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What Is Mental Toughness, Anyway?
It’s not just about pushing through every obstacle.
It takes a certain amount of mental toughness just to be a distance runner, right? In signing up for a half marathon or marathon, you’re committing to racing double digit miles, accumulating the training mileage it takes to support that (logging more hours per week than the average run of a Netflix limited series), waking up at the crack of dawn so you’re not melting under the power of the sun, force-feeding yourself gel packets that seem better suited to a toddler… It’s a lot.
But mental toughness isn’t just about blindly powering through the discomforts that come throughout a training cycle.
“We’ve fallen for a kind of fake toughness that is control- and power-driven, developed through fear, fueled by insecurity, and based on appearance over substance,” Steve Magness wrote in his book Do Hard Things. “Instead, real toughness is experiencing discomfort or distress, leaning in, paying attention, and creating space to take thoughtful action. It’s maintaining a clear head to be able to make the appropriate decision. Toughness is navigating discomfort to make the best decision you can.”
Unfortunately, fake toughness runs rampant in the running world. You can see it in social media posturing about #nodaysoff, the unwillingness too many runners display when it comes to truly slowing down for easy runs, and the prevalence of people training through injuries. That kind of toxicity can make you doubt your own journey, and what your body is telling you it needs.
The idea of “powering through” makes sense “only if you actually take stock of what you are powering through,” writes Magness. Yes, some workouts are designed to feel hard—that’s what stimulates adaptations so you become stronger and faster. When you’re fully ready to tackle those workouts, awesome. But if you’re sick and your body needs time to recover, what’s the point of pushing through a tough workout? If you’re drowning in work or dealing with family drama, what’s the benefit of further overloading your system with physical stress? If a niggle is on the cusp of an injury and you have a long run on deck, what’s the payoff of potentially pushing it past the limit?
Over the past year, I’ve really tried to embrace leaning in, paying attention, and creating space to take thoughtful action in my training. Case in point: A few weeks ago, I had an 18-mile run on the schedule. The second I woke up at 4:45 a.m., I knew it was going to be a bad run. By mile 6 of the out-and-back route, I threw in the towel; I ran/walked the distance back to my car because I just didn’t have the will to grind it out. I wasn’t thrilled with my choice, but instead of spiraling, I kept reminding myself that those seven miles I missed weren’t going to make or break my training. Showing up and quitting early was better than not showing up at all, I reasoned. That didn’t make everything better the next day, or the day after that; I had three weeks of meh running. But then it finally clicked again. By giving myself that space and a little bit of grace, I think I avoided digging myself into an even deeper hole of mental (and physical) burnout.
Sure, dogged persistance is a kind of toughness. But mental toughness, especially as it relates to endurance sports, comes down to making smart decisions that will serve you in the long run—and that takes training. A recent study published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology says mental toughness, which is positively related to endurance performance, requires three resources: challenging goals, self-efficacy (AKA belief in yourself), and self-control—all of which you can practice and improve.
Personally, I think the most important piece of that is self-control—because that’s something that applies to your life outside of running, too. Stress is stress, I say this all the time. And you are the only person who can control how you react to a stressor.
There’s a bit from a 2002 article on mental toughness publish in the Journal of Applied Sports Psychology that really hits home for me: “It is really about knowing what your priorities are at any given time and not being distracted from them,” the study authors wrote. “And priorities are not always about training and competition. Mentally tough performers are able to switch off from sport-related demands when they need or desire to.”
As fall marathon season approaches, boundaries are more important than ever. That could mean boundaries around your sleep schedule, how you eat, what social events you commit to, whatever. Some people don’t understand the mental energy that training for a big race requires, some people don’t care. But if you care about something, it’s up to you to protect yourself from comparisons, judgement, and any other toxic behaviors that might make you doubt your process.
If you’ve got a race on deck, you’ve already set the challenging goal. Now, it comes down to believing in yourself and prioritizing who and what you direct your energy towards so you can show up as your best self when it matters most to you.
Nike Infinity RN4
When Nike first released the Infinity, it was all like “this shoe will prevent all running injuries!” Yea, that’s not possible—but it has been one of the few shoes I’ve worn into the ground thanks to its comfort and reliability. The latest version introduces the brand’s new ReactX foam, which cuts down the shoe’s carbon footprint by at least 43 percent. But because the foam undergoes an injection process rather than compression molding, you get increased energy return (not the norm with sustainable materials). I thought it felt closer to the Invincible than the previous Infinity iteration and I liked how locked down my foot felt, even with the extra volume added to the forefoot. The Infinity has always been a shoe I’ve felt good about traveling with, because it can equally handle walking, easy running, and some uptempo work—and that still holds true.
The Food Industry Pays ‘Influencer’ Dietitians to Shape Your Eating Habits
The Washington Post just released the results of a report done in partnership with nonprofit newsroom The Examination to look at popular TikTok dietitians and their messaging around food, beverages, and supplements, and guess what? Their content is absolutely influenced by each of those industries, which are paying influencers to help sell products and deliver industry-friendly messages (like encouraging viewers to eat candy and ice cream and downplaying the health risks of highly processed foods and pushing unproven supplements). Just another reason to consume your content carefully!
The Rudy Project Kelion Sunglasses
The Rudy Project just launched a new sports performance style, Kelion. I love their shield-style shades, even though they almost veer towards the too-big-even-for-me end of the spectrum (they work great with a bike helmet or for cross country skiing, though). The main hook: The eco-friendly frame is made from rilsan, a sustainable polymer made from the oil of castor beans grown in India. I’ve been noticing more and more eyewear brands touting sustainable materials; is this something you care about in your sunglasses?
Strength Training Reduces Depression Symptoms
Earlier this summer, Frontiers in Psychiatry published a meta-analysis that found resistance exercise to be the most effective type of training to improve depression and anxiety in young individuals. Good news: It’s good for the olds, too. A new study in Geriatric Nursing suggests that resistance training may be an effective intervention for reducing depression symptoms in older adults, as well improving levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which plays a critical role in generating new neurons in the brain, strengthening the connections of those neurons, and overall brain health. With any more news about how great lifting is for mental health, I’ll basically be living in a weight room as soon as this marathon season is over.