“We often think of races as ‘painful,’ but physical pain is completely distinct from the sense of effort — the struggle to keep going against a mounting desire to stop — that usually limits race speed.”
— Alex Hutchinson
Consider for a moment what mental toughness means to you within the context of your sport. What does it look like in practice? What are some examples of situations where you found yourself implementing it?
What Is Mental Toughness?
Sport — and life — is filled with challenges, obstacles, and setbacks. At some point in a race where we’re pushing our limits, it’s not a matter of if we’ll feel uncomfortable but when. Knowing how to deal with discomfort and pain, and how to navigate around obstacles and setbacks is an invaluable mental skill for athletes to develop.
Mental toughness generally refers to the application of grit, resilience, and perseverance in the face of mounting challenges and difficulties. It involves a willingness to stay in moments of difficulty because of a deep connection to our goals and purpose. It involves a psychological flexibility to accept what comes up, a curiosity to explore what we can do to bridge difficult moments, and an optimism that we will get through them if we keep at it.
Mental toughness is central to the psychobiological model of endurance performance — how perception of effort and a willingness to endure can be limiters (or enablers) of performance. If we are willing to put forth the level of effort required by the activity, believe we have more to give, and continue to view our goal as attainable, then we will persevere. But we must be in pursuit of something meaningful, underscoring how important our big “why” — or purpose — becomes to deploying mental toughness.
Our Relationship to Discomfort and Pain
As running coach Joe Vigil has remarked, the key to faster times as a runner is to learn “to be comfortable being uncomfortable.” Being comfortable in uncomfortable situations is a skill that can be trained and developed through experience and practice.
To understand our relationship to discomfort and pain, consider the distinction between pain threshold and pain tolerance. Pain threshold is the point at which the perception of a stimulus is recognized as being painful. For example, if you place your hand in a glass of ice water and time how long you keep it there, there will be a point when the experience turns painful. If you and a group of friends do this at a dinner table together, there’s likely to be fairly similar judgments about when that pain threshold is reached — as measured by time spent in water at a given temperature.
Pain tolerance, however, may vary quite a bit among your group of friends engaged in this experiment. Pain tolerance refers to the maximum level of pain you are willing to endure. This may go beyond the pain threshold. In the ice water experiment, different individuals may exhibit vastly different levels of pain tolerance — how long they keep their hand in the ice water — even if everyone generally agrees on the pain threshold for the activity.
If you turn the ice water experiment into a contest, the willingness of you and your friends to keep your hands in the ice water for a longer period of time would likely increase. Now there’s a point to the exercise — it’s become a contest (maybe for bragging rights or a free dinner) rather than simply being an experiment. It’s gained some sort of greater meaning for the group of participants. Some may still see it as pointless, in which case they may spend little time in the glass of ice water. Others may be highly motivated to win the free dinner, in which case they would try to match their willingness to endure the pain and the effort they put forth with the requirements of the activity (needing to keep their hand in the ice water a second longer than everyone else at the table).
Enduring in the ice water game depends on several factors, as discussed earlier when defining mental toughness, including the meaningfulness of the game to each participant, a willingness to keep a hand in the ice water beyond one’s pain threshold, a curiosity to explore what comes up, and an optimism one can last as long as needed. But how well any of the contestants navigate and deploy mental toughness in this endurance test can be improved through training.
Training to Be Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
There are plenty of opportunities during training to gain experience learning to be comfortable while uncomfortable — every VO2max workout you do demands just that. But to train this skill further, look for opportunities to integrate situations of discomfort and controlled adversity into your everyday training sessions. Choose practice situations that are relevant to you and your goals.
Below are a few ways to do this. During these situations, focus on being mentally flexible to cope with the adversity. Accept the situation without being rigid or trying to avoid it. Deploy relaxation techniques or strategic self-talk to guide yourself through the moments.
Training in adverse weather conditions. As we all know, not all races take place in perfect conditions, so training in adverse conditions can help you learn coping mechanisms that you can apply when race conditions are less than ideal. For example, instead of shelving a run due to adverse weather or running inside on the treadmill, head out into the pelting rain, blowing snow, or fierce wind. You may not be able to achieve the originally planned workout in those weather conditions, but you can turn it into a mental toughness workout instead.
Training with an intentional irritant. Introducing some sort of irritant, such as cold exposure, during a training session forces you to adjust and cope. For example, when you’re on a run on a cold day, take off one of your gloves and put it in your pocket for some amount of time. Run like that beyond your point of discomfort. Use strategic self-talk to positively frame the experience and motivate yourself. Apply what you learn when future training and racing situations don’t always go as planned.
When It Stops Being Mental Toughness
The point of training “to be comfortable being uncomfortable” is obviously not to cause harm or injury. The point is to develop resilience and grit. The line between what is and what isn’t mental toughness can be fluid and therefore sometimes hard to recognize, but making that distinction is part of what it means to be a resilient, self-aware athlete. Sometimes pushing through pain in a race is a form of mental toughness, sometimes pushing through pain can lead to serious injury. Knowing the difference is a skill just as important as developing mental toughness itself.
When something fails to serve your goals, it’s no longer mental toughness. Running barefoot on hot pavement might test your pain tolerance, but it doesn’t serve your goals or develop mental toughness when it leaves you with burned feet and unable to train or start the race you’re targeting. When training in adverse weather conditions or using cold exposure, overexposure doesn’t serve your interests. Running without a glove on a cold day doesn’t make sense if you have Raynaud syndrome and doing so to the point of frostbite on your fingers is counterproductive.
Part of developing resilience is learning how to take care of yourself when you face adversity — before, during, and after the difficult moments. After running outside in a blizzard, for example, implement the steps needed when you finish to avoid hypothermia — taking a hot shower, putting on warm clothes, and so forth. Take a holistic approach to developing your awareness and mental toughness. Keep your purpose and goals visible as a guide. Be wise. Train smart.