As we get back into the swing of things in 2020, and reintroduce our Spartan program at Round Lake, we are also welcoming Coach Zephyr to the Aevitas Coaching Team! Zephyr has already made big waves within this community in his short time as the Spartan Program coach, because of his love for the sport and fitness, and his ability to quantify some not-so-easy-to-pin-down concepts. For instance, “mental toughness”. It’s a phrase we throw around a LOT in the fitness world, but what does it mean, and how do we develop it? Check out Zephyr’s insights on the topic below.
Zephyr’s Take: “Mental Toughness”
Hey everyone! I wanted to bring up my favorite aspect of OCR and endurance racing – mental toughness. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it as well. It’s a tricky thing to quantify, unpleasant to practice, and in my opinion absolutely vital to success at this sport. The body follows the mind, not the other way around. This post is going to be a huge novel, and it will barely scratch the surface honestly. I also should say that this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. And that’s fine too!
I firmly 100% believe that every person has the ability to demonstrate the mental toughness demanded by whatever situation they are in. However, most of us don’t need to do so regularly and so, like any skill or ability, it fades a little. I also am not sure that mental toughness can really be “trained” or taught. “Practiced” is maybe a better word in my mind. You practice it like you would practice juggling. You can do it, you just need to teach your body and mind how.
In any uncomfortable or difficult race or event we all experience various types and degrees of adversity. You don’t need to enter a race that’s a bajillion miles long to get there! A maximum-effort 1 mile run will absolutely bring you DEEP into the pain cave. That said, it’s a different feeling. Shorter duration but more intense efforts – a maximal 400m, 1 mile, or 5k race for example, can feel like you’re getting dunked in acid. The lungs burn, the muscles ache, you can barely breathe, and it hurts! But you know that if you can just sustain this for another 10 minutes, another 200 meters, another 10 seconds, it’s over. You tell yourself that and you feel better right? I know I do. This really sucks but hey, I’ve only got a half mile to go! And suddenly it’s doable, you can make it.
What do you do when you have to sustain what you’re doing for another two hours? Another two days? What if you don’t know how long you might need to keep going? This is in my opinion the dark, beautiful, twisted side of endurance racing. At the start line when it’s bright and sunny, everyone’s family is standing around smiling and taking selfies, everyone is a rock star and the competition can look very intimidating. But look around 12 hours later, when it’s getting dark. It’s raining a little, it got windy, it’s cold. All the spectators went home. Nobody is watching you anymore.
What do you see? Typically I see a couple groups of people:
Group 1 has already lost the race, their body just hasn’t caught up yet. They might still be running, still doing obstacles, still making progress, but you can see in their eyes they’re not in it anymore. Little things are going to get under their skin, the rain is too cold, their socks aren’t the right socks, their food wasn’t the right food, they didn’t practice for these stupid obstacles anyway, this whole thing is dumb… etc. This group may have been the absolute most physically dominant group of athletes on the mountain – they could possibly beat the rest of the crowd in any physical test on a normal day. But they have forgotten how to be mentally tough and now they’re toast. Eventually, they’ll pack it in. Sometimes because they just say “I can’t do this anymore” but in my experience, it’s more common to quit from annoyance, frustration, or letting your mind convince you that you have nothing to prove. This last one is the most dangerous and insidious of all. “I don’t need to really do this, I’ve already run further than most people will today, I know I could do it with better weather..” Those words sink a lot of races that could otherwise have been finished.
