Mental Resilience

If your 2020 has been anything like mine, you have dealt with some setbacks. Or maybe that’s putting it mildly. Everyday seems to bring new surprises, and sometimes disappointments. That uncertainty can take its toll on motivation and willingness to train. Canceled race announcements seem to be never ending, and compound feelings of disappointment. It’s almost like 2020 has been a metaphor for a race when nothing goes to plan. It’s like one of those races when you get lost, run an extra 30 minutes, find out that your drop bag is missing at the next aid station, and then develop the worst chafing of your life.

When everything seems to be going wrong, there are typically two kinds of people: those who give up and those who are resilient. The resilient people can take adversity in stride and continue to pursue their goals. For ultrarunning, and for life, mental resilience can be a powerful tool. In 2020 especially, resilience has become even more valuable. So, then, how can we develop it?

One research study interviewed high-level athletes in order to understand their experiences of resilience in sport (1). Here are a few of the key takeaways:

  • The heart of the resilience process was the use of a variety of coping strategies to deal with unpleasant emotions such as feeling sad, frustrated, hurt, embarrassed, angry, and confused.
  • Personal resources such as determination, competitiveness, commitment, persistence, maturity, and optimism were keys to successfully coping with adversity.
  • Social support (or a lack of it) were seen as critical to being resilient.
  • Although coping with adversity was often unpleasant, many positive outcomes resulted from these coping efforts, including gaining perspective, gaining motivation to help others, learning, and generally being strengthened because of the adversity.

This study describes a key aspect of mental resilience: the ability to implement a variety of coping strategies over time. These athletes weren’t born more resilient, they were just better prepared to deal with adversity in a variety of different ways. They had a greater assortment of coping strategies that they relied on to approach adversity and reshape it. We often think of certain people as being more mentally tough, but this study showed that mental toughness is really more of a collection of different coping mechanisms, and the ability to select the right tool for the job.

Some sports-psychology experts have stated that there are two widely accepted categories of coping: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping (3). Problem-focused coping is designed to improve a specific problem with realistic planning and physical interventions such as pre-competition planning, self-talk, and time-management skills. Emotion-focused coping is focused on dealing with the emotional responses that occur as a result of the problem. Emotion-focused coping is typically used when a problem is out of our hands, and we must instead focus on regulating the resulting emotions so that they don’t negatively impact our lives or our performance. In a race full of bad-luck events like losing a drop bag or taking a wrong turn, the best coping mechanisms are going to be emotion-focused. Those mechanisms will help lessen the stress of out-of-control events and avoid a total emotional breakdown on the side of the trail.

Here are more experts’ systematic approach to emotion-focused coping (2).

  1. Break the stress down into chunks so that specific thoughts can be used to handle each phase of the stress process. You don’t need to be overwhelmed by everything all at once. That would only create more stress. Start by pinpointing one stressful aspect of a problem.
  2. Then try an integrated coping response strategy to reduce that particular anxiety. For example, inhale deeply while stating to yourself a counterargument to the stressor, “I may not like this, but I can stand it and it will make me a better person.” Then exhale with “so” and a short relaxation cue word like “relax.” To make this more specific for ultrarunning, the phrase could be something like, “I may not have my drop bag, but I can still use this aid station, and I can make that work, so relax.”
  3. After addressing the stressful aspect with a counterargument, create realistic goals to make success in the future as achievable and as controllable as possible. Keep the goal specific to the stressful chunk that you are addressing before moving onto the next chunk.

Learning to manage stress and break it into smaller chunks will improve mental resilience during races, and even in other adverse life events. There are always going to be stressful events that are out of our control, but how we react to those events can be reshaped. By leveraging a counterargument and a relaxation cue word, we can all develop our mental resilience. That resilience can help us gain new perspectives and even develop strength from overcoming adversity. This year might not be going to plan, but we can still learn from it, grow, and become more resilient people and athletes.

Call for Comments

  • Where in either life or running have you had to practice either problem-focused or emotion-focused coping? Can you describe the experience?
  • In running, have you ever failed to successfully cope with a problem you faced? Can you walk us through that experience?


  1. Galli, N., & Vealey, R. S. (2008). “Bouncing back” from adversity: Athletes’ experiences of resilience. The Sport Psychologist, 22(3), 316–335.
  2. Burton, D., & Raedeke, T. D. (2008). Sport psychology for coaches. Leeds: Human Kinetics.
  3. Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2019). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Alex Nichols

coaches at Colorado College as well as at Trails and Tarmac. He has a Master of Arts in Sport Coaching and a USATF Level 2 Endurance coaching certification. On the trails, Alex has finished second at the Western States 100 Mile and won the Pikes Peak Marathon, Mont Blanc 80km, and Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile. He's supported by SCOTT Running.

