How to Build Mental Toughness in 30 Days
I have a challenge for you.
Put two minutes on the clock. If you’re feeling strong, go for three. Now, get into your plank position and hold it for as long as you can. But while you’re holding your plank, I want you to pay attention to the things you think about. What are you saying to yourself? What adjectives are running through your head?
How long did you last?
Write it down, or better yet, write me.
THE ART OF ENDURANCE (and the 15 minute plank challenge)
En·du·rance, noun: the ability to do something difficult for a long period of time
Plank, verb: the act of staring at a spot on the floor watching seconds tick by in slow motion while muscles scream in pain
I am officially dubbing the plank an endurance sport. It is a painful act of “enduring” that is horrible from start to finish. I can say this because I’ve spent a considerable amount of time on my forearms and toes this month (see the 15 minute plank challenge), and have come up with a host of words to describe the awfulness of multi-minute planking:
But then I completed a nine minute plank, and all of a sudden found myself fired up and grinning like a little girl on Christmas morning. Nine minutes. I was so excited I turned around and knocked out 60 burpees. No joke.
You’re probably thinking I’m either off my rocker, on steroids, or freakishly strong. I’m none of those. But I will say that there is an excitement and thrill at seeing yourself do something really hard. Go farther. Hang on longer. It’s a high that, strange as it sounds, makes the enduring worth it.
And you can’t help but ask yourself – well what else can I do?
Most physical challenges start with a goal and simple question: can I do it?
Can I run a marathon in 12 weeks?
Can I do a one mile swim next month?
Can I hold a 15 minute plank with 30 days to train?
Assuming these goals fall within the realm of possibility, and that training programs and proper eating and sleeping habits are adhered to, the simple answer is yes, it can be done. The body is strong enough to endure it.
In fact, the majority of the time our physical limitations are much tougher than our mental ones.
And this is where challenges are won or lost. It’s in the conversations we have in our heads, the ones where we convince ourselves that we can’t do it before we even try. Where we don’t believe we can hang on any longer because we’re too tired or too weak or in too much pain. Or, conversely, where we silently will ourselves to keep going despite the suffering – simply because we believe we can.
Which brings me to a second question that comes with any test of endurance: can I keep going?
To be able to say yes to that question, again and again, we have to train ourselves to quiet the brain that is begging to stop, and let the body do the things it is capable of doing.
THE MENTAL PREPARATION OF ENDURANCE ATHLETES
There are people who bike thousands of miles through rough and rocky terrain, who run for days in the desert carrying 20 pound packs on their back, or who compete in Alaskan dogsled races – on foot. They do it injured or sick, with broken equipment, and in extreme conditions. These are the people who can withstand brutal environments and intense suffering for hours on end, and even excel in it because of their high levels of mental toughness.
How do they do it? Like anything, they train for it. They learn to strengthen their endurance muscle and increase their capacity to keep going in spite of their miserable circumstances. There’s no special formula here. It’s merely a set of mental exercises and strategies that they have found, from years of races, challenges, failures, practice and mistakes, to work for them.
They typically involve a combination of the following:
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
I have read enough books, held enough planks and subjected myself to enough pain this month to pinpoint where my biggest mental and physical struggles will be. I’ve taken what I learned to develop a minute by minute plan for how I hope to conquer the 15 minute plank. It’s something that I’ll be refining in subsequent weeks as I practice and experiment with different techniques, but for now, I expect it to look something like this:
Add in daily meditation and visualization sessions, a carefully selected playlist (music is a critical component of my training), a team of supportive cheerleaders, and a few awkward glances in the mirror saying “you got this Rosanna”, and I’m well on my way to 15 minutes.
It comes down to this: all the inspirational quotes, brain games, leg lifts and planks in the world won’t help me one iota if I don’t believe I can do it. Hoping for the best isn’t going to cut it.
I have no choice but to stay positive, something which, in the presence of physical pain is really hard work. So hard it hurts the brain. But it’s what gets me (and anyone who attempts something challenging) through the seconds, minutes and hours of enduring.
I encourage you to try holding your plank again tomorrow. This time, decide that you can last 30 seconds longer than your first effort. Tell yourself that you can do it. Say it out loud and mean it. And when your body shakes and screams in pain, remind yourself, no, will yourself to keep going just a little bit longer… because you can.
You know you can.