You May Be Strong . . . But Are You Tough?

by A Manly Guest Contributor on October 3, 2013 · 69 comments

in Fitness, Health & Sports, Wellness

tough

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post written by Khaled Allen.

As a little boy, I was scrawny, weak, and prone to illness (much like a certain former president). For a long time, I thought I was just doomed to be pathetic, until my dad took me canoeing. In the mucky, hot, poorly maintained trails and portages of the Boundary Waters in the north woods of Minnesota, I learned that I could be tough, scrappy, and indomitable. I took a brutal pleasure in carrying the heaviest pack I could over long and steep portages, willing my toothpick legs to take one step, then another, then another, until I saw the blue expanse of the next lake peeking through the trees. That was all I had to work with: a willingness to push myself harder than anyone else, to charge headlong into the roughest terrain, and to ignore cold, rain, heat, bugs, and my own internal discomfort.

With the popularity of high-intensity workout programs, military-inspired training, and brutal adventure races, mental toughness is in the spotlight. The gold standard of a hardcore athlete is how much pain they can tolerate. But what about simple, plain old ruggedness? What does it mean to be physically tough, as well as mentally tough? Is it enough to simply be strong, or is there something more to it?

Strong But Weak

I will always remember the day I dropped in on a CrossFit class and went out for the warm-up jog with no shoes on. One of the other guys there, massively strong and musclebound, was shocked and asked me if it hurt or if I was scared of broken glass. I explained that I’d toughened up my feet over the last few years and it didn’t bother me at all. If I was caught shoeless in an emergency, the few seconds I needed to put on shoes could make the difference between life and death. It didn’t matter how fast I could sprint if my feet were too tender to handle the asphalt.

I see that reaction all the time: big guys with lots of muscles who wince as soon as the shoes come off or who insist on wearing gloves whenever they lift weights. They are immensely strong within their particular domain, but have very strict limits on their comfort zone. As soon as they are forced out of it, their performance drops drastically.

Defining Toughness

Men in particular often confuse toughness with strength, thinking that being strong is automatically the same as being tough, when in fact the two are distinct qualities. As Erwan Le Corre, founder of MovNat, says, “Some people with great muscular strength may lack toughness and easily crumble when circumstances become too challenging. On the other hand, some people with no particularly great muscular strength may be very tough, i.e., 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 pullup bars and barbells. “Toughness…is the strength, or ability, to withstand adverse conditions,” according to Le Corre.

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 is a Skill

It is a myth that you’re either born tough or you’re not. The truth is, toughness, both mental and physical, can and should be trained and cultivated, just like any other skill. 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?

Rachel Cosgrove, co-owner of Results Fitness and a regular contributor to Men’s Fitness, stated in an article on mental toughness, “World-class endurance athletes respond to the stress of a race with a reduction in brain-wave activity that’s similar to meditation. The average person responds to race stress with an increase in brain-wave activity that borders on panic.”

Similarly, the biggest determining factor in whether or not a candidate for the Navy SEALs passes training is his ability to stay cool under stress and avoid falling into that fight-or-flight response most of us drop into when we’re being shot at. Developing ways to counteract the negative response to stress helps us stay in control of our bodies so that we can maintain the high performance needed to do well in any situation. That is real mental toughness.

Another way to look at mental toughness is willpower. When everyone else has decided they are too tired, you decide to keep going. In sports, this is called the second wind, when an athlete determines that they don’t care about their fatigue and decides to push harder despite it. When a football team is behind two touchdowns but picks up the effort anyway, determined to win despite all signs to the contrary, that’s an example of willpower in action. They may still lose, but they are much more likely to make a comeback with this approach.

So, how can you cultivate mental toughness?

Small Discomforts

One of the best ways to develop mental toughness is to accept small discomforts on a regular basis. Take only cold showers or occasionally fast. In the book Willpower, Dr. Roy Baumeister recounts the training regimen of famed endurance artist David Blaine. Before a stunt — some of which have included being encased in ice for over 63 hours, being suspended over the Thames in a clear plastic box for 44 days, and holding his breath for 17 minutes on live TV — Blaine will start to make up little inconvenient routines for himself to maintain, simply to test his willpower. These are usually small things, like touching every overhanging tree branch on his walk to work, but they get his mind in the habit of exercising will, to do something when it would be inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Examples of this include sticking to an inconvenient diet, living without a car, or shaving with a straight razor.