There are 3 comments

  1. Tyler Baxley

    I studied Sport Psych. in grad school and conducted a research project on the the psychology of ultra-endurance athletes (that included a couple ultra running champs). Resilience – coping strategies – and self- talk during adverse moments were some strong common denominators. Anyhow, I’m always keen to explore more into the vast, unmapped frontiers of the mind. Thanks for sharing your insights!

  2. Emily

    Great article! My thoughts:
    1. I am starting a small coaching business, while moving to a new place, in the middle of a pandemic and an election, while trying not to neglect my own endurance training. Every single day is an opportunity for emotion-focused coping. When I am successful, I’m breaking the problems down into small, manageable parts. I also like mantras, meditation, and breathing exercises.
    2. I DNF’d my 100 mile race in September. It was a combo of many things going wrong before and on race day, and eventually running out of the ability to keep sucking it up that day. I did not set myself up for success mentally, and got overwhelmed by all the little problems. Turned into a solid learning experience, and I probably won’t let it happen again so easily!

  3. Jacob Rydman

    It’s interesting that the 2 “widely accepted” (widely accepted by who? and based on what criteria?) categories of mental resilience actually appear to limit/undermine the power of the heart & mind. For instance, a “problem-focused” method already mentally presupposes a “problem”, thus, already labeling the situation as a negative or a “threat” (as a opposed to a positive challenge), therefore, increasing the likelihood of viewing the situation as negative as opposed to positive and growth-focused. It’s important to mentally label and appraise the situation appropriately. If I view a situation as a challenge, I’m much more likely to engage bc I immediately *see value*. On the flip side, if I already label a situation as a “problem” – I’m less likely to seek understanding (“what does this mean?” and evaluate the situation (“what can I do about this?”) (ie: Perception of control) – I’m more likely to *want to get rid of if* vs *engage*…. Ultimately, there are no problems, only situations. Situations not dealt with eventually become problems (Us married folks know that too well!). Above all, mentally label the situation correctly – don’t mentally cast negative judgement on an a-moral situation (or yourself!) (Challenge vs Threat) that may or may not have happened yet – doing so increases the likelihood of an increased threat-level and thus, negative, avoidant outcome.

    Furthermore, “emotion-focused coping” doesn’t quite go deep enough into what influence emotions? Emotions are largely filtered through beliefs and values. For instance, I view a situation as a challenge (positive) – and seek understanding (What does this mean?) and then evaluate my perception of control (What can I do about this?). Then, my beliefs and values largely influence whether this situation is viewed as “stress” or a “meaningful growth opportunity”. If my beliefs are limited/unhealthy and values are not operating/aligned with how I’m wired, the emotional response will tend to be compromised because *I’m compromised*. Ultimately, before focusing on “emotion-focused coping” ask yourself: are my beliefs/values healthily-aligned with *who I am* and *how I’m wired*? and *is it rooted in reality?* If my beliefs about myself and the situation are healthy and my personal values are aligned – the likelihood I will cope effectively goes up.

    Lastly, the systematic emotion-focused coping strategies have deeper levels of exploration:

    1. Again, if I mentally have the belief that “stress is bad” I’m going to view the situation as a threat and thus, less likely to engage and seek understanding (I just want it gone!). The approach that “I must get rid of stress” undermines the opportunity to seek further understanding into deeper levels of meaning and value *in the stress* and inhibits the ability to actually *utilize stress* into something positive and growth-focused.
    2. Again, already labeling something a “problem” casts judgment that “this is bad”… And if I already mentally *believe* this situation is a “problem”, again, I’m more likely to “want to get rid of it” vs “understanding the situation” and seeking out deeper levels of meaning, purpose, and value in it…. Be careful not to mentally “lose the fight” before you even step into the “ring”!
    3. I absolutely believe in breathing techniques and positive self-talk, but only as so much as the positive self-talk is aligned with your beliefs and values. How often has a friend/spouse “said something positive to us” but bc “we didn’t believe it” – proved to be inneffective? Again, evaluate limited beliefs and yet-to-be aligned values – this will make coping strategies much more effective and growth-focused.

    I agree with many of the strategies above – all I’m challenging is looking deeper :) Process >Outcome

    Some helpful resources:

    “The Upside of Stress” by Kelly McGonigal
    “The Inner Game of Tennis” by Timothy Gallwey
    “Learned Optimism” by Martin Seligman

    Values Worksheet:

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