April 16, 2018, was one of those spring days in Boston that felt more like the middle of winter. Temperatures were in the 30s, winds were clocking 25 miles per hour, and freezing rain was falling. It was the type of day many Bostonians would likely have chosen to just stay indoors.
Des Linden and thousands of other runners chose to run a marathon.
For Linden, the women’s 2018 winner, the conditions were simply a test of her well-honed mental toughness, she says. She wasn’t expecting to win the race either that morning or leading up to it, considering her 2017 hypothyroidism diagnosis that sent her training into a tailspin and left her questioning if she would ever run competitively again.
It was around mile marker 20 Linden realized she not only had a chance of winning, but that her chances were good. She came off “Heartbreak Hill” (the short-but-steep, half-mile incline in the last quarter of the course) in first place and widened her lead over the rest of the race, finishing in 2 hours 39 minutes and 54 seconds — her best marathon time, in conditions that left many other elite athletes with the dreaded “DNF” (did not finish) result. The runner drop out rate was 50 percent higher than the prior year, The New York Times reported.
Since her 2018 Boston victory, Linden has spent time reflecting on what she’s learned, she says. Front and center has been mental toughness, the topic of her memoir, Choosing to Run (released this month) and a skill she says she’ll turn to again during this year’s Boston Marathon (which she will be running).
“The lessons are good reminders for myself as I face challenges while wrapping things up, and hopefully [they’ll be helpful] for others as well,” she says. “I missed the win in 2011 by two seconds. To wait so many years made it so much more gratifying to have the win because there was so much struggle in front of it.”
Being mentally tough, or having emotional resilience, isn’t something you’re born with. It comes with cultivation and practice. “Mental toughness means coping with challenging situations and being focused, motivated, and confident in facing adversity,” says Haley Perlus, PhD, a Denver-based sports and performance psychologist.
It may be easy to look at someone successful and assume they’re more gifted in their expertise, but that’s not necessarily the case. It’s more likely they’ve failed and continued trying more than most, Perlus says.
“Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone by taking on new challenges helps you learn from mistakes and ultimately increases your psychological resilience,” says Flora Sadri-Azarbayejani, DO, MPH, medical director at Psychlarity Health in Boston.
Here are seven tips Linden says have helped (and continue to help) her cultivate mental toughness, and ultimately helped her persevere that rainy, Boston day back in 2018.
1. Have Patience for the Process
Expecting immediate success isn’t realistic. “Being aware that success takes time is critical,” Linden says. “Have patience to learn a skill and how to apply it.”
Linden points to the seven years it took her to turn her 2011 second-place Boston run into her 2018 first-place finish. If she weren’t willing to keep training and going for more, she wouldn’t have experienced the ultimate triumph, she says.
“If I were to draw a picture of patience and mental toughness, the Venn diagram would be a circle,” says Annia Raja, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in burnout therapy. Having patience is a form of mental toughness, she says. A study published in 2021 in the International Journal of Educational Methodology found a positive relationship between patience, psychological resilience, and happiness.
The reality is, most people struggle with patience. Raja says you can get better at practicing patience by focusing less on end results and more on the journey, embracing the plateaus, setbacks, and everything in between. “Plateaus and setbacks aren’t a bad thing — they’re part of the learning process,” she says.
2. Show Up Every Day
Know that not every day will be a “win,” Linden says. Some days you won’t finish what you set out to do. Many days you won’t break personal records. “You have to have the tenacity to keep showing up,” Linden says.
Showing up every day teaches you more about yourself and builds psychological strength. After being diagnosed with hypothyroidism, Linden says her runs stopped being about how fast, how hard, how far, and more about relearning the enjoyment of running.
“Mental toughness is a moving target. It depends on what you’re trying to get out of the day,” Linden says.
Sometimes this requires you to shift the focus from the “what” of day-to-day tasks to the “why.” “Write down your ‘why’ — the deep motivations you have for working toward your goal. Stay connected to it. Anchor yourself back to it when things get tough. Use bite-sized goals to help you keep moving forward,” says Raja.
3. Acknowledge Feelings Are Fleeting
When you’re feeling sad or defeated, it’s tempting to give up. Linden says, recognize that those difficult feelings won’t last forever. “How you’re feeling shifts over and over again. Focus on defining the moment and being present, taking each moment as it comes,” she says.
That doesn’t mean ignoring your feelings. It means recognizing your feelings and deciding not to let them sway you from your bigger goals. Practicing this over and over again allows you to make space for frustration, sadness, anger, excitement, and other strong emotions without letting them control you. “Feelings are temporary and have a natural arc to them. Feelings are important, but they’re not permanent,” Raja says.
4. Take a Step Back
Chances are you’ve been through tough challenges before. Use them. “Perspective is everything,” Linden says.
“My hypothyroidism diagnosis in 2017 was really crippling. When you think one thing’s difficult, then you go through something you didn’t think you could face, you realize there’s a whole new well of strength to pull from,” Linden says. “During the Boston marathon, I could tell myself: ‘This is difficult and terrible, and I know how to manage effort in tough situations.’”
She says those thoughts indeed helped her keep running.
This type of “comparison strategy” can be helpful when it comes to calling on your mental toughness. “Instead of getting stuck in the weeds of what you’re dealing with, telescope out mindfully and compare it to previous challenges you’ve gone through and overcome,” says Raja. Reminders of past successes can definitely help fuel you through your current struggles, she says.
5. Stay Present
It’s easy to allow worry and reminders of past failures to creep in. Little worries can lead to a downward spiral of emotion and self-defeat.
Linden emphasizes when the Boston Marathon felt too hard to keep going, she broke her goals into small pieces and focused on the moment — putting one foot in front of the other.
Staying present keeps you focused, and staying focused helps improve performance and decision making. “Staying in the moment reduces anxiety and stress,” says Raja. Of course, this isn’t always easy to do, but it’s a skill that can be learned and cultivated. Practices like yoga, meditation, and grounding exercises can help bring your focus to the moment.
6. Develop a ‘Tribe’
One thing Linden did during her Boston win was encourage the runners around her, even running with them and offering words of support. “I was able to take the focus off myself and think about someone else. I got deeper into the race without thinking about how much was left,” she said.
Feelings of camaraderie and community can go a long way when it comes to motivation, says Sadri-Azarbayejani. “Having people around who understand our struggles helps normalize our challenges, which can be incredibly validating.”
Invest in relationships with those who share a growth mindset, interests, and values. And as Linden did, offer support to others when you can. “When you provide support, other people are more likely to offer support when you need it,” says Raja.
7. Prepare for the Roller Coaster
“If I’d won Boston in 2011, it would have felt exciting, but I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much — there would have been no struggle in front of it,” Linden says. “The ups and downs of the next seven years were a rollercoaster. It’s important to prepare for that — nothing is an onward, upward trajectory like we hope it will be.”
To see goal pursuit as a linear trajectory is to imagine yourself perfect. It’s not realistic and fails to acknowledge you’re not in control of everything. “It’s common to believe goals depend 100 percent on your own effort. That’s not the case. External factors you don’t control influence your path,” says Aura de los Santos, a clinical and educational psychologist with the Ministry of Education based in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
When setting out to achieve a goal, give yourself space to make adjustments along the way along with smaller goals to help you “check in” with yourself as you go, de los Santos says. Even if barriers arise that derail you from your initial plan, having smaller achievements to celebrate and opportunities to step back and reassess may make the roller coaster a little easier to manage.