Building Mental Toughness
An expert's guide to sticking it out through pain and suffering
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When he’s asked about the keys to his success, Eliud Kipchoge—the greatest, grittiest marathoner of all time—begins his explanation by pointing not to his physical fitness but his mental stamina. “If you don’t rule your mind, your mind will rule you,” he says. At first glance, Kipchoge, who stands five foot six and weighs 126 pounds, might not register as a certified badass. But the amount of pain he endures, the discipline he brings to his training, and the consistency with which his mind says “yes” when his body is screaming “no” make him one of the toughest people on the planet. Kipchoge’s tactics for building mental toughness are simple in concept but require heroic levels of resolve to reach their full potential.
Unlike the external facade of fake toughness—the guy picking a fight at your local gym, the anonymous commenter acting hard on message boards, the boss who masks their own insecurity by yelling at their subordinates—real toughness, the kind Kipchoge exemplifies, is an inside game. Understanding and developing it can be the difference between being good and great in sport, in work, and in life. Here’s how to start.
Understand What It Actually Means to Be Mentally Tough
Over the past year, I’ve been having an ongoing discussion about the definition of mental toughness with people who are interested in peak performance, including therapists, teachers, businesspeople, and world-class athletes. My collaborators and I landed here: toughness is experiencing something that is subjectively distressing, and then leaning in, paying attention, and creating space to take a thoughtful action that aligns with your core values.
I later learned that this definition is similar to what researchers call psychological flexibility, or the ability to make a conscious decision based on one’s chosen values to persist or change course in the midst of a challenging situation. Another way to think about it is learning to respond to distress thoughtfully instead of immediately reacting. Studies show that psychological flexibility is integral to performance and mental health.
Know Your Core Values to Unlock Mental Stamina
Come up with the three to five things that matter most to you, whether these are the guiding principles of your life or aspects of the person you want to become. Examples include concrete things like good health and rewarding relationships, as well as more abstract qualities like creativity, presence, optimism, and authenticity. Whatever words you come up with, write a sentence or two on each, describing what they mean to you. These are the values you’ll want to act in service of when the going gets tough. In his book A New Republic of the Heart, philosopher Terry Patten encourages readers to make a practice of living. Unlike cruising through life on autopilot, drifting from one convenient thing to the next, practice, Patten writes, “is about waking up again and again and choosing to show up in alignment with one’s highest intelligence,” on what matters most. This intention is the foundation of mental toughness.
Embrace Pain, but Don’t React to It
Pain is just pain. It’s only when you fight against it, instead of just experiencing it, that pain turns into suffering. One way to learn to experience pain neutrally is through meditation. In the words of Jon Kabat Zinn, a meditation teacher and professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, meditation teaches you to “cradle [pain] in your awareness,” which in turn dampens its effect. Studies show that individuals who meditate regularly feel the same amount of pain as those who don’t, but they respond much differently. Rather than reacting to pain with a massive stress response, they accept pain, sit with it, and then move on.
One way to create space and stay present amid pain is to have what Steve Magness, a professional and collegiate running coach (and my collaborator and close friend), calls a “calm conversation.” At the core of that calm conversation, you’re acknowledging pain and then separating it from a more expansive sense of self. Magness says that the conversation, which should be deployed when workouts or races start to get really tough, goes something like: “This is starting to hurt now. It should. I’m running hard. But I am separate from this pain. It is going to be OK.” Mental toughness isn’t just grinding through pain, rather it’s a way to establish awareness.
Similar to regular meditation, Magness’s calm conversation gets athletes in the habit of creating space between the physical sensation of pain and their reaction to it. “If you fight the pain, or freak out at its onset, that’s when you really suffer and tend to crumble,” he says. “But if you learn how to somewhat dispassionately observe your pain, you increase your chances of working through it constructively.” This is equally true off the field as it is on it.
Develop a Mantra
You can also open up space during distressing circumstances by developing a mantra, a short and meaningful phrase you repeat to yourself. A 2015 study published in the journal Brain Behavior found that repeating a mantra occupies the brain enough so that it doesn’t get caught up in obsessing, planning, and catastrophizing. This, the researchers in the study write, accounts for a significant centering and a “calming effect.”
As I’ve written before, many elite athletes use mantras. Mountaineer Jimmy Chin repeats, “Commit and figure it out.” Endurance athlete and podcast host Rich Roll says, “Mood follows action.” Olympian and professional triathlete Sarah True reminds herself, “This too shall pass.” If you are going to experiment with using a mantra, don’t wait to be in the thick of an intense experience. It’s good to practice in lower-stakes situations first.
Remember: Stress Plus Rest Equals Growth
Don’t turn away from challenges. If you want to get better at anything, you’ve got to stress yourself. Just make sure that you follow these challenges with periods of rest and recovery. Whether in sports or in life, too much stress without enough rest leads to injury, illness, and burnout. The equation you need to remember is this: Stress + Rest = Growth.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) coaches on performance and well-being and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is also a bestselling author of the books The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance.