I’m a Health Editor who regularly runs marathons - 7 mental endurance tips that have changed my life

Plus, how building mental resilience can boost all aspects of your life.

Mental endurance
(Image credit: Future)

When I signed up for my first marathon back in 2018, I don't think it'd even crossed my mind that it'd be anything more than a physical challenge. The formula seemed daunting, but pretty straightforward to me - build up my mileage, follow the ten per cent a week rule, and then get ready to lace up and conquer 26.2 ( a seemingly unfathomably long distance) come race day.

But as I crossed the red-flag-draped finish line on The Mall that day, I knew one thing for sure. Marathons are as much about mental resilience and fortitude as they are about the physical strength you need to carry you through the miles. That's why, after ticking off eight more marathons, achieving three Boston Qualifying times and chipping away my personal best by nearly an hour, it's fair to say I know a thing or two about mental resilience.

These races took determination, dedication, and digging deep - and not just in terms of physical training, either. Enlisting several tips and tricks over the years to build my mental strength is honestly one of the best things I've ever done for myself, helping all aspects of my life and improving my mental health tenfold. It's taught me that not only can I push through hard miles, but hopefully deal with the many obstacles life may throw at me, too, which is an incredibly soothing and empowering feeling.

I'm not alone in striving to find mental strength through sport, either. There's been a sharp increase in women taking up endurance challenges in the last few years, with official London Marathon statistics from last year showing 41% of participants were female. This appears to have influenced finishing times, too, with 244 women finishing the 2024 iteration of the race in under three hours compared to 68 in 2014 - a 358% increase. While I can't say definitively that these women are running for the mental boost it gives them, the numbers prove that the sport is only growing - and I'd bet good money it's because the lessons you learn running marathons, plus the strength you cement, last a lifetime. 

We've seen a host of women's world firsts and records set in the last few years, too. Camille Heron set the women's ultramarathon record this year, and Jasmin Paris became the first woman ever to complete the Barkley Marathon just last month. The physical strength that these events take is one thing, but the mental endurance - finding that hardiness to run marathon after marathon, often for days on end - is on another level. 

While ultra marathons might not be your jam, building your mental endurance in whatever way works for you can and will impact all aspects of your life, and is arguably one of the biggest acts of self care, too. Below, I share the simple, actionable tips about building mental endurance I wish I'd known sooner from two top experts.

Building mental endurance promises to boost all aspects of your life - 7 tips I wish I'd known sooner

1. Adopting a growth mindset is key

According to Dr Sophie Mort, clinical psychologist and mental health expert at Headspace, one of the simplest ways to build mental resilience is to cultivate a growth mindset. "Embrace challenges as opportunities for growth and learning rather than viewing them as threats or failures," she explains. 

This, for me, translated into accepting my "failures" as "learnings" in all aspects of my life, really digging deep into what I could have improved or changed and similarly, what I learnt from the situation. Celebrating all progress, even the small wins, is also key here. For my first marathon, I ran a time of 4 hours 11 minutes. Rather than being disappointed at missing my initial goal of sub 4 hours, I celebrated the fact that my body and mind had just got me through a marathon, something only 1% of the population will ever achieve. 

Reframing a negative mindset is also key here and part of said "growth" mindset - for example, every hard run, work call, or personal situation isn't just a hard situation, rather, an opportunity to act in a way you're proud of and step further towards being the person you want to be.

2. Embracing change will get you far

According to life coach Sian Winslade, embracing change is also absolutely crucial for those looking to build their mental resilience. As a Type A person who loves a list, plan of action, and clear course for - well, everything in life - this has personally taken me years to work on, but has also been the most rewarding mindset tweak I've ever made. Now, I focus on controlling the controllable and how I react, rather than how others act. In race terms, the same applies - the weather, loo queues and injuries are out of my control. but race prep, nutrition, and kit are all within it.

Her advice? "Adapt to life's changes with flexibility and an open mind," she recommends. "Nothing will ever stay the same, so embracing change can be our greatest teacher. Not only that, but it has the potential to lead to a much more fulfilling life - a life that's aligned with our true purpose."

3. Building your problem solving skills will boost body and brain

This one's key, especially if you're someone who gets overwhelmed or stressed day to day and feels out of your depth. "Developing effective coping techniques for managing stress and solving problems is key," shares Mort. These include cognitive reframing, time management, and seeking help when necessary and can all be valuable tools for protecting your mental health from overwhelm.

