Cultivating Mental Toughness

For a long time I heard the term “mental toughness” in relation to endurance athletes and I always thought it referred to the quality that was needed in the race itself to bear the pain and tedium of long competition. And that’s certainly one kind of mental toughness. But one day I read a chapter by Joe Friel, one of the best-known coaches and authors on triathlon training, that gave me a new way to think about the meaning of mental toughness. His use of it applied much more broadly to training or daily fitness improvement. I use this meaning in conversations with myself and with clients almost every day.

Here are some facets of what mental toughness means. See if you can claim any you could use right now.

  • Having the discipline to fit training and fitness practices into your life, to make it a priority that your lifestyle supports.
  • Finding ways to work out even if environmental conditions or schedule interruptions threaten to derail you.
  • Having a plan for success (a training or fitness plan, a race strategy), or a plan for getting back on track when you do get derailed.
  • The ability to accept setbacks as natural and to learn from them.
  • Recognizing what you can control and what you can’t, and directing your energy accordingly.
  • Having the patience to reach your goals when they aren’t immediately achievable. Persevering through periods when you don’t see much progress.

It’s this last point that’s been coming up a lot for my clients recently. A runner I work with wanted a sub 2-hour half marathon. His previous half marathon times were 2:30 on the same course, and 2:08 on an easier course. He was disappointed when he came in at 2:05. In the moment, it can be hard to swallow, but that’s a massive time improvement! That’s where you have to bring in the mental toughness—the patience and perspective that you’re moving toward your goal even if you didn’t hit it in this race, this year.

If we take this out of a race setting and just look at general fitness, I bet even more of you can relate. If you’ve been in good shape in the past and your fitness has waned, it can be a tough road back IF you constantly compare your prior state with your on-the-way back state. Believe me, I know! There’s impatience, self-loathing, frustration at not being able to do more without feeling winded.

If this sounds familiar, it’s a great time to work on your mental toughness. Shift your focus away from those negative emotions and instead cultivate these things:

  • Your desire to succeed.
  • Your ability to make it important.
  • Your plan for success and turning around relapses.
  • Your patience and perseverance.

The beautiful thing? This psychology applies to the non-physical realm too, right? Right.

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