years back, I spoke to a lady who said she was ‘on the bus’ for the next leg of the ride. We were in Mareeba for lunch, and it was the first day of the seven day cycle. I could not imagine why anyone would want to miss out on cycling - that’s what we were all there for. So I asked her why, and she said: “I have a sore bum.” My thoughts were: “And???”

There is a bit of an ‘unwritten’ law in running – and that is that you don’t give up and bail out of a race. EVER. Unless you are dead, a snake bites you, or some other major catastrophe befalls you. Despite this, I have also seen people push through to the finish line, only to be injured for months, and not able to participate. So, be careful. The only person that can decide if you must forfeit your race, is you. Although sometimes you may not be given the choice – for example if you miss a cut-off or the medical staff at the event pull you off the course.

Aim to never be a DNF (did not finish). Elite runners will forfeit races, but that’s different – they are actually there to win, so if they can’t win, they’ll drop out to conserve their energy for the next event, which they might win. You have something to prove to everyone – and the more people you tell about your upcoming event, the more accountable you will have to be (that’s a good thing). Signing up for a charity run/cause is another way to force you to complete what you pledge to do. If you have been following your training program, believe me, you are ready!

It takes time to build mental toughness. Some of you have already discovered this during your training. You need to ‘practise’ to be tough. Do your long runs, do your speed sessions, do your tempo runs, do your race – and finish it. (Warning: you also need to get enough rest, so sometimes missing a session or having an ‘easy day’ may be just what you need to refuel and recharge). But be warned, if you constantly give up during your training sessions (aka go home early) or don’t turn up at all, you will probably not have too much motivation to finish the race either.


Your body will do what your brain believes. Tell yourself often how well you are doing. Even if you don’t quite believe it yet – if you say it often enough, you will discover that you are indeed doing well.

I do believe visualisation has a huge impact on how you perform on race day. Spend some time thinking about the race - imagine yourself crossing the finish line, collecting your medal and showing it to everyone at home and work. Here are a few tips:

  • Imagine what you want to look like as you run. Consider your:

  • posture

  • smile

  • cadence.

  • Know the course:

  • picture yourself in the event while on your training runs.

  • stay in the present. Don’t worry about how much you still have left to go.

  • break the race down into small bits and choose your focus and attitude for each stretch – only just run from one aid station to the next, or one landmark to the next.

  • Simplify the race (left, right, left, right…).

  • Listen to music or count.

  • Imagine dealing with obstacles such as:

  • an untied shoe lace

  • thirst

  • hitting the wall.

  • Picture yourself successfully battling pain and exhaustion.

  • Find mantras that remind you to stay tough.

You will soon discover that in running a race you will either have a ‘good day’ or a ‘bad day’. Trust me, you’ll know which one it was at the finish line. If you have a bad day, learn from it, then put it behind you. There’s not much point in over-analysing these things. There will be another race you can do…

Ultra running and stress management

If you are going to enjoy your training over the next few months, you need to sort out how you are going to manage your time. It will significantly reduce your stress levels if you have a clear plan of what needs to be done and when it needs to be done by. It’s called your training schedule. Study it carefully and make allowances for socials, travel for work, sick kids, and other important dates that will take you away from training. If you know you are going to be busy or away, you can plan for alternatives, so as to not miss out on vital training.

If you have a family, but have your heart set on running an ultra, here are a couple of things you could try:

  • get up early to run

  • don’t get up early to run (getting enough sleep is more important)

  • run during your lunch hour

  • run/bike to/from work

  • have your child ride his/her bike while you run

  • run at a safe location, like Barlow park, where your child can play while you run

  • go for a run while your kids are at extra-curricular activities after school

  • spend less time on Netflix

  • be happy with the run you’re on and don’t worry about how you’re going to manage the next one

  • join a 24-hour gym

  • keep your priorities straight - don’t pass up time with your kids to go for a run instead

  • get some cross-training equipment that you can use at home. Like a few resistance bands. They are pretty cheap from places like Target.

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