Mental flexibility refers to the ability to disengage from one task and respond to another, or to think about multiple concepts at the same time. People who are mentally flexible can think more creatively, are quick learners and are able to adapt to new situations more effectively. In running, progress is rarely linear, and even the best-laid training plans can get interrupted. Having a greater level of mental flexibility allows you to adapt to these changes and can help you bounce back from a disappointing loss or rebound from a season-ending injury. Mental flexibility is a skill that the best athletes in the world possess, and it can make you an overall better, more resilient runner.
As much as we don’t like to admit it, runners can sometimes have a hard time being mentally flexible with their training. We choose our race, we make a plan and we follow it until race day. We’re even less flexible with our day-to-day training, and we get upset if anything gets in the way of our Monday interval session, our Wednesday tempo session or our Sunday long run.
In their podcast The Running Public, athletes and coaches Kirk DeWindt and Brakken Kraker talk about how many runners are held captive by their training plans, and are so focused on having the perfect build to race day that it can actually have a negative effect on their performance. The reason for this is because mental toughness is just as important on race day as physical fitness.
“Your mental game supersedes everything on race day,” they explain. “You can’t fake fitness just by being tough, but you can’t access fitness if you’re weak.”
Sometimes, last-minute changes in your work schedule pop up that get in the way of your workout. Sometimes the weather gives you black ice all over the roads, making it unsafe to go out. Sometimes you get sick, or you have a bad night’s sleep or something else happens that prevents you from doing whatever you had on the plan for that day. In these instances, you can choose to get upset and allow it to degrade your confidence, or you can adjust to the circumstances by changing your schedule or adapting your workout to the conditions. This is an example of being mentally flexible.
As DeWindt and Kraker also point out, sometimes race opportunities present themselves to you when you don’t feel you’re ready for them. Most runners choose not to do the race for fear of throwing off their training plan, or because they’re afraid to race when they know they’re not in peak form, but choosing to jump into those races is a great way to test your fitness and work on your mental flexibility. For example, maybe you’re training for a marathon that’s a few months away, and your friend invites you to do a 10K race with them. You haven’t been training for that distance, and you’re nowhere near peak shape for your goal race, but pushing yourself in a different distance, even when you’re not quite ready for it, builds mental toughness. It also proves that you can push yourself even in non-ideal conditions.
Of course, there is one caveat to this, and that is in the case of injuries. If you are following a slow, progressive training plan to bring you back from an injury, jumping into a surprise race to test your fitness is likely not a good idea, and you would be putting yourself at risk of re-injury.
The bottom line
If you love following your slow, periodized training plans to get to race day, there’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes, throwing something in to change it up a bit can help you become mentally tougher, and even enjoy the sport more.
“We want to get across the power of the mind game,” says Brakken. “Everything doesn’t have to be perfect for your mind to be perfect, and if your mind is dialed in, you can go out and do whatever you want.”
So often in life, things get sprung on you and you have to react and adapt to it. This happens in running and life, and practising mental flexibility allows you to perform well even in adverse conditions. We see this is the elite world all the time, where despite setbacks or problems on race day, an athlete perseveres and ends up winning the race. In the uncertain climate that is 2021, mental flexibility is more important than ever, and while we may not be running to win, having a strong mind can help you get to your next PB.