Athletes running on road.
While running long distances requires building fitness and monitoring one’s health and energy, athletes train their minds so they can push past current physical capabilities and achieve new levels of success.
Can mental toughness improve your physical strength?
Apr 19, 2023, by Emma Bartlett
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Heartbreak Hill is infamous among runners.  

The half-mile incline, which welcomes athletes to mile 20 of the Boston Marathon, challenges a person’s physical — and mental — strength. 

“The easiest thing to do is stop running, but that doesn't get you any closer to the finish line,” says Bryant Counselor David Lockwood, who specializes in sports psychology and has used it to help enhance athletes’ performance and provide mental support. 

On the morning of April 17, nearly 30,000 runners from more than 100 countries laced their sneakers and took to the starting line for the 127th Boston Marathon. While running long distances requires building fitness and monitoring one’s health and energy, athletes train their minds so they can push past current physical capabilities and achieve new levels of success.  

According to Professor of Psychology Ronald Deluga, sports psychology began evolving 40 years ago in the United States. Deluga, who developed Bryant’s exercise and sports psychology class, adds that America’s sports community really started embracing sports psychology in the last 25 years — both in terms of improving player/team performance and mental health. 

“Almost all sports have a mental skills coach these days,” says Deluga, noting how these trainers regularly work with athletes to improve their mental game. 

There are many ways to use psychology to improve athletic performance, which Deluga and Lockwood noted. One of the more prominent methods is through mental imagery. 

“With mental imagery, imagining yourself performing a particular skill in sports is almost as good as physically practicing it,” Deluga says. 

Mental imaging can change the brain and has been documented through MRIs, particularly in muscle-related areas for eye coordination and agility. Deluga adds that mental imaging is important for athletes since physical exhaustion limits practice time; if a person pictures themself making a three-pointer or diving into a pool, the individual can practice endlessly.  

Learning to control emotions such as anxiety or anger also helps an athlete’s performance since they are under a lot of pressure and a game’s variability may influence emotions. Mindfulness can assist individuals in challenging and overwhelming situations, as well. Lockwood says when people analyze their behavior in difficult situations, they learn to shift historical behaviors into ways that help them be more successful. 

“This can help quiet and slow the mind down in competition when things are moving very quickly,” Lockwood says. 

Deluga adds that people do not have to engage in athletic competitions to reap the benefits of exercise. He often shows his students a chart listing the positive characteristics of exercise and how it affects different areas of a person's life. 

“When we exercise, it influences the body chemistry and feel-good transmitters in our brain like Dopamine and serotonin,” Deluga says. “You are less likely to miss work, get sick, overeat, and abuse alcohol or drugs if you use exercise.” 

Additionally, individuals think more clearly, are better at problem solving, experience an increase in self-esteem, and work out personal issues through exercise.  

“They may not be consciously thinking about the problem while they exercise, but the mind is still working on it,” Deluga says. 

Mental health has always been a portion of sports psychology but has come to the forefront in the last several years as athletes — such as gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka — have spoken about their struggles with mental health. Lockwood says to become the best athletic version of yourself, mental health concerns need to be addressed. 

“The younger generation is much more open and accepting about getting help,” Lockwood says. “Just like athletes go to the weight room to get stronger and the training room to get treatment because they have an injury, mental health support should be part of that routine. It’s something everyone should take advantage of.”  

Back on the 2023 Boston Marathon route, Evans Chebet made his way to the front of the pack at Heartbreak Hill and crossed the finish line first — clocking in at 2:05:54; Hellen Obiri, the first woman, completed the race in 2:21:38. Both Chebet and Obiri found themselves two hours ahead of the average marathon time. 

Obiri, who’s had a lot of success in track and cross country, spoke about her former running accomplishments in a New York Times article that ran prior to her Boston win: “If you tell your mind, ‘I’m tired,’ you’ll give up,” she said. So she instead repeats, “I’m strong, I’m strong.” 

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