Physical vs mental toughness

I should stress that I am not a doctor or a psychiatrist, though sometimes I wish I was so I could answer my own questions and actually write a blog worth reading. However, today’s subject is mental toughness and physical toughness, and if there’s a link between them.

This thought has its roots for me going back to 2015 when I was, like I am now, doing a lot of winter training. Back then too I was training with my weighted backpack (see previous posts). I started to wonder if pushing it physically and managing to prevail meant I was mentally tough. My rationale was that I was trying to ignore all of the messages my brain was receiving from parts of my body that were at breaking point, like lactic acid in my quads and calves for example. Training in the dark early mornings when no one else was about and in wind and rain too made me wonder if I was strengthening my mental willpower. To cut a convoluted theory short, I think I was. Partly. I am of the mindset that getting out and training in any weather prepares you for any eventuality conditions-wise, where some people would look out of the window and not bother going out. I call these conditions character building. But just because I am daft enough to hit the trails in sleet, doesn’t necessarily make me mentally tougher than someone who isn’t. It just means I’m more likely to shrug my shoulders on race day if it’s raining and get out there and go, instead of cowering, cursing the conditions that I hadn’t bothered to train in. Better preparation perhaps, not resilience?

One thing in my life makes me doubt that physical toughness has a massive effect on metal toughness, and that my friends, is work. Our jobs, or as some call them, careers. Some of the most physically tough people that I know are stressed out at work. Strung out even, riddled with self-doubt, probably because of a domineering boss or workplace bully. Even though they know they can bench press 100kgs, they still suffer and feel like shit because they get ticked off for missing a deadline or forget to CC someone ‘important’ into an email. In my experience of this situation, it has spurred me on to push myself harder in training and actually was the driving force behind me taking running more seriously in my twenties – but – did it make me mentally tougher to deal with similar scenarios that present themselves these days? No. Whilst physical fitness has helped take the edge off stress and negativity from things I realistically can’t change, and has I believe, prepared my body to better deal with the stress hormones associated with it, it probably hasn’t given me a definitive rule to deal with mentally challenging situations, like stress, self-doubt etc. It has, I believe, altered my perspective on situations though, and people I have met through my outdoors endeavours have helped me through tough times.

Admittedly, most of these situations have arisen for me in the workplace. There are people with more real struggles like illness to themselves or a loved one and have had to be strong for them whether they like it or not. So saying I’m mentally tougher for a 6am run in the snow over a single mum caring her children and juggling a demanding job would be naïve to say the least. Yes I am probably physically tougher because I can devote time to training but that could be where it stops. There are a few aspects of my life where I recognise my own weaknesses and the only thing I can see to develop that is to face up to them, and deal with them.

One of my best friends often has this conversation with me about mental toughness and he is convinced that both he and I are mentally tough people. I am quite doubtful about myself, and until recently, my internal jury was undecided about him. Interestingly, he would justify his claim to this elite strength by discussing all of the horrible bosses he’s worked for. Doubly interesting is the fact that he doesn’t work out. At all. He copes solely on his sedentary lifestyle. I did drop a hint a few lines back if you picked up on it, that something may have changed in his situation. It has. Without going into detail, he’s recently separated from his girlfriend, and on the face of it, he’s coping very well, though not as well as I previously thought. All the same, he asked my advice as to what I would do to combat anger, and the whole spectrum of feelings he has at the moment. Of course, I said straight away, go for a run. I know he won’t, so it would be interesting to see how it pans out. I honestly think he’s got the tools to survive, and he’s got me and other friends to support him too. It’s a very chalk-and-cheese comparison between the two of us. It would be interesting to hear from his viewpoint what it is about me that he thinks makes me strong. It sounds to me that he has worked for some really nasty articles down the years and by being exposed to that day-in, day-out, it’s got to put you through it and put smaller problems in their boxes.

My attitude generally these days is “Fuck it, it’s just a job” and move on, but is that right? Is it weakness to shrug your shoulders and walk away? Yes and no I feel. I believe you suffer for something just as much as you care about it. I don’t have a percieveable dead-end job, and I’ve earned the position I hold today, and I do care about doing the best job that I can, until 5pm at least anyway. So therefore I must accept some suffering along the way.  Having been in brutally stressful work situations before where I could feel my physiology changing because of it, I now recognise the signs and begin to act along the lines of self-protection, and damage limitation. One thing I do now at 36 years old which I didn’t do at 22 years old was to stick to my own path of integrity. Say and do what I believe to be right, and fight my corner when I have to. More often than not it does nothing to change the situation, but it definitely means those feelings of being useless or being walked over don’t get chance to arise and standing tall knowing you’ve followed your instincts prevails and knowing you’ve done all that you can.

There is a saying that goes, “Don’t drown yourself to save a drowning man”, which in this context means that if I choose to avoid really negative situations based on past experiences, means I can stay completely focussed on my goals and priorities of being the best person I can be for my friends and family and the world as a whole. It’s not running away, it’s seeing the bigger picture.

I don’t know if I’m mentally tough, but I definitely know I’m tougher than I used to be and that’s got to be the next best thing.