Training yourself for Success with Mental Toughness

Mental Toughness: Can We Train our Minds for Success?

Recently I was listening to a podcast called Run to the Top that led me to an article by one of my favourite endurance sports writer/athlete/nutritionists Matt Fitzgerald. How Resilience Beats Talent talks about the mental side of endurance sport and how it can often be a more deciding factor of success in an athlete than physical ability. It is a great read and I would encourage you to take the time to check it out, but in the interest of providing a relevant summary, my main takeaway was on the subject of inhibitory control.

Fitzgerald writes:

There is growing evidence that particular mental abilities can be as beneficial to endurance performance as a strong heart or efficient muscles. One of these mental abilities is inhibitory control, which comes into play whenever you want two contradictory things at the same time. Inhibitory control allows weight-loss seekers to stay focused on their goal of losing weight when the presence of high-calorie foods tempts them to break their diet. It also enables triathletes to stay focused on their goal of reaching the finish line as quickly as possible when pain tempts them to slow down.

In the podcast, Fitzgerald talks about how people who have better inhibitory control in other areas of life can use that skill to make them a more resilient athlete. People who face a challenge or adversity in one area of life can train their brain to use those same coping skills in other areas. Therefore, if you set about improving a bad habit in a different facet of life that you find challenging, your brain will use those same skills of resilience in a variety of other applications.

This was extremely interesting to me, so I set out to do my own test. Could I improve my running resilience by focusing my energy on improving just one unrelated habit? And could I drag my friends into this experiment with me?

I sure could. I recruited three friends to complete my experiment with me: one month, one habit change, and then a review of whether they felt like it improved other areas of their life (either sport-driven or otherwise). Our goals were varied, but required some serious self-control to change sticky habits. Sabrina chose to go a month with no indulgences from her awesome work cafeteria. Chris chose not to drink beer on weeknights. Sonia wanted to hit her Apple watch Move Goal each day. Mine was to cut out snacking at night.

I found this process made slightly easier thanks to the reading and subsequent work I had done about using the power of rules and habits to make changes (link to January blog). In making a rule that I wasn’t allowed to snack, there was less resolve required: the rules are the rules. I found that the bonus of skipping my evening snack was that it left me feeling less sluggish in the morning which carried over to feeling ready to keep my other rule: running every work day on my lunch hour. I was feeling good about keeping my resolve at night and it made me want to continue to feel good with healthy habits during the day.

For Sabrina, it was about changing her usual habits as well. At the mid-way check in, she had this to say “The trickiest part about not eating the cafeteria food is that I still have to go in there to use the fridge to keep my bagged lunch. When it comes to breakfast, I’ve been piecing that together with a fruit from home or the breakfast bars/oatmeal packets in my desk I can avoid going in there”.

Sonia was having a challenge keeping her goal and it seemed as though the challenge was that she had not created a habit to support it. She was able to keep her Move goal most days, but felt that she would have more easily been able to do so by keeping her original resolution which was to go to the gym more often.

Chris reported that his key to success was distraction: as a high school teacher, he had a lot of grading to complete during the first half of the challenge which kept his mind occupied. Chris is also my running partner, and I found the “distraction as a tool for avoidance” interesting since that is what runners spend a lot of time doing when they are pushing through tough miles.

At the end of the month, I think that the results are mixed, but overall our ability to keep resolve and achieve goals in one area leaves us feeling good about ourselves and more confident in our ability to tackle other tasks, be it with running or other difficulties in personal life. Our resolve is only strengthened when it’s tested, so finding chances to push our limits will always add to our mental tool kit. Does it guarantee that you won’t lag at mile 20? Probably not, but it may just give you that little extra mental toughness to dig a bit deeper as you make your way to that finish line.


United Way Winnipeg