How to Overcome Psychological Obstacles

An Army reservist competes in the Best Warrior competition.
U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Valery Valtrain, an intelligence analyst with the 151st Theater Information Operations Group, finishes the Fit to Win obstacle course during day two of the 2021 U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) Best Warrior competition at Fort Jackson, S.C., April 9, 2021. (Sgt. Hubert D. Delany III/U.S. Army Reserve photo)

Here is a concerned future military member who is having a tough time with what we all have to conquer when exceeding perceived limits -- our own doubts.

"I have a problem -- mentally, I think. I am fitter than any time before in my life, which my brain knows, but my mind constantly speaks to me that I cannot run, my legs are tired after 50 meters, no joke. Now my question to you is: can you give me advice on how SEALs deal with psychologically tough situations? I seem to have some sort of competition blockade. Do you have any ideas besides sports hypnosis? I mean, tricks that I can do myself."

I do not have any "special way" to think yourself through running faster, but I recommend three things for starters:

1. Breathing control

I take three steps to inhale and 2-3 steps to exhale. This slows the heart rate to be able to run longer and faster. Most people come close to hyperventilating when running, causing higher heart rates than normal. Breath slowly as if you were yawning or taking "cleansing breaths," if you have even given birth.

2. Learn the pace.

If your goal is to run 1.5 miles in nine minutes:

  • Run a half-mile at 1:30
  • Run a half-mile at 3:00
  • Run one mile at 6:00

and so on ... see related articles below for more running information.

This is called learning a six-minute mile pace. It has nothing to do with mental toughness, just practice. After a few months of learning the pace, your confidence will grow as the roots to mental and physical toughness develop.

3. Get better and tougher by doing.

Your mind soon will start to know you can do it when you realize how easy a 1:30 quarter-mile run is, but you have to do it at a shorter distance at goal pace before you can believe it. In my opinion, you get better and tougher by doing, not reading and researching ways to make difficult things easier. 

Here is one thing I tell my 10- to 13-year-old track team: Think of your running workouts like penmanship class. You know how to run and write the alphabet. What running workouts and penmanship classes enable you to do is learn how to run and write better, more quickly, neater and more efficiently. 

It takes doing, so focus on breathing first and developing muscle memory for the pace you are seeking to set for your fitness test, and the toughness will follow. On a side note, there is a reason why a majority of SEAL training dropouts are under 20 years old. They need more hard training and maturity.

Good luck. It takes years or a lifetime to get tougher. Sometimes it clicks with one major event. We are all different, but toughness is within us all. You just have to tap into it and not listen to yourself when your mind is telling you to stop.

Related articles:

PFT Anxiety   |    PFT Transition   |   Drop Mile Pace  |   Running Breathing

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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