For many of my races, I break down the distance into smaller chunks - for example, ten miles "easy", ten miles "steady", and six miles "fast." It's amazingly simple but also effective for ensuring you're not overwhelmed or daunted by the distance and can be applied to practically any life scenario. "Practicing breaking down complex challenges into smaller, more manageable tasks and brainstorming potential solutions can be incredibly effective," she confirms.

4. Remember: resilience isn't the absence of distress

This one's something I really wish I'd known in my early 20's. "Remember that resilience isn’t the absence of distress," shares Mort. Rather, building mental resilience is an ongoing process that requires patience, practice, and self-compassion. 

Her advice? "Be kind to yourself, acknowledge your strengths and limitations, and celebrate your progress along the way," she shares. 

5. Seeking out opportunities for growth is vital

I often think back to 22-year-old me, signing up for the London Marathon and hoping beyond hope that I'd be able to complete the distance. I'm still so proud of that young 20-something for taking a risk, jumping into the unknown and pushing herself out of her comfort zone. I'm still grateful to this day that I did - if I hadn't, I wouldn't be who I am today. 

Mort agrees that pushing your comfort zone is key to not only boosting a strong mindset but improving your overall wellbeing, too. "Seeking out opportunities for growth and challenging yourself to step outside your comfort zone enables you to overcome obstacles, and overcoming obstacles ultimately strengthens your resilience and empowers you in everyday life."

Bottom line: Take the risk and challenge yourself. You'll only grow from it.

6. Reframing mental resilience as self care will get you far

Think of it this way: if you know you often feel overwhelmed in life, it might be time to start taking time for both your body and mind. This can be in whatever way works for you and your body, be that yoga classes, breathwork training, or even some meditation to help boost your ability to cope with stressful situations when they come your way. Self care activities complement one another, too - the more well-rested you are and the more you've fuelled your body with nutrient-dense food, the more headspace you'll have to tackle mental challenges.

"Prioritise activities that promote physical and emotional well-being, such as exercise, meditation, adequate sleep, and healthy nutrition," agrees Mort. "For instance, consider incorporating a daily mindfulness practice or regular exercise routine into your schedule to reduce stress and boost resilience."

7. Finding your "why" is the most important thing you can do

I would argue this has been the simplest thing I've done to boost my mental resilience - taking the time to truly work out what makes me tick and what motivates me to keep moving forwards, day in, day out.

In tough races, work situations, or life scenarios, having a "why" is imperative to remind me why I'm working so hard and why working so hard is important in the grand scheme of things. Most runs, for me, are to prove that I'm strong, able, and capable of doing hard things. Do remember, though - they're highly personal, and so really working out your personal "why" is key here. 

What is mental resilience?

In short, mental resilience describes your ability to cope with and recover from difficult life events, be that a challenging work situation, adversity, or illness. That said, Mort points out that it's an important tool for day-to-day, too, not just the big life events that might spring to mind. "Mental resilience is crucial for everyday life as it helps individuals cope with stress, overcome obstacles, and bounce back from setbacks, whether at work, in relationships, or in personal goals," she shares. 

Case in point: current research highlights the importance of mental resilience across various domains, including sports performance, academic achievement, and workplace success, with studies consistently showing that individuals with higher levels of mental resilience are more likely to achieve their goals, perform better under pressure, and experience greater overall well-being."

What are the benefits of building mental resilience?

According to Winslade, there are loads. Not only does building your mental resilience help you to cope more effectively with life challenges and boost emotional wellbeing, it also promises to improve your relationships, your ability to problem solve, and your confidence, to boot. 

Interestingly, research also indicates that resilient individuals may experience better physical health outcomes and have a reduced risk of developing chronic illnesses, she continues. "Recent research published in Building Resilience shows that as our brains are adapting in response to experiences and learning, so too is resilience," she details. "This involves forming new connections between neurons and modifying existing ones, allowing for rewiring and reorganisation of the brain."

Bottom line? "Building resilience enables individuals to lead more fulfilling and successful lives, navigating both the ups and downs with greater ease and effectiveness," the expert shares. 

Ally Head
Senior Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Senior Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, nine-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She's won a BSME for her sustainability work, regularly hosts panels and presents for events like the Sustainability Awards, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.