When I first stumbled upon the world of competitive obstacle racing back in 2011, I had been searching for a primal, purely physical challenge. I had grown tired of road running and traditional cardio training, and figured that a good way to expand my horizon would be to try out a Spartan Race. As one of the pioneers in the obstacle racing world, Spartan builds some of the toughest courses in the sport, which range from 3-30 miles and are designed to test competitors’ resilience, strength, and stamina.
About a month later I found myself standing at the starting line of the Spartan Sprint in Amesbury, Massachusetts, shoulder to shoulder with roughly 300 men of varying degrees of burliness, several wearing nothing more than compression shorts so tight they could have easily been painted on. Feeling unprepared and completely out of my league, I went on to complete the 4 mile course and finish among the top 15 elite racers. Needless to say, I was hooked.
Over the course of the following year I began to steadily raise the bar from 5k races to longer and more challenging events, and as I did so I noticed an interesting trend: each time I upped the difficulty level, I found that success or failure became much more a function of mental toughness than physical ability.
This became particularly clear as I began to compete in ultra-distance events like the Ultra Beast, World’s Toughest Mudder, and Survival Run, which often require racers to remain on the course for 12-24 hours or longer, usually under brutal and borderline-sadistic conditions. Although there is a certain baseline level of fitness required to complete these types of events, those who are able to demonstrate patience, persistence, and mental fortitude are the ones who rise above the rest. In other words, it’s not necessarily the biggest, strongest, or fastest who survive.
Mental toughness is all about training your brain to work with you – not against you – as you find yourself in situations that your body naturally wants to avoid. This is much easier said than done; when you’re scraping your way up a steep barbed wire crawl through sharp rocks, freezing water and mud, for instance, your rational instinct will be to immediately seek out a more favorable situation. That voice of reason will remind you that no one is forcing you to do this, that you are voluntarily creating this pain, and that a hot shower and leather couch would be a much less painful way to spend the afternoon.
Mental toughness is learning how to silence this voice.
So what steps can you take to develop a “tough-as-nails” mentality, and how can you modify your training to work your mind as well as your body? Here are 5 tips to help you channel your inner badass and conquer even the most demanding events:
1) TRAIN TOUGH – Will power is not something that you are born with; it is a skill that requires practice and dedication. Every once in a while set an aggressive training goal that requires commitment, patience, and a tremendous amount of pure grit. My personal favorite is the burpee mile, which I make a point to perform on a track within eyesight of my apartment. Give yourself an easy escape and an excuse to quit, then engage beast mode and refuse to quit until you’ve accomplished your goal. If it’s painful, tedious, and borderline-impossible, you’re doing it right.
2) REPLICATE RACE CONDITIONS – Unless you’re training for a bench-press competition, ditch the gym and immerse yourself in the elements that you expect to encounter during an event. Familiarize yourself with pain and discomfort, and work towards building up your tolerance. If you’re training for an event in New Jersey in the middle of winter for instance (i.e. World’s Toughest Mudder), teach your body how to acclimate with cold showers and snowy runs. Come race day, diving into that frozen river will be like saying hello to an old friend.
3) RECOGNIZE YOUR SIGNALS – Pushing your limits during training will allow you to identify the difference between the mental wall (when your mind tells you to quit) and the physical wall (when your body is literally out of fuel). Think of the mental wall as a sort of “red flag” or preliminary signal triggered by stress and discomfort, and the physical wall as a legitimate alarm. Learn to understand your body’s cues and power through those moments of doubt – you’ll be surprised at how much further you can go.
4) BECOME ROBOTIC – During longer events you’ll have a LOT of time on your hands to think, which can be dangerous. The fewer distractions you have, the more you will find yourself focusing on the pain and suffering. My personal approach is to fall into a comfortable, steady pace, match the rhythm of my breathing to my footsteps, and let my eyes drift towards the ground immediately in front of me. Falling into a rhythmic and consistent pattern will help you zone out and enter a zen-like trance, as if you’re a machine programmed to do only one thing: dominate races.
5) SET SHORT-TERM, MANAGEABLE GOALS – One of the most self-destructive things you can do heading into a difficult race is to think about it as a single, monumental task. Rather than count down the mileage remaining –which can often seem incredibly daunting – break up the race into smaller fragments and acknowledge your progress each step of the way (whether it’s running a mile, completing an obstacle, etc.) I have a habit of counting individual steps, which is especially helpful on those miserable, seemingly endless ascents (Spartan Ultra Beast, anyone?). Next time you find yourself at the foot of a mountain, try putting your head down and committing to 100 steps before you allow yourself to look up. Not only does each set feel like a relatively painless task, but the counting serves as a distraction from the fact that your legs are on fire (see #4).
Above all, learn to acknowledge pain and discomfort not as enemies but as opportunities. You must face doubt to become strong-minded, just as you must face weakness to become tough. Rather than trying to avoid the hurt, buckle down and go into battle. It will be rough, and it will be miserable, but the battle is what drives real, substantial progress.
So next time you’re training for an event, don’t overlook the importance of sheer will power. Learn how to train your brain, and you will quickly realize what your body is truly capable of. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”
This is a guest post by Team Xtreme OCR athlete Chris Dutton. Chris was introduced to the world of obstacle racing in the summer of 2011, and quickly developed an addiction. Since that point, he has competed in some of the most brutal and physically demanding races on the planet, including the 28-mile Spartan Ultra Beast (2012 & 2013), 24-hour World's Toughest Mudder (2012 & 2013), 70k Survival Run in Nicaragua (2013), and 50k Hunter & Gatherer Race (2013).
When he's not busy seeking out his next challenge, you might find him jumping out of planes, training at the rock gym, or running around the streets of Boston at all hours of the night.