It starts as a whisper and slowly gets louder and louder. Before you know it, it crowds out all your other thoughts. Soon, you have no choice but to listen to it humbly. I'm referring to the voices in our head telling us to back off when we're about to exert ourselves in challenging situations. It's the voice telling us what we've done is good enough and that there's no point pursuing the good. It's a key reason why we falter on our diets, compromise on our workouts, and settle in our jobs when clearly, we are capable of more. Conditioning your mind is the way to build mental toughness. And it is equally, if not more important than conditioning the body.
Marathon des Sables
The Marathon des Sables (MdS), French for "Marathon of the Sands," is a six-day, 251km (156 miles) event across the Sahara Desert in Southern Morocco. The ultramarathon was conceived by French concert promoter Patrick Bauer, who did not encounter a single oasis or desert community as he traversed 350 km on the Sahara Desert alone by foot. Proof that misery loves company!
Roughly the equivalent of six marathons, the MdS is considered the world's most grueling foot race, with mid-day temperatures sometimes peaking at 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit.)
One of the competitors in the 1994 MdS was Italian endurance athlete Maurio Prosperi. By day four, Prosperi was gaining momentum and confidence in the race when he suddenly found himself in a severe sandstorm. Determined to keep his place, he ran through the entirety of the sandstorm, for a full eight hours, in hostile weather conditions and amid severely diminished visibility. Eventually, he realized he had not just lost his way but also couldn't find it back because the sandstorm had effectively blown away all landmarks and signs of the MdS trail.
Stuck in the desert by himself, Prosperi meandered in search of food and shelter. It took him nine days to eventually make it back to civilization, barely alive. By then, he had wandered around 289 kilometers (180 miles) off-course and lived to recount a survival story like no other.
So, what allowed Prosperi to survive in the direst of all situations? For that matter, what causes otherwise rational human beings to attempt and complete races such as the MdS?
The X-factor: Mental toughness
While the obvious answer to this question is physical endurance and training, there is an equally, if not more critical component—an X-factor, that accounts for such mind-boggling performance stories. That X-factor is mental toughness. And the way to develop mental toughness is by conditioning your mind.
In a 2019 research study, researchers explored the subject of mental toughness to see how it differs from pure grit and find ways to influence and improve mental toughness through mental conditioning.
The MdS participants were the ideal candidates to study because these participants voluntarily desired to compete in a race that did not offer great extrinsic rewards for most finishers. Not only that, they typically pay north of 4500 British Pounds for the privilege of participation.
The study concluded that MdS participants weren't just more open to new experiences; the key that allowed them to persevere and finish an event as demanding as the MdS was their mental toughness. The study further discovered that the athletes usually complemented their physical conditioning with appropriate mental conditioning to develop the toughness and resilience events such as the MdS demanded.
Why bother with conditioning your mind?
Now I know what you're thinking: There is a greater chance of you relocating to a house on Mars than participating in an ultraendurance event. But conditioning your mind isn't just required when you're about to embark on extraordinary adventures. Even the most mundane matters will, at times, require mental toughness.
Lack of mental conditioning is at the root of why we stress-eat a whole pack of cookies, fumble a job interview or lounge on the couch instead of showing up for a workout. Because it takes mental toughness to overcome the path of least resistance.
If you look around, you'll notice that the best performers in any field aren't usually the most talented or the most skilled, but they are the ones who are consistent and mentally tough. So, how do we develop mental toughness?
Conditioning your mind
Our minds need as much exercise as our body does. That's why I think about working out every day.
Well, let's say that tactic hasn't worked. Here are some that actually do:
1. Name the enemy
Elaine Zayak, the 1982 world figure-skating champion, was asked how she withstood the pressure of competition. An 18-old Zayak recounted an incident from when she was just ten years old, waiting in the locker room during a major competition. She walked around the locker room, flushing toilets one after the other because she was trying to drown out the noise from outside. In her words,
The audience will clap if Kristy lands her double jumps, and I don't want to know how she's doing.
Even a ten-year-old child had understood the anxiety and pressure that comes from knowing how the competition is faring. Zayak didn't want the anxiety to affect her own performance. So, she did the next best thing she could do: tune out distractions outside her control.
The first step to developing mental toughness is to recognize your Achilles heel. Identify and acknowledge the weakness you fear most.
2. Know your reason
British author, journalist, podcaster, and ultrarunner Adharanand Finn speaks of the need for a strong motivation for your cause.
In his book, The Rise of the Ultra Runners: A journey to the Edge of Human Endurance, Finn writes of the despondency you can feel in an ultraendurance event when it seems almost impossible to carry on further.
Once you descend into that dark place out on the trail, where everything is crashing down around you, you need to find something real to keep you moving. It could be love or pain, but it has to be real. It certainly won't be Facebook likes.
If you are in the middle of a difficult undertaking or struggling with consistency, having a real reason to motivate you can go a long way.
3. Have a mantra
When the going gets tough, it has been proven that positive self-talk actually works.
Much of the despair that comes when we are in challenging situations is due to our survival instinct. Our brains are wired to protect us. In a tough situation, they activate the fight-or-flight response, more often the latter. Fleeing the scene or giving up is usually more comfortable than staying and fighting. To counter this instinct, having a motivational phrase you can repeat to yourself can be very helpful.
When she hits rough patches, American ultrarunner Caroline Boller repeats the mantra,
It's vast, it's vast.
Boller says the phrase is meant to remind herself that there's a massive gap between the point at which her mind tells her to stop and what her body can actually tolerate.
This reminds me that the pain is only temporary. It's my body trying to protect itself, but my body is overly protective and lying to me.
4. Make it a habit
You won't get much done if you only work on the days you feel like it - Jerry West, American basketball player
The only way you can genuinely condition the mind is through consistency. You won't get stronger by just going to the gym once a fortnight. Similarly, to build mental toughness, you must challenge yourself consistently, albeit in small ways.
Conditioning the mind is about finding fuel in an empty tank. It's pushing yourself to be "good" when your brain screams it's "good enough."
Do the sixteenth rep on your workout, run that eleventh mile, read the additional chapter, and complete the extra credit problem. While the relative effort on your part to execute the extra step is usually not much, the overall benefit, when you consistently push yourself even a little bit, can be tremendous.
5. Be in the moment
In a 1983 NY Times article, author Emily Greenspan describes a young tennis prodigy who went from being temperamental to learning to control his mind and emotions with the help of sports psychologist Dr. Blundell. This young prodigy, Paul Annacone, later coached some of the greatest tennis stars of our times—Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.
A 20-year-old Annacone said,
If I had played the past few points sloppily, I used to get mad at myself and just fume through the break. Dr. Blundell taught me to sit down in the chair, drape a towel over my head, relax my neck and shoulders, close my eyes and then take deep breaths through my mouth, using my diaphragm. If I'm just thinking about that, I can't be thinking of anything else. So, my mind is taken away from the tennis and the competitive atmosphere. I feel refreshed and energized, but not overexcited, when I go back to play.
Learning to find a way to get back in the moment through meditation or self-awareness is key to conditioning the mind. It takes practice, but it's doable.
Mental toughness isn't optional. It's a necessity.
Your body is primed for self-preservation and does so with vigorous zeal, even when you may not need such protection. That voice in your head telling you to stop when you clearly can, and are capable of doing more, is one example of evolution's desire to keep you comfortable (and alive).
All of us, not just ultramarathoners and endurance athletes, can push past the phony barrier our minds erect when faced with a challenging situation. Like a muscle that needs to be conditioned to perform well, our minds must also be conditioned. And it can be done. The proof is all around us. We just need to get started.
The best way out is always through. Robert Frost.