Mentally Tough: Exercising for the Body and the Mind – Article written for Aktiv Laufen

What does it mean to be mentally tough?

When a person is considered mentally tough, they can get over their failures or challenges quickly by being positive and competitive. You could probably name a dozen mentally tough professional athletes who overcame adversity or injuries with ease or name a few that have such a high drive for success and are fierce competitors. 

 

Tennis players Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal, golfer Tiger Woods come to mind – just to name a few. Now retired, Maria Sharapova has said that to prepare herself for matches she has to be her best and doesn’t let past failures get in the way of her goals. In a 2014 interview she said, “More to yourself than anyone else, is how far you can go mentally so that you can get to the next tournament and change the result around.”

 

 

It may seem that some individuals are born with an innate ability for mental toughness and resilience, but, thankfully it’s a skill that we can all develop with consistent work and we can all benefit from becoming just a little bit stronger mentally.

Why is it important, and what are the benefits?

Mental strength can benefit our lives in so many ways, even if we aren’t professional athletes. Being mentally tough is a mindset, and it can help us be and perform our best.

 

A 2020 meta-analysis published in the BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine journal, found that people with higher levels of mental toughness experience the following benefits:

 

  • Improved Performance: Those considered mentally strong perform about 25% better than their counterparts that aren’t deemed mentally strong. This mindset gives purpose in work and a greater commitment to that work.

 

  • Wellbeing: Mentally tough people are more content with their overall life. A strong mindset will help manage stress, improve sleep, and boost mental health (e.g., depression and anxiety symptoms). 

 

  • Positive Behavior: Because mentally tough individuals have increased wellbeing, they are generally more positive and have immense belief in themselves. 

 

  • Increased Resilience: One phrase comes to mind when resilience comes up, and that is “control the controllable.” There are so many things in our lives that can’t be controlled. What we do have control of is how we respond to situations. We can improve our resiliency when hard times and daily stress pop up by improving mental strength.

Is mental toughness important for runners?

Mental toughness is probably one of the most important skills for runners to develop. Proper running technique and a good shoe are important but running is mostly an individual sport. Runners spend a great deal of time in their heads – talking to themselves, either positively or negatively – and that is where the psychological aspect of the sport comes in.

 

Working on improving your mental strength and resiliency will help you when you’re pushing through that last mile of your run – whether it be your daily run or a marathon. 

 

In 2021, a Hartpury University study in England looked at 56 elite ultra-marathon athletes and found that high levels of mental toughness enabled them to complete race distances greater than 100km while experiencing pain, discomfort, and stress on their bodies. 

Does mental toughness training help amateurs or only competitive athletes?

Mental toughness is for everyone, no matter the skill level, and those skills can transfer to daily life. Amateurs and professionals enjoy the same benefits when making mental toughness a habit: it can enhance performance and help them get in the zone. Amateurs can benefit from improving their mental toughness if they are interested in improving in their sport of choice.

How helpful are routines for mental health?

Humans are creatures of habit. A 2006 Duke University, Habits – A Repeat Performance, study found that nearly 45% of people performed some habit daily. Once we establish routines, it is easy to feel the benefits:

 

  • Anxiety Relief ­– Knowing what to do and what to expect throughout the day will help create a sense of calm.

 

  • Combats Burnout – Burnout is a buildup of stress that we keep ignoring. Creating routines around your morning, work, and sleep can help you establish healthier boundaries.

 

  • Accomplishment – Routines have a beginning and end and checking a task off our list is probably one of the best feelings in the world. In our brains, checking something of the to-do list feels like success and releases dopamine which enables us to create a habit around completing tasks.

 

How best to stick to routines?

There are so many reasons our routines get thrown off. We get sick, work gets too busy, we talk ourselves out of it, etc. Our brains are conditioned to do what they do. If you smoke, there is a craving to continue smoking because your brain has been trained to want it. The same concept goes to creating healthier habits and routines. We must teach our brains to get ready to do and stick to the routine.

 

But there are a few little tricks to help you stick to routines:

 

  • Baby Steps: Take practical steps to get your new routine off the ground. If you’re trying to create a routine of being more physically active, start small with a 15-minute walk/jog around your neighborhood for example.

 

  • Schedule It: Block out periods throughout the day when you’re going to practice your routine. If you’re going to the gym, block it into your schedule to carve time out for it. Try not to go too hard too soon.

 

  • SelfCompassion: Give yourself grace when you forget your routine now and again. All new things take time, and it’s the same with establishing a routine. Long-term change takes time.

 

  • Become It: If you want to start something or be something, let it consume you just a little. Become the runner you want to be by buying yourself new trainers, listening to running podcasts, downloading the running apps, joining running clubs so you are in and amongst likeminded people etc. This will help you identify with your habit, very personally.

 

  • Reward Yourself: Create small goals for yourself so you can reward yourself. Make your bed for a week straight?  Treat yourself to something. Moved your body in any way that felt good for a whole month? Get yourself a massage or something you see as a reward for your perseverance.

Three tips for building mental toughness.

Here are my tips to help you build up your mental strength:

 

  • Talk Positively to Yourself – Our brains never shut off, and sometimes neither does the voice in our heads. It’s normal to speak to yourself and even cheer yourself on. We’re sure you’ve seen those videos of mic’d up professional athletes talking to themselves – all positive, motiving phrases. What you tell yourself becomes the story you live, so do your best to talk positively to yourself.

 

  • Set Goals – Create daily goals for yourself, even if it’s a simple to-do list. Set out each day knowing what you want to accomplish. This sets up trust in yourself and follows through with what you said you would do. If you have long-term goals: write them down and track your progress. Meb Keflezighi – Boston Marathon, NYC marathon winner & Olympic silver medalist – attributes setting goals to his success. He says his goals are personal, specific, and realistically challenging.

 

  • Practice Visualization – Close your eyes and imagine every step of what you want to do- it could be a 10-mile run or hitting a PR in the gym. See the potential problems and overcome them in your head; that way, when you run into them in real life, it will be easier to navigate them. Visualization can help you outside of the gym, in work situations, with friends, and with relationships. Billie Jean King used visualization throughout her entire career; before a match, she would imagine everything that could go wrong and then walk through how she would react and handle the unexpected and what was out of her control.

Summary

There’s nothing stopping you from becoming mentally tough. Write down some tangible, realistic (but challenging) goals for yourself and get to work. You’re the toughest, strongest person you know – so go out and prove it to yourself today and incorporate some of these tips and tricks into your daily life. Through consistency and commitment, we dare you to prove how mentally strong you can be. 

About Dal Banwait

Dal Banwait, aka ‘the happiologist,’ is a certified Positive Psychology Coach and passionate about helping people grow into happier healthier versions of themselves. Her coaching empowers others to cut through their own debilitating, limiting self-beliefs, holistically connecting their ‘why’ and ‘how.’ Dal has a particular interest in how mind-body techniques can control thoughts and emotions and her coaching contains powerful strategies for harnessing these in daily life. Having graduated in law, she has worked as a city professional for over 30 years and also runs Positive Psychology & Wellbeing coaching in the corporate space. Based in London, and having lived in the Far East, Dal is a writer, serial globe trotter, accidental amateur photographer and self-confessed apacarophile (sunset obsessed)!  

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