When Mental Toughness isn’t Enough

by ~jenniferlynn on August 23, 2013

in Running

I have been doing Crossfit consistently 4-6x a week since February and I will not deny for a minute that there has been progress both physically and mentally. I have been able to complete WODs that look impossible on the whiteboard and complete lifts at weights I would never imagine being able to do. In the beginning, everything was so new; nearly every week I was hitting new PRs or making new milestones, but eventually things came to a bit of a plateau. But even more recently it’s like I hopped right back on that PR-high train; I have been able to link 20 double-unders in a row (one time ever, but it counts!), 9 kipping pull-ups in a row, complete handstand push-ups without a mat, and PRed my back squat and clean and jerk.

It seems the more that I progress, the higher the expectations I set for myself. Not a bad thing, right? You will not get better if you are not pushing yourself.

Alongside my Crossfit life, I have the bucket list goal of completing a half marathon so have been reluctantly waking up at 7:00am on Saturday mornings to join my Crossfit family to run. Despite my consistent whining and grumbling about the runs, there is no other group of people I would rather run with, nor would I receive such awesome coaching as I do from Coach Kate. She has so much confidence in her athletes and pushes us weekly to strive for more than we would do for ourselves. My hatred of running has elevated to a slight dislike since she has much more confidence in me than I do for myself. My form has improved significantly and even though I still have the #twomilesuck and my legs never seem to want to cooperate, I almost look forward to the runs each week.

Crossfit is about being prepared for the unknown and the unexpected, so it should not have come as a surprise to me that during one of our weekly WOD classes, the workout of the day was posted and it was a 2 mile run (20:00 cap); preceded by a strength and skill portion of the class to determine your 1RM for heavy back squats (sorry, glutes/legs; I know you were still recovering from pistols earlier in the week). I dreaded going to class and dreaded the run, because no matter how many Saturdays I have run and now matter how much my mile time has already improved in the two months of training, I still struggle with the mental preparation. I rarely run a 10:00/mile, but had a pipe dream or running it so quickly. A friend of mine sent me a multiple motivational pictures and tried to provide some positive thoughts when I was stressing out about this run. While super inspiring and motivating and coming from someone who has a 50-mile run coming up soon, you would think it would be helpful. I kept that in mind as well as a pep talk from a fellow athlete about reciting positive affirmations before and during WODs.

So all I could do was suck it up and run, right? Similar to my #twomilesuck post, this run had the usual mental conversation, which is sadly full of much self-doubt. After I PRed my back squat (whoo!), I was feeling good, but still not looking forward to the run. Our 2 mile route had the 1-mile point back at the box where our coach gave us our split time before we continued on. I ended up running the first mile just over 9:00, which is the second fastest mile I have ever run. I should be ecstatic, right? Optimistic, hopeful, positive?

Nope.. I felt defeated, just as nearly ever other training run lately. I turned around to start the second mile and just when I was out of the coach’s eye, I walked. I gave myself a minute to breathe as I knew I pushed hard for that first mile so likely just went out too fast. I started jogging again and seeing not one other athlete within my sight (speed demons..) I instantly put negative thoughts into my head.

I think about how even though I can run a mile (and heck, can, and did, run 6), two miles is HARD. I love the quote that things don’t get easier, you just get better. But I still feel so many times I am not getting better.

Knowing that negative thoughts were not going to make the next 11:30 of my life any easier, I tried to push the negative thoughts out and shift focus. On the second mile of the two-mile run, I told myself I am strong, I am confident, I can run a freaking mile, I can out-lift most girls my age, I look and feel awesome, and then I walked. And then I cried.


This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. It is almost as if I have some sort of exercise-induced anxiety attack and then I just cry. While it has happened a few times before during a WOD, it has happened nearly every time I ran in the past few weeks. I get so full of self-doubt about this upcoming half marathon and just freak myself out. I think I imagine injuries and pain that isn’t there; things I would normally push through otherwise but because it is running, I just have it in my head that I can’t do it. I follow countless bloggers who have inspiring stories of couch-to-half-marathon type plans; so many runners hitting their longest runs ever as they train for upcoming half- and full-marathons. And here am I, feeling fit and athletic in every aspect of my life, crying at 1.25 miles in to a 2 mile run. I was supposed to do Tough Mudder this weekend with some girlfriends out-of-state, but I canceled because I was not only terrified of the race itself, but also of the mental and emotional pressure. If a road race is scaring me, I know I am not quite ready for an obstacle race of that distance!

I managed to finish this run in under 20:00 (RunKeeper counted 1.94 miles, but since I stayed on the road and my RunKeeper map had some off-roading lines, I am pretty sure now that I made 2.00 miles).


2 miles or not, in 8 weeks I am supposed to complete a half-marathon. That’s 13.1 miles.

Yet on every run of much shorter distance, I struggling mentally to push myself through it, which makes it even more discouraging to think I will ever be able to complete the half. I run. I get frustrated. I cry. I get more frustrated.

Why is it so much easier for me to push through WODs and have the mental strength to finish every workout yet when I run, I cannot get into that same mentality?

