Sports Psychology

The Top Four Mental Barriers For Endurance Athletes

The Top Four Mental Barriers For Endurance Athletes

Ask any endurance runner what part of marathoning or ultra running is mental and the answers are as variable as the people you ask. While one runner will state with certainty “it’s 90% mental” another will equally assertively state “it’s 10% mental”. The truth is no one has THE answer. And the answer will differ by person. Even with that there are some hard facts about mental game training and getting a mental toughness mindset.

  • Mental game training (used interchangeably with mental toughness training) never makes an athlete something they are not.
  • No amount of mental training can overcome a shortage of physical training.
  • Mental training only allows you to fully explore your physical limits as supported by your physical training.
  • There is no such thing as giving 110%. 100% is all there is. And almost every athlete gives less than 100%. [Think of it this way, if you believe you could have gone even one second faster or one step further than you did, then you didn’t go 100%. And even if you set a PR it does not mean that was the fastest you could have gone, only faster than you have gone in the past.]
  • There is no such thing as having “run beyond your capabilities or limits or conditioning”. It just means your effort was getting closer to that 100%.
  • Everyone can benefit from mental game training. Why do you think almost all elite, Olympic and professional athlete or sports team have mental game coaches in their corner?
  • Everyone can improve their mental toughness, but only if they want to.

There are recurrent themes I deal with in coaching endurance athletes. What follows are the most common mental game themes or barriers to mastering mental toughness in endurance events. It is impossible to offer all the various techniques and unique individual applications that can be taught in one article. The purpose of this article is to heighten your awareness and introduce you to some solutions. In no way will an article replace professional coaching and guidance.

Barrier #1 – “Help me deal with fatigue and discomfort.”

Far and away the most common request I have from endurance athletes relates to the ability to deal with the discomfort. It has been well documented now that fatigue has a huge mental component. That means that fatigue and discomfort are largely subjective interpretations of sensations and experiences we have. Two different people can experience the same discomfort and while one ends up in tears breaking down the other pushes on. One is devastated and quits while one gains a stronger resolve to bounce back.

Since fatigue is significantly subjective, it’s important to begin by recognizing how you characterize (personally interpret) all those symptoms of discomfort that you sense. This is an indicator to how you will deal with it. Notice I refer to what is being experienced as discomfort. I do not refer to it as pain or painful. This is not semantics. It is a personal characterization. Words carry meaning and that personal meaning stimulates emotional reactions (fear, dread, doubt). It is the fear, dread and doubt that whittles away at our confidence distracts us from the task at hand and “makes cowards of us all”.

Solution: Recharacterize what you feel.

The next step is to really understand how you handle fatigue and discomfort. Only by tuning into your unique experience can effective coping strategies be applied. How do you talk about and characterize your discomfort? How else might you look at it that softens it, or makes it less threatening? What do you feel? When is the usual onset? Can you characterize your discomfort – by shape, color, nature; does it pulse, throb, ache – is it sharp, dull, localized or generalized? What do you say to yourself about what you are experiencing? What are you thinking when you experience it? What do you do that makes it worse or lightens it? You cannot change the discomfort itself (without stopping or DNFing) but you can change how you perceive it and deal with it.

Solution:  Once you recognize that fatigue is mounting and your mind is wandering to the dark side you must be able to stop-regroup-regain control.

You have to be able to catch yourself when your thinking drifts into focusing on the discomfort you are experiencing in any negative or defeating way. At the point you recognize your mind is going down the Mental Disaster Highway you have a choice – take that highway or take another route. At this point I have athletes take a deep breath and slowly exhale to remind you (with a purposeful physical action – breathing) that you are in control; not only of your breathing but your thoughts. You reaffirm that you now choose your mindset towards what you are experiencing and where you will focus your mind.

Solution: In a nutshell you can refocus-distract-reframe-rebut your experience.

  • You can focus on your physiology or you can distract yourself away from your physiology. Focusing inward (associative) may allow you to tune in to your breathing, rhythm or pace for instance my help you relax or maintain intensity. On the other hand, if focusing on your breathing only reminds you of how hard you are laboring you may want to use a dissociative strategy.
  • Sometimes using distractions (dissociative) gets your mind off the discomfort. Yet for some runners this leads to letting up on effort. You will only know what works for you by experimenting in practice.

[Elite runners use both associative and dissociative strategies. However, the elite tend to use associative strategies far more often than age group runners and are more in tune with what is happening to their bodies. The danger in over-using dissociative strategies is that your body may be telling you something you need to tend to for your own well being!]

  • Use a periodic body scan. Methodically scan how and what you are feeling from head to toe – one area at a time. Totally focus on that area before moving on. You can tense then release those muscle groups as you go. This serves to focus your mind constructively.
  • You can reframe how you are seeing the discomfort. Perhaps it “serves” you instead of punish you. It’s a challenge instead of the beginning of the end for you.
  • You can rebut negative self-talk with factual statements. Discomfort doesn’t necessarily mean you are having a bad day – it could be a great day leading you to that big breakthrough performance.

Two important points need to be made regarding discomfort and pain.

1. This is not Pollyanna thinking trying to make “pain” a positive uplifting and wonderful experience.

2. Nor do we want to totally ignore your sensations because those physical sensations are feedback to you about how your body is functioning. Ignoring pain can lead to very bad outcomes. You must learn the difference of warning signs of impending disaster and merely fatigue to push through.

Barrier #2 – “I’ll practice mental toughness on my good days or when I’m ready.”

Mental toughness is rarely shown when everything is going your way. It is demonstrated when things go awry. It is demonstrated when every adversity you can think of confronts you. It is the day you show up and forget your racing shoes; there are gale force winds; you have a cramp you never experienced before; you have blisters on your feet after only 5 miles; mile markers are mismarked, your clothing is rubbing you raw in special places; your stomach is upset and the course is rerouted to throw a bigger incline in than you’ve seen in your life.

Almost any athlete can push when they feel good. That is one form of mental toughness. But the real barriers happen on those bad days. And that is when you need to have an entire toolbox of coping strategies.

You best prepare yourself for bad race days by taking advantage of your bad training days. What specifically did you do to complete your run? What specifically did you think about? What got you through the next mile, the next corner or the next step. How did you cope with whatever barriers you encountered? And if you gave up or gave in – what were you thinking or telling yourself? This is important to learn because that is exactly what to avoid on race day!

The bonus is this. If you can indeed be mentally tough on a bad day, you will absolutely thrive when things are going your way and you are pushing your way to a new personal record!

Barrier #3 – “I have a race this weekend I want to be mentally tough this time.”

A key barrier to breakthrough running is not practicing like you will race. There is no pill to take or any overnight cure. It took years of thought habits for you to think the way you do. Too many runners believe that if they just “think about” being more mentally tough on race day that they will in fact be more mentally tough on race day. This doesn’t happen. Mental toughness comes from the development of new mindsets that are refined through habitual practice. Workouts must be designed to test you physically and integrate mental game. Merely because you did a bunch of training or a certain number of long runs does not mean you will be mentally tough on race day.


  • Run a time trial or race at shorter distances (learn how you deal with discomfort and how you push through it; chance to experiment with various mental games).
  • Run at your goal pace for specific distances to learn how you will feel at that pace (tune in to what keeps you on pace; how to get back on pace when you fall off pace).
  • Run faster than goal race pace in shorter distances (aside from a good workout it changes your perceptions of race pace).
  • Run workouts with your fastest repeats or miles at the end of the workout (learn how to keep going and in fact push while fatigued).
  • Run workouts “the best you can with what you’ve got”. Learn how you do and don’t get things done on those “bad run” days (see Barrier #2).

* And in every case tune into where your mind goes during these workouts and learn from them!

Barrier #4 – “I read your article and book – now I’m ready.”

Learn more about upcoming Mental Toughness Boot Camps by clicking on this image.

Learn more about upcoming Mental Toughness Boot Camps by clicking on this image.

You can read all you want. You can study, learn hundreds of techniques and thousands of applications and even become certified as a mental game coach. None of this means you are mentally tough. This view is a barrier to mental toughness development. Many of the principles are clear and simple. They are grounded in sound psychological, learning and physical sciences. Their simplicity is misleading however and in fact a common downfall for athletes “trying to get mentally tough”. If you do not practice mental toughness on a regular basis you will not magically become mentally tough because you read about it.

Solution: Practice mental toughness and all mental game techniques daily and in as many aspects of your life as possible.

It is a way of thinking. You either adopt mentally tough mindsets or you do not. You either decide to take control of your mind or you do not. Hire a professional mental game coach. The reason most athletes come to me is that they realize they need help learning to apply and reinforce how to become mentally tough. Like they say, if everyone could do it – they would.

Dean Hebert M.Ed. Mental Game Coaching Professional

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This post was written by:

- who has written 19 posts on Trail Running Club.

Owner of Mindset for Performance - a peak performance consulting service for athletes and business people alike. But here's what I actually do! As a certified mental games coaching professional I apply techniques and teach strategies from sports psychology - the psychology of peak performance - to everyone I can. I have worked with athletes from: tennis, golf, running, triathlons, duathlons, cycling, baseball, basketball, soccer, MMA fighting, and professional tiddlywinkers (ok I'm kidding about the last one.

I have a passion for sharing knowledge and see myself more as an educator. I love working with youth and really love seeing the difference the skills I teach make a difference in sports, school and home.

My work totally rocks!

Oh some other boring stuff about me:
• M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration (THE U of A) with post graduate work in sports psychology
• BS in Rehabilitation for the Deaf (Yes I know sign language)
• AA in nursing (early career)
• MGCP - Certified Mental Games Coaching Professional
• Certified running coach USATF Level I
• Certified track and field official USATF National Level

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