psychological flexibility

Could Psychological Flexibility Be More Important Than Mental Toughness?

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When I had CTS coach and licensed psychotherapist, Neal Palles, on the Trainright Podcast, I thought we were diving into a conversation about mental toughness and psychological considerations for the masters athlete. Instead, I walked away with a mantra I’ve scribbled on a sticky note on the corner of my computer monitor:

“Psychological Flexibility > Mental Toughness.”

When he first said it, my initial reaction was an enthusiastic fist pump. Mental toughness, while valued highly in the ultra-endurance community, does not serve you unless you can also adapt when a workout doesn’t go to plan, or you hit a low during an event. I think adaptability – or flexibility – is an idea we can all get behind. But what does psychological flexibility mean in practice and how can you apply it to your own training and racing?

What is Psychological Flexibility?

Psychological flexibility, the type that Neal preaches, is rooted in a form of psychotherapy known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which has been used for decades to treat anxiety, depression, and high stress. In more recent years ACT is finding its way into the athletic space. Practioners and athletes have experienced improved athletic performances associated with various mindfulness practices, like meditation.

Psychological flexibility is defined as being in contact with the present moment by being fully aware of your emotions, sensations, and thoughts and welcoming them all in, even the undesired ones, in order to continue to pursue your goals. Or more simply, accepting your thoughts and feelings to move in the direction led by your values, not letting short-term impulses steer the ship.

What gets in the way of being Psychologically Flexible?

Seems simple enough, but if we all had this dialed in I wouldn’t be here. So what keeps us from being inherently psychologically flexible beings and how do we work to master these areas? Sometimes the best way to understand something is to understand what it is not. The opposite of psychological flexibility is psychological inflexibility. This is the state we are trying to avoid, and there are six ways we slip into a state of psychological inflexibility.

First – avoiding unwanted thoughts, emotions, and sensations.

We do this when we try to avoid common feelings like nervousness or anxiety. This includes get stuck on past failures. By acknowledging what is happening or how we feel about it, we can accept where we are currently and A.D.A.P.T. in the moment.

Second – falling out of contact with the present moment.

Linked closely with the first idea, people often lose focused attention on the moment or the mile you’re in. While this might feel nice, it can impact your ability to adjust to an adverse event. Instead of letting your mind wander or spiral with thoughts and fears far in the future, switch that internal dialogue to ‘running the mile you are in.’

Third – remaining attached to our desired or former version of our self.

This could be the comparison trap we are all vulnerable to. It could also be getting hung up on a narrative you’ve told yourself, like, “I’m not good in the heat” or “I’m not a climber”. It could even be experiencing guilt over not having the ‘mental toughness’ you imagined you had. Don’t be rigid in your view of your capabilities.

Fourth – believing thoughts are facts.

In hard times or times of high stress our brains can get the best of us. We can be led to believe the thoughts and emotions we are experiencing are an accurate reflection of reality. More often, they are reflections of our emotions. Notice these thoughts – “I’m not good in the heat” and instead create distance from that thought, addressing reality.

Fifth – lacking clarity about your values.

Values are your north star. They reinforce your focus and are the foundation supporting your performance goals. While values are not rigid, they help steer behavior when things go sideways. For instance, my values are community, adventure, experience, and friends. So, when my race goal goes off the rails my desire to experience the adventure allows me to adapt to the mile I’m in and still enjoy my experience. Having a strong connection with values that go beyond your athletic results becomes an important resource when things get hard.

Sixth – pursuing avoidance goals.

Or, in other words, leaning into avoidance behavior and inaction. When your psychological flexibility is low it’s easy to get stuck in a negative cycle of avoidance patterns (impulsivity, working against your values). This cycle further increases distress and anxiety in and around training and racing. Lean into mindfulness, lean into self-compassion, and lean into the present moment.

It’s time to limber up and get psychologically flexible!

You can work on psychological flexibility over time, like you work on your chronically tight hamstrings. You already set aside time to stretch and foam roll. Set aside time to work on stretching your mind as well. Identify your core values that will guide you through thick and thin. Take steps to name the emotions, thoughts, and feelings that come up in and around training and racing. Then, practice leaning into them as you run the mile you are in. During our conversation, Neal would often joke, “Here comes the soft social worker in me!” but cultivating psychological flexibility is only soft in that it makes you malleable – a trait ‘toughness’ is often too rigid to allow.

By Corrine Malcolm,
CTS Expert Coach, Ultrarunning Host for the Trainright Podcast


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