How elite athletes improve their mental strength

Getty Images

1/ Learn from disappointment

Amby Burfoot: Winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon, RW US editor at large

‘One of those things that running teaches you is that there is disappointment. Once you get to a certain level of high achievement, you are much more likely to lose a race than win it. It is a negative until you refuse to let it be. I learned from the coach Jack Daniels that the great day you have is not a fluke. That’s your ability. You don’t hit it every day, but that is what you are capable of. I like that. The goal for me was always to find the formula to have a great day again.’

READ: How to bounce back from a bad race

2/ Accept the challenge

Jo Pavey: Four-time Olympian, European 10,000m champion

‘I try to treat a race as a challenge to embrace, rather than allowing myself to feel overwhelmed. I tell myself that nerves will help me perform better if they’re channelled in the right direction. During the race, I focus on running economically so as not to waste energy in the early stages. I also try to ensure that I keep a good awareness of pace and on what’s going on around me. When the going gets tough, I tell myself to ‘enjoy’ the pain. I want to finish knowing I gave everything.’

READ: Where to focus your attention while running

3/ Get in the zone

Mara Yamauchi: 2008 Olympian

‘The top priority for me the day before a race is to avoid wasting nervous energy, because this will only worsen my performance. So I do things that will help me to relax, such as watching an absorbing DVD or reading a good book. I also have a pre-rehearsed race-day routine for everything – food, warm-up, travel to start, rest etc, and then all I have to do on race day is execute my plan. This takes away a lot of stress that comes from thinking about what I ‘should’ do, and enables me to just focus on being my best.’

READ: Race day dos and don'ts

4/ Embrace the pain

Dean Karnazes: Ultra runner

‘I’ve run through mud, water, sand and snow, and none of it bothers me. When I engage in any physical conquest, such as an ultra marathon, I do it with the simple commitment that I will try my hardest. You can’t control the weather or other competitors and you can’t foresee the unforeseeable. No matter what, the commitment to be the best me that I can be is unchanged. The other thing I have done is shifted my paradigm in respect to pain. Instead of trying to avoid it, I welcome and celebrate the hurt.’

READ: Suffering for success


Excerpted from The Runner’s Brain: How to Think Smarter to Run Better by Dr Je­ff Brown, with Liz Neporent (Rodale)