Mental and emotional fitness, in my opinion is greatest attribute that an endurance athlete, or any other for that matter, can develop. It is more important than physical fitness by far. Your body will give out before your mind will. However, if you are mentally fit, then you will be able to push past limits once thought impossible.
Notice I say “mental fitness” and not “mental toughness”. I believe these are two different
concepts and understanding the difference will help athletes develop the specific skill sets that they will need to achieve greatness in the face of adversity.
Mental fitness implies that it is an attribute which can be developed, and built. But also an attribute which can decondition, and be lost. This is a conscious thing. However, mental toughness has the stigma that an athlete or person either has it or they don’t. This is a myth. Mental fitness is just like physical fitness. It must be developed, tested, and maintained. The more you develop it, the greater your mental fitness will be. Both you physical and mental fitness act like armor when you are faced with adversity in real world scenarios. Below are the top 5 ways to develop mental fitness:
Know Why You Are Doing It Before You Start
If you don’t know why you are doing something, then you have no conviction. You need to understand why you are suffering and sacrificing if you are going to endure. The answer to this question must be deep seeded and intrinsic. It must be something that YOU believe in. Not someone else.
Design a Portion of Your Training Sessions Specifically to Build Mental Fitness
Every training session that I design for both myself and the athletes I coach has an objective. Nothing is random. Mental fitness is no different. I will design sessions that test the athletes mental fitness. These can be both in the field and in an artificial, controlled setting such as the gym. An example of a gym session would be something as follows:
As Many Rounds As Possible for 60 Minutes:
100 Dumbell Step Ups with 10-20 lbs.
10 Sandbag Getups
The purpose of this workout is to put the athlete in a very uncomfortable state that forces the athlete to focus and face key problems mentally that they must overcome. The movements by themselves are not difficult. However, when you add repetition over time the perceived effort load is magnified. We then take this newly developed mental fitness out of the gym and into the real world. This is when athletes competing in long endurance workouts and races can reflect back on grueling training sessions designed to develop mental fitness and have the confidence and maturity to embrace suffering and work through mental problems. Long multi-hour endurance workouts are also a great way to build mental fitness. One such workout that I will use when training is to do a 50k treadmill workout with signifigant elevation gain and loss. Do something that is uncomfortable and sucks everyday.
Stop over thinking everything. The hours and miles ahead don’t matter. Focus on the tasks at hand and do them one at a time. When it is 4am and your alarm goes off, focus on getting out of bed, then get dressed and put on your shoes, so on and so on. If you feel like shit and want to quit at a race, find our why? Are you eating and drinking enough? Focus on eating one energy bar while putting one foot in front of the other. Just focus on getting to the next aid station. You eat an elephant one bite at a time. Focus your energy on solving the problems that are immediate and matter.
Don’t Take Short Cuts
Everyone wants a quick fix and the easy road to success. Let me give you some advice. IT DOESN’T EXIST. You have to put in the work if you want to be successful. Period. Have the maturity and integrity to eat right, train consistently, don’t skip reps in the gym, build mental fitness, educate yourself, and so on. Approach it like a professional and it is your job. You will find more success in this approach.
The number of endurance athletes that have yet to learn patience astounds me. You would think that the very nature of endurance sports would teach this. Well, it does. But you have to be willing to listen. You have to trust the process. Let training and the race come to you. Have a plan and execute it. This translates to more that sports. This is a life lesson. There is a saying, “If you live life long enough, then it will teach you how to live it.” I feel the same is true with endurance and suffering. If you practice it enough then you will gain patience and understanding, but you have to be willing.
Practice building and maintaining mental fitness and you will develop a skill set that can be used to overcome and solve many problems in both endurance sports and life. To learn more and to get customized coaching, check out the Ultra Expeditions website: https://www.ultraexpeditions.com/coaching