Strong or tough?

Some folks with great gym numbers easily crumble when life circumstances become too challenging. On the other hand, some people with pretty much nothing to show off in the weight room may be capable of overcoming stressful, difficult situations or environments.

Toughness is the ability to perform well regardless of circumstances. That might mean performing well when you are sick or injured, but it also might mean performing well when your workout gear includes trees and rocks instead of pull-up bars and barbells. And it goes way beyond training. I personally call it real strength.

Being able to do that requires both mental and physical toughness. No amount of mental toughness alone will keep you from freezing in cold temperatures, but if you’ve combined mental training with cold tolerance conditioning, for example, then you’ll fare much better.

Toughness can be learned

I personally don't believe that one is just born tough. It's a skill just like playing piano or coding or lifting a barbell and it can be learned too. There are certain mental techniques that help you cultivate an indomitable will, patience, and the ability to stay positive and focused no matter how bad things look. There are also certain training techniques you can use to condition your body to withstand discomfort and tolerate environments that would normally cause injury.

Mental toughness

Mental toughness boils down to how you respond to stress. Do you start to panic and lose control, or do you zero in on how you are going to overcome the difficulty?

Mental toughness training:

  • Allow (or seek out) small inconveniences and discomforts in your everyday life. Learn to tolerate them.
  • Start to judge your internal monologue, rather than simply accepting it for what it is. Actually listen to what you’re saying and decide if it’s a belief you want to let into your life.
  • When you’re feeling tired and talking yourself out of your workout, remind yourself why you’re training. Weigh the importance of the inconvenience against the importance of the why and get out there.

 Physical toughness

The truth is, being physically tough is different from how good you are at the comfort of the gym environment. Physical toughness includes the ability to take abuse and keep functioning, to recover quickly, to adapt to difficult terrain and contexts, and to tolerate adverse conditions without flagging. 

Physical toughness training:

  • Expose yourself to rough environments and forgo the usual protection, increasing the intensity of exposure slowly over time.
  • Learn and implement mobility and self-maintenance exercises into your regular training routine.Hard training puts a lot of stress on the body, but this stress is multiplied when every movement stretches a muscle close to its full range or pushes a joint near its limit. Flexible joints can move farther without incurring stress on their support structures, reducing fatigue and the wear and tear that adds up to leave you sore and whimpering on the ground.

  • Train with less rest between sets or workouts, but take excellent care of yourself in the meantime.
  • Train outside in all weather with as little protection as you can tolerate.