Perhaps because I am not following a traditional training plan, I am suffering. I opted to keep my Crossfit schedule of 3-4 WOD classes per week, plus at least one Crossfit Endurance class, plus a long run on the weekend (often followed by a team WOD)..

There are three days left of registration for half, so likely three days left to transfer registration..

Will this feeling eventually just go away?

I feel so strong and positive so often, until I run.

Do I need to listen to countless motivational videos and inspiring stories to help me believe in myself?

I really cannot explain it and really do not know how to overcome it!

8 weeks to go.. help! 🙂

Twitter: fatgirlhealthy
August 23, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Why do you want to do a half marathon? I think you should really reflect on that answer. You will figure it out. My tiny opinion says you should do what makes you happy and that seems to be crossfit.
Mandy@fatgirlgonehealthy recently posted..First Time in a Crossfit CompetitionMy Profile

Marissa @barefoot colorado
Twitter: barefootcolo
August 23, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Girl- running is hard for me too. It never gets easier for me, yet I completed a half. Just like YOU can complete a half. Fitness should be fun, and I know you have so much fun at CrossFit. When it comes time for longer runs in preparation for the half or the half itself– walk when you need to. Stop when you need to. Don’t beat yourself up about time or compare yourself to other runners. I can’t tell you how many times I have walked during training runs and even the half itself. you can do it, don’t stress 🙂 I believe in you!!
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Twitter: Mychickenbutt
August 23, 2013 at 9:38 pm

I hate seeing you upset and frustrated like this! I know you are fully capable of doing anything you put your mind to, and I don’t think you should let your struggles with running hold you back from doing a race you’ve been looking forward to. Crossfit has done amazing things for you, we can both agree on that, so it would be dumb to put it on the back burner for a race. Can your endurance coach help you come up with a long term plan to accommodate both? I think you should definitely collaborate! Either way feel better and stop beating yourself up over silly mudder!
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Claire August 24, 2013 at 12:57 am

It’s so crazy that such a basic movement can have such power over us! Coming from someone who has broken down multiple times during runs, and whose biggest fear is being thought of as “slow,” I think that for this race for you, mental preparedness is just as important as physical preparedness (if not important than!). If you were having a major ankle pain every time you ran, you wouldn’t just keep running and expecting it to get better–similarly, if you are having a serious emotional reaction every time you run, I think you should treat that as a red flag that something in your training is not matching up. Sometimes sucking it up is not the answer (no matter how much CrossFit wants us to think it is), and while I’m not saying you should drop out, the reality is that you haven’t been training as just a runner, so you can’t expect to go out and PR every time you run. I think that you need to have an honest talk with yourself about your expectations for this race, and decide how to turn it into an experience that you can truly be proud of. If that means being psyched to run 12-minute miles as long as you cross the finish line, then that is an awesome goal… but if that means recognizing that specialized training is just not a priority for you right now, then maybe let this one go.
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Kim @ BusyBod
Twitter: busybodblog
August 24, 2013 at 4:58 pm

I totally totally get this. As you know, I’m no fan of running either. It also just so happens that my default reaction to every emotion is tears. I cry when I’m happy, sad, frustrated, angry, tired, hungry, laughing too hard, everything. So, whatever, no shame in tears. I cried last week out of frustration during our long run when I had to stop short. Here are my thoughts. I think it will get better (it has gotten better for me) but I think applying the CrossFit mentality to running may be what’s hurting you. The idea of a 20:00 cutoff is a perfect example. If you set a time limit on your distance, you’re setting yourself up for frustration. Either set a goal to run two miles, or set a goal to run a ten minute mile pace for as far as you can. Eventually, you’ll be able to do both, but for now, you’re asking to get frustrated by boxing yourself in from both sides. It’s all well and good to push yourself, even to push yourself at things that challenge you, but given my experience with running, I just don’t think that kind of approach works. Sometimes, when I go out to run, I can go pretty fast, or pretty far, maybe even both. Other times, I can barely get one foot in front of the other, I have joint pain and catch a cramp and hate every second of it. The only way it’s gotten better is by changing the way I think about running compared to other training. I run as far or as fast as feels good when I head out to run. I push myself when it feels right, and I let myself “underperform” on days when it doesn’t (aka most days), and I’m getting better, slowly but surely. Actually, maybe you can compare it to CF. It’s like scaling a WOD. You wouldn’t force yourself to do something Rx if it wasn’t appropriate. Maybe you can lift a certain amount, but that doesn’t mean you can do it the number of times required in a WOD, so you scale. It’s the same thing. You can run two miles, but not as fast as you want yet, so you scale and work on it. Or vice versa, you run the pace you want and try to build the distance (kind of like a PR?). I’m not sure if that made sense, but hopefully it’s helpful.
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~jenniferlynn August 24, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Kim, I love this response!