Next, you’ll see Group 2. Group 2 is similarly physically prepared to Group 1 but has one critical difference – they are mentally engaged and are committed to finishing regardless of current discomforts. It’s not that Group 2 said “I won’t quit no matter what” before the race, and Group 1 didn’t, it just won’t even occur to Group 2 that stopping before the end is an option. Group 2 might not finish the race, but if they don’t it will be due to injury or missing a time cutoff. Group 2 has figured out that there’s this part of your mind way, way in the back, that’s scary and dark and has absolutely no quit in it at all. That little bit of your mind does not care whatsoever how much it rains, or how far you have left to go. You’re in the race, so you’re racing. We’ll stop when we finish. The Group 2 crowd will be moving with purpose when you see them. If you watch the transition/pit stop area between laps during a typical Spartan Ultra you can spot these people. They cruise in, and they go about the motions they need to do to get the body to the finish. Bottles get refilled, food is eaten, bags are zipped back up, and they move out. There’s no need to sit down, there’s no stopping to think about it or muster your courage. You just do what is needed. Group 2 in some ways is actually even less mentally tough than the group I’ll talk about next, because Group 2 people are physically very well prepared and may even be somewhat naturally gifted athletes. They were born for this, they’re killing it, and they know it.
Group 3 are the warriors. They are NOT necessarily as physically prepared as Group 1 or 2. They might be out doing their first race. They might have lost 100 lb and they plan to lose 200 more. One of my favorite memories of any Spartan race was at the Boston super a few years back. Caught up to a woman who was slowwwwly grinding out a set of burpees. She was not in great physical shape, and said she’d been on the course for 10 hours. 10 hours!!! Most of us finished in a couple of hours, grabbed our free beer and our food, and sat around in the sun feeling happy and proud of what we had done. She was out there to finish it no matter how long it took. If you told this person “it’s going to take you all day to do this!” I bet she’d have said something like “…so?” Group 3 will finish what they started, or they will break themselves trying. Group 3 are mentally tough like most of us cannot believe. The key is to recognize that being in this group can really risk injury, because you are willing to push your body until it falls apart under you.
What I want is for everyone to be in Group 2. So how do you do it? We train hard for the physical aspect, but for the mental aspect… You have to practice.
Next time it rains, go for a run. It’s not going to train your muscles any better than running in nice weather, and you might get some hotspots on your feet if you run in cotton socks (don’t….), but your mind will benefit. Next time it rains in a race, you’ll have that moment of “oh good! I trained in the rain!” and that’s all it takes to be one leg up on the competitor next to you who’s going “oh no! I didn’t prep for this! I don’t have the right socks for the rain! I don’t have the right shirt for the rain!”
Next time you’re out for a hike, maybe step right into that puddle instead of over it. Your feet will toughen up, and so will your mind. A long-time endurance mentor of mine Rob says “Go. Do. That is all.” And it’s exactly right. Don’t think about it, don’t waste time deciding if you’re going to keep going, just do what is needed. Take another step. Lift one more sandbag. I also think it is super important to point out that taking mental toughness to an extreme can be dangerous. If you make an endurance-racing career of ignoring your body telling you you’re in trouble, it can get very difficult to recognize the difference between “this hurts, I don’t care” and “this hurts, this is a problem”. Dull aches, unpleasantries, road rash/ cuts/ scrapes/ whatever, that’s “ignore it” pain to me. Sharp, specific, localized pain, altered mental status (beyond the usual level of groggy), systemic issues (I peed blood in a race once, there’s NO glory in that – DO NOT get to that point), those are the things to pay attention to and to stop your day for. There’s always another race, another event, another day.
In short what I’m saying is, build mental toughness but recognize that you can walk a fine line with it. I have a story about ignoring “this just happens pain” that still gives me a chuckle. I was running the winter Beast of Burden 100 race a few years ago, which is out in Lockport NY in February. It snowed maybe a foot or two during the race. Anyway, I came into an aid station around mile 75. I didn’t have any crew or cheering squad, it was 4 AM and snowing and it was just me, and I was in ROUGH SHAPE! I shuffle in, collapse into a chair. One of the race directors comes over – huge smile on his face. “Hey man! You’re looking GREAT! How ya feeling?” I’m really not in it at this point and I mumble something like “not so hot, my feet really hurt…” He blasts laughter, claps me on the back and goes “yeah, you’re running 100 miles – you’re feet are gonna hurt!” And he was right, so I ditched the self-pity, chugged some coffee and got moving. Pain, but not “bad pain”!