Strength and endurance are two areas that are so important in undertaking physical challenges. Luckily, there are areas that can be trained and toned over time. Everyone knows that you need to do workouts to build your muscles and get your cardiovascular system to handle the load you are going to put it under. Most people focus on specific training and workouts to develop the muscles that they are going to be using during their chosen activity or event but there is one muscle that can pull you through anything if it is trained appropriately. That muscle is the mind.
People talk about mental strength like it is either something you have or you don't. I have heard it said 'she is so strong mentally' but where does that come from? Is is something you are born with? Or is it something that you train and develop just like any other strength? I personally think mental strength is something that is developed and honed like any other muscle. Those who go out and go through the physical motions without doing the mental training are the ones who are going to fold when the going gets tough. No matter how strong you have made your quads or hamstrings, they are not going to keep you going when you are hit with adversity. That is when the mental muscle takes over.
Growing up I was taught that no matter what you don't let someone break you mentally. I remember when I was taking horseback riding lessons, the instructor was extreme and he made all the girls cry. One of my friends came out of the ring after her lesson one day red faced and tear streaked. My dad looked at me as I was heading in and said 'do not let him break you down, do not cry'. I remember that during my lesson he yelled at me, called me names and told me I was basically useless on a horse. The more he yelled the harder I dug in, I left the ring that day not having cried. To this day I am not really sure what he though he was gaining by making young girls cry but it was a lesson I never forgot. My mind can be powerful, I had decided that I would not cry and so I did not cry.
With mental toughness people also lump will power. I do not think will power should be in the equation. If you are doing a race and you are relying on will power to keep you going and not quitting then you are having to go through the decision process over and over again to keep going. No, you make a decision before you are even at the race that you are not going to quit and therefore remove that option and then will power can be left at home. Making firm decisions, black and white decisions means that when it is tough you just move through it. If you have removed the other options it really isn't that difficult. BUT, you have to train this just like anything else. So, you decide you are eliminating potato chips from your diet (I use this because this is my vice). You make a firm decision you will not eat potato chips, not a soft well I'll try. NO a firm decision that you don't eat them. Now when you are faced with potato chips, you don't have to use will power to make you not eat them, you just don't eat them because you don't. This may be an over simplified example but if you make these kinds of firm decisions often enough, your mental fortitude gets strengthened.
In endurance races we are physically out on the course for hours, but the most important place we are is in our heads. What is your inner voice talking about while you are out there and are you listening? Do you listen to strangers when they talk negatively to you? Then why do you listen to that inner voice when it has something negative to say? You can try to change what it is saying, or you can choose to not listen. I have found that if you don't listen, most people, including your inner voice, shut up or go away.
What drew me to endurance sports in the first place was not the physical training and seeing what my body could do. No, like most people I was fascinated with what the mind is capable of doing. When the body appears broken down and at the end, the mind has the ability to keep it going and when you are physically fine, your mind can shut you down. A good training program addresses your physical strengths and weaknesses but a great program turns you into a muscle head.