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. 😉
What does mental toughness look like for you?