Mental toughness will not give you superpowers

I was running the first fast interval of a speed workout when nausea hit. I immediately realized the cause: my lunch choices were…not great for a pre-run meal. It was too late to change things, and, while I could still run, the discomfort was severe enough that I knew I wouldn’t be running anywhere near my goal paces.

Despite the obvious facts, I began an internal debate with myself. It wasn’t about completing the workout as planned; I knew immediately that wasn’t going to happen. But there was a voice in the back of my head saying “you should still push hard for your intervals, because mental toughness.” And the larger part of my brain said “wait, what?”

I’ve always consciously rejected the abominable “fitspiration” advice that says “unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going.” And yet, there was a part of my brain telling me to literally risk puking. I had analyzed my circumstances and decided there was no benefit to continuing to push hard. But the “mental toughness” argument I was making to myself kept saying: “well, you should, because…you just should, ok?”

Once I had quieted that argument and settled into an easy pace, I spent the rest of the run thinking about what mental toughness means. A concrete description of what mental toughness is and isn’t kept slipping away from me, but fortunately the next day offered a counterexample.

I was lifting weights – heavy ones. It was the first time in several months that I’d attempted high weight/low rep sets of deadlifts. I was frustrated by how difficult it was to lift a weight that used to feel easy, and I was breathing hard by the end of each set (totally normal for deadlifts).

Between sets, I tried to convince myself to quit early. “Deadlifts aren’t supposed to be this hard, surely? Maybe you’re not up to them today!” But I settled on the more logical conclusion: “There’s nothing physically wrong. It’s hard because deadlifts are hard. Exercise some mental toughness and finish your sets.”

From these contrasting experiences, I formed my own definition of mental toughness. Mental toughness isn’t a Herculean mind-over-matter effort; it isn’t using willpower to force your body to do something it’s not currently physically capable of. Mental toughness is coaxing your body to accomplish things that are difficult, but feasible. Mental toughness exhorts you to keep going when circumstances are unfavorable, or to push your hardest when circumstances are ideal. Mental toughness doesn’t require you to perform ideally when conditions aren’t ideal. Mental toughness is tenacious, but realistic.

Ok, that’s all very well, but it’s not very concrete. So here are some examples that come to mind when I think of how I do – and don’t – use mental toughness:

  • Deadlifts are hard, but I can lift heavy things.
  • Racing a 5K is hard, but I can hold this pace a bit longer.
  • Long runs are hard, but I can keep going when I’m tired.
  • I may run after I’ve eaten too much, but I won’t push the pace.
  • I may run in extreme cold, but I’ll cut it short if there’s any risk of frostbite.
  • I may work out when I’m exhausted, but I’ll make it short and easy.
  • I don’t try to race at a pace I haven’t trained for.
  • I don’t expect to run fast into a strong headwind.
  • I don’t fall for my brain’s “maybe a workout will make you feel better” trick when I definitely have a fever.

Of course, mental toughness also applies to other areas of life. But since this post was inspired by fitness, I chose to focus on fitness examples. Broader applications are left as an exercise for the reader. 😉

Will mental toughness help you do the impossible? A look at what mental toughness means...and what it doesn't mean

P.S. You don’t have to make it harder, and you’re doing the best that you can.



What does mental toughness look like for you?


Linking up with Wild Workout Wednesday & Coaches’ Corner & Thinking Out Loud

10 Comment

  1. I love this post and completely agree with you. We shouldn’t push ourselves to the point of puking or fainting or any of that. We should be pushing ourselves to achieve more, but not to the point of almost dying or risking our health.

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      And there are times to just stop pushing for a bit 🙂

  2. I especially love your comment…Mental toughness has tenacity, but it’s also realistic. I totally agree with that 😉
    Kimberly Hatting recently posted…DisciplineMy Profile

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      Yeah, I’ve tried unrealistic tenacity…that’ll get you nowhere fast 😉

  3. Rachel says: Reply

    This is a great post. I 100% agree with all of this. Mental toughness is about pushing through hard things for sure. And also knowing when to step it back a bit… there’s push and pull in any training regimen and certainly throughout life!
    Rachel recently posted…Coaching Kids Run the Nation ClevelandMy Profile

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      Yes! You can’t push hard 100% of the time.

  4. I LOVE this. SO often people confuse HARD with GOOD or they think that they can’t or shouldn’t stop because they are weak….which is so NOT true. You explained it so well <3

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      Agree -hard for the sake of hard isn’t helpful.

  5. Love your insights on this. I think for me mental toughness is digging deep and not giving in at the first hurdle when you know deep down you can do more. But exactly like you said, its realistic.
    Shathiso recently posted…Kgale X-Country Trail Series, Race Recap #13/17My Profile

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      True – if you give in as soon as it gets hard, you’ll never know for sure what you can do.

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