Winning the mental fitness marathon

Our guest expert for this episode, Dr. Danelle Kabush has over a decade of experience working as certified sport psychology consultant with several national sport teams via the Canadian Sport Institute.

As an athlete, Danelle is a three-time Xterra World Championship Medalist, a former Professional Mountain Bike Racer and NCAA Division One Collegiate All-American in Track. During her off-road triathlon career Danelle competed for the LUNA Pro Team between breaks to give birth to her now 9-year old daughter and 6-year old son. Competing into motherhood, Danelle has also been an advocate for new mom's in sport.

In her spare time, Danelle enjoys blogging on topics related to motherhood, sport and performance psychology at   

Danelle shares with rundamentalists readers how to build a practical mental fitness plan to improve your performance and recovery.

If you’re a runner and lover of endurance sport like myself, you can appreciate the lure of getting your blood pumping in the great outdoors as often as possible. On the way to your training and racing goals you may also regularly push the boundaries of your body’s physical and mental comfort zones in the quest to go farther and faster.

Through the ebb and flow of growing our physical and mental endurance, it’s the challenging days that allow us to relish the ones where we fall easily into a rhythmic flow. Running well physically and mentally is a balance of pushing personal limits and relaxing the pace in between. A steady run can be a pleasure when viewed as a pleasant break from the lactic loaded legs and burning lungs of hard days.


"If you’re a beginning runner, most of the initial focus towards running goals may be spent on learning the basics of pacing, technique, physical preparation and recovery."


On the other hand there’s nothing like the runner’s high and pure satisfaction of getting through those tough intervals, tempos, hill repeats or any run completed in miserable conditions. It’s tough to beat the satisfaction of having pushed through any pre-workout anxieties and coming out the other side on an endorphin induced high. That post-run feeling is what keeps most of us going out the door for more.

Of course the first most fundamental way get moving consistently in the name of building physical fitness is to have a progressive training plan. If working with a coach and/or a training group, you likely have a least a week of detailed workouts and maybe even several weeks or months of training to follow. With that plan, you know when and where you’ll do your training, approximately how long it will take, and if you’re lucky to have some company, with whom you’ll be training with. For key workouts that push the pace you’ll also have goal times or paces specific to your current fitness level.

But what does a mental fitness plan look like? For starters, quality mental preparation begins alongside consistent physical preparation; things like getting a good night’s sleep as often as possible, and good planning for timing nutritional intake before and after workouts to maximize energy and recovery. If you’re a beginning runner, most of the initial focus towards running goals may be spent on learning the basics of pacing, technique, physical preparation and recovery. Such acquired skills are also part the foundation of a solid mental fitness plan. Mental fitness builds incrementally over time from the continual refinement of key mental skills like organization, planning, discipline, focus and confidence.

Many of us have heard the popular cliché “sport is 90% mental”. There is more truth to that statement as physical abilities and preparation become closer to equal at the top echelon of any sport. However, it doesn’t mean that only the elite can win or lose a race or competition due to psychological factors. Anyone at any level can benefit can from working purposely and consistently on mental preparation, that like physical training, can be continually refined and individualized over time.

So how can we allow more time and space in our busy lives to work on sharpening our mental fitness? Most of us can appreciate the degrees of mental endurance or toughness that we gain naturally through our physical training. However, there are a still many key and practical strategies to work on improving mental fitness such as the following:

No. 1

Take time to reflect on the types of training or racing scenarios that challenge you most mentally. In what circumstances have you struggled the most to stay mentally focused, positive and motivated?

Are there exceptions to these times of struggle? If so, what were you doing when you struggled less, or stayed mentally stronger in those same situations? If this is a difficult exercise to get started with consider keeping a regular mental training journal. On a daily or weekly basis ask yourself three questions as you look back at your training:

1) what went well and why?
2) what did I learn about myself?
And 3) what can I improve upon or refine in my approach for next time?

No. 2
Create mental focus plans

After some reflection, commit to creating mental focus plans for key workouts and race days. Like with physical training, mental consistency also develops with specific mental focus plans. For example as an off-road triathlete one workout my coach had me do on a regular basis was running mile repeats. It was always overwhelming to think about completing 6, 8 and sometimes 10 x 1 mile at my 10km race pace. Interval workouts are naturally broken down already but getting through them on a positive note can take some focus plans in the form of cue words, mantras and motivational self-talk.

For example a simple overview of my mental focus plans for mile repeats would be relaxing into the pace in the first few, maintaining and holding good form through the halfway point, accepting and embracing that holding the pace through the critical ¾ mark would often take all the mental and physical focus I could muster to stay relaxed through the exertion. In the final few repeats, motivational self-talk helped propel me to the workout’s finish line with the goal to finish with the best pace I could hold for that day. In a nutshell mental focus plans involve:

a) acknowledging, accepting and embracing all potential mental challenges ahead of time
b) breaking your workout into manageable mental focus segments
and c) creating focus plans to stay present, focused, and mentally tough through each segment! 

No. 3
Prepare mentally with 'what-if' scenarios

The one main advantage that mental preparation has over physical preparation is the ability to plan and mentally rehearse as often as necessary where we will focus our attention for any given scenario. We can’t always predict how our body and legs might be feeling on any given day but we can commit to focusing well and staying positively motivated. For example, if you’re struggling to maintain the goal pace of a workout how will you respond and reset mentally to get the most out of yourself?

Give yourself a range of open ended scenarios to prepare for so you don’t end up reacting negatively to rigid expectations of how things will go. For example, how will you stay focused through internal distractions such as feeling way worse than you were expecting, negative thoughts or emotions? How will you respond with mental resilience to external challenges, like extreme weather, competitors, and any other race variables that are outside of your immediate control?

When the disappointing days occur, which is a guarantee for any endurance sport enthusiast, how will you use them as opportunities to learn and improve from? Remember that the days when everything clicks and we feel completely in the zone can be more appreciated because of the days we brave the struggle and push through and feel proud of our efforts no matter what the final performance outcome.

No. 4
Practice good mental recovery

Research has shown that mental fatigue impairs physical performance and most of us can back this up from personal experience. While we can’t always control our mental and emotional fatigue levels from work or other life stresses, what we can control are two things: mental recovery time away from running and mental recovery time during running.

Our brains need to rest just as our muscles do so make time to daydream, let your mind wander, or enjoy the stillness and peace of meditation. When making a mental focus plan part of that plan should allow time to mental recovery breaks too. For example on long runs or steady paced runs or even while racing, you may check in with your form, pacing, cue words or mantras regularly but also allow some moments to let your body relax and your mind unwind. Similarly, during intervals, focus on the thoughts and emotions to perform when it counts the most, and the rest of time recover, breath, relax into the present, even for those short moments of active rest time.

Finally it is important to remember that all of the above mental fitness strategies take trial and error, patience and practice. With time you’ll be able to key into and be creative with what helps you individually perform your best mentally – specific routines, thoughts, and emotions that you can draw upon to bring out your best. In the meantime, enjoy the journey as you creatively grow your mental endurance with each mile your legs cover.


Anyone at any level can benefit can from working purposely and consistently on mental preparation