So our Saturday runs that I do are usually for time, not distance.. but knowing I am capable of running whatever pace makes it hard to not want to do that pace. My coach has said focus on the distance, regardless if you have to walk or not.. but I get it stuck in my head that walking is bad and then I get frustrated when I do.. Really, I wish I could just think of nothing when I run like so many people tend to do! But maybe I will just keep trying a different mentality.. just distance myself from thinking i HAVE to run a certain pace or mileage, and just doing what feels comfortable (although I need to stick to some sort of plan for this upcoming half.. )

Thanks for the thoughts though, it does make sense!

David August 25, 2013 at 12:05 am

I hate it when I can’t mentally prepare for a workout lol. Makes me feel so much weaker than I am and makes it tough to even finish the workout.

shannon@ A Pinch of Ginger
Twitter: pinchoging
August 25, 2013 at 10:12 am

I agree with the wise ladies above that if you enjoy Cf you should keep pushing yourself with that! Although as a fellow Crossfitter and runner, I have built up my distance VERY gradually and I only run races that I think would be FUN. My first half was the Disney half and it was great bc people walked- heck we stopped for pictures with characters! I think the key for me is having fun- because if it seems like work its just not worth it to me.

Twitter: mast2mar
August 26, 2013 at 9:25 am

Jen, after making a loonnnggg comeback into long distance running, I have adopted a run/walk strategy for every run and for me it has made all the difference. I have a timer on an app I set to “Run 5:00, Walk 1:00, and repeat”. It talks to me and tells me “3,2,1 Run” etc. so I just do what it tells me. While it is tempting to run through the first few walk breaks, I find my body much less achy and sore later on in the run. My pace is still about 12min/mi for the long runs (7+miles) even with the walking and I’m just looking to finish, not be fast which is hard, but its about endurance (and I can’t maintain speed, not yet anyway 🙂 ).

P.S. I only run 2x per week. Sundays are my long run days where I increase mileage about 1 mile per week and then on Wed or Thurs I do a short 3mi run with some bike riding and/or strength training after.

P.P.S. Crying is ok. I have cried worrying I wouldn’t be able to do the half on Sunday, but each week I just did my best and yesterday I hit double digits for the first time. Listen to your body and if you don’t think you should/will be able to do the half coming up because you want to focus on Crossfit, then don’t worry about the running. Deferring a race isn’t the end of the world (having transferred a half registration to 5k, deferred tinkerbell and completely missed the Capitola half)… somehow I missed this post, but just bask in the glory of your competition PRs from this weekend instead!
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Run, Run Johnny
Twitter: runrunjohnny
August 26, 2013 at 3:29 pm

Welcome to the slump portion of your training cycle. I don’t know of any normal human beings that don’t experience it. Just two weeks ago I was questioning if my goal of breaking 2 hours is even possible this year or ever. For the past 6 weeks my weekend long run was planned to be 11-12 miles and I’ve only accomplished it twice. I ran 5 miles at race pace and felt horrible. How was I supposed to sustain that for another 7 miles?

Running takes plenty of physical strength and endurance, but its your mind that gets you over the finish line. Your body is full of self-doubt, you can’t let the mind join in. It is your mind’s responsibility to tell the body that it is wrong. That it is capable of more.

I don’t want to hear any more thoughts of dropping the race. I don’t know if you’ve been down there during past years’, but it is a religious experience. I don’t want to fill you with cliches, but I will say that whether you run or walk those 13 miles; when you cross that finish line, I guarantee you will have one of the greatest senses of accomplishment that you have ever had.
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~jenniferlynn August 27, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Thanks for the thorough comment, Johnny!

From someone who is a runner by nature, your words mean a lot to me knowing that you’ve been through something similar! I absolutely think my biggest problem is mental..

I am 90% sure I will not drop the race.. I paid for it and committed to it, but I just don’t want to injure myself or break myself down mentally or emotionally fighting for it, you know? I’ve done the 5k the last two years there and love the atmosphere and know there will be better feeling than crossing that finishline. I cried when I finished Kona cause it was the only time I ever ran 6 miles without walking (and since then, haven’t been able to do 3 without stopping!)..

A fellow Crossfitter/triathlete said it’s our route that we do on Saturday morning that is the problem; she said if I get out to Kensington or something it may be a different experience.

I missed my long run this weekend due to a Crossfit competition (and the inability for my legs to move on Sunday).. but alas, I will keep chugging along…

Alex @ Alex Tries it Out
Twitter: alex_j_meyer
September 2, 2013 at 4:37 pm

Keep on going chica! I’m of two schools … if you are miserable, drop it (you’re badass enough anyway!) but I understand wanting to get it done.

Something I think is good to remember is that we all have our bad days with running. Some are worse than others, but they’ll be there. It’s a mental game!

I would also highly advise to stop paying attention to time on your first marathon, or on training runs. The important thing is to FINISH. Time can come if you decide to do another. I had a couple walking breaks on my first half – and my second two, I didn’t need them. You’ll get there, but stop pressuring yourself so much! I’ve heard a ton of people say (and I agree) that it’s hard to train for time, and distance, at the same time.

If it makes you feel any better, I rarely feel like a rockstar for the first two miles. I’m warming up/ramping up. Maybe it’s getting past that part?

Keep on keeping on!
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