Mental toughness. We hear that term a lot in endurance sports. People say “it’s as much mental as it is physical”. Maybe so, but what is mental toughness? Some call it perseverance, tenacity, or determination. My husband says I’m just plain old stubborn. Maybe so. Is this something you’re born with, or something you cultivate over time? Can you train yourself to be mentally tough? I think mental toughness is that certain something that allows us to keep on pushing through, even when everything inside you is screaming to stop. I do think some people are born with a little more grit than others, but I also think being mentally tough is something we can cultivate and grow, something we can train ourselves to have more of. Without it, I really don’t think most people would be able to finish long endurance events. At the first sign of discomfort, they’d simply quit. I also think mental toughness is situational…a person may be a force to contend with in business, but not in sports, and vice versa.
We all know how to train our bodies to meet the demands of our sport…we listen to a coach, we follow a written plan, we go to the gym, we do hill repeats and sprints, we go run and then run some more. I don’t think, however, that becoming mentally tough is something that most endurance runners consciously train. It is not written in the training program or even something that is quantifiable. It is just something that happens. Every time you set the alarm for some ungodly early morning hour and get up when it goes off, gulp down some coffee, and set off for your workout of choice, you are growing it. When it is cold and windy and raining, and you go for your run anyway, you are getting stronger. When you’ve been out running on the trails for hours and there is the option of taking a trail that is a little bit shorter to get back to your car, but you take the longer one instead, you are cultivating mental toughness. Whatever it may be…you’re tired, it is hot, it is cold, you’ve worked all day, you’ve been up all night with a baby, you just plain old don’t want to, but you lace up your running shoes and go out anyway, you are becoming more mentally tough.
Come race day is when we can see just how mentally tough we have become. In any ultra marathon I have done, there always seems to come a low point, a point where I am tired and I just don’t want to be out there anymore. Once, about 80k into a particularly difficult 100k, I was done, really done. I was all by myself, it was the middle of the night, I was exhausted, and I found myself at the bottom of yet another hill after a string of endless hills. I just sat down on a rock and cried. It had not been an easy day and I didn’t think I could do it. After awhile I realized though, that I had no choice but to do it. I could do it. I had trained for it, and I could do it. I just had to wipe my tears, stand up, and get going. So I picked myself up, climbed that hill, and finished the race. I think our mental toughness is what allows us to keep pushing through situations like that, to push through fatigue and discomfort, to silence the “I can’t” and replace it with “I can”. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly times when the couch wins, when I hit the snooze button, when I talk myself out of that last hill repeat, but I think that’s ok too, as long as we get out there more times than not. But it happens when our legs or lungs are yelling at us, when that voice inside our head is telling us to stop, to turn around, to take the shortcut, to go back to sleep, that we can’t do it and we silence the voice with I can, I will, I need to, I am going to. This is how we grow that mental fortitude that allows us to be successful at whatever we are trying to do, to become “tough as nails”. So, next time you persevere all the way through a tough workout, go out there when you’d rather be on the couch, or silence the excuses inside your head, know that come next time, come the next tough training session, come the next long endurance race, know that you are doing yourself a favour and making your likelihood of success much larger. You don’t have to want to do it, you just have to do it. Just keep moving forward.