There’s a lot to be said for simple acclimatization to discomfort as well. The little nicks and bruises you get from training in wild environments can be hugely distracting when you’re just getting started, but if you keep heading back out, you eventually find them little more than useful feedback on positioning and technique.

Think Positive

Most of us have an internal monologue going on in our heads, telling our own story. How this sounds depends on our view of ourselves and external stimuli. If you’ve always been good at schoolwork, you might envision yourself as “smart,” but maybe not “strong” or “charming.”

The thing is, these definitions are mostly arbitrary. Anyone who works hard enough at academics can do well in school, and anyone who trains hard enough can do well in sports. Whether or not we are willing and able to push ourselves hard enough to do well often depends on that internal story.

So, the simple solution is to only accept positive self-talk. This is a common tactic of the super-successful, and is standard fare in such personal development classics as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, and Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Have a Reason

One of the most powerful motivators in training and life is knowing why you cannot fail. Jack Yee, who writes specifically about mental toughness and has been featured on T-Nation and Mark’s Daily Apple, remembers his time at the famous Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, where he saw not only old school greats like Tom Platz, Lou Ferrigno, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but also a large number of promising amateurs, many of whom had more impressive physiques. However, they rarely lasted long: after one defeat at a competition, they would give up. One discouraging setback was enough to shatter their confidence.

The antidote is to remind yourself why you’re out there in the first place. A common trick I used to use in my running when I was feeling defeated was to imagine that my girlfriend was being threatened by kidnappers and if I didn’t get to her in time, they would kill her. Since my motivation for exercising was to be useful to those I cared about, this worked for me. No matter how beat up I felt, I would always run faster. Another trick for this is to use an iPhone app called “Zombie, Run!” You perform missions related to outrunning zombies — another great motivator!

Mental Toughness Training Summary

  • 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

Compared to mental toughness, there is considerably less talk about physical toughness out there, probably because it is wrapped up into strength and conditioning. But the truth is, being physically tough is very different from being strong, fast, or powerful. 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.

Le Corre’s method of training, MovNat, emphasizes the value of developing a tough body by training in environments that do not accommodate the trainee. Training outdoors, in adverse (or simply not climate-controlled) conditions, is a core tenet of MovNat’s methods. Le Corre says of physical toughness, “[it] is the ability of the body to withstand hardship, such as food or sleep deprivation, harsh weather conditions such as cold, heat, rain, snow or humidity, and difficult terrains (steep, rocky, slippery, radiating heat, dense vegetation etc.).” Click here for a complete primer on MovNat.

Physical toughness boils down to the changes your body makes to make it more resilient. This has the effect of unloading your willpower so that you can push yourself harder mentally, since your threshold has effectively increased.

Thicker Skin

A very simple example of physical toughness — and one that is used as a euphemism for toughness in general — is thick skin. Men who train hard in gyms rarely develop calluses beyond those along the base of the fingers that are the result of the bar pinching the grip. Men who train with tough objects, like stones, logs, or in nature tend to develop thick skin all over their fingers and palms. The same goes for the feet. Accompanying this change is an alteration in the sensitivity of the pain receptors in those areas. As you become accustomed to walking barefoot, what used to be painful becomes a comfortable massage.

Exposure to the elements is the best way to develop this very real form of physical toughness. Train barefoot with minimal clothing, with rough implements. Start with shorter durations and forgiving surfaces so you don’t get to the point of actual injury, and increase the time and ruggedness of the environment. You will learn to tell the difference between discomfort and real pain. You’ll also learn how to be gentle when dealing with rock and dirt, but you’ll get tougher as well.

Supple Joints

An oft overlooked form of toughness combines mobility, flexibility, and durability. 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.

To that end, give mobility training serious consideration in your workout routine. Not only will it save you pain, it will allow you to absorb more punishment and do more reps without feeling the effects, which makes you that much harder to bring down.

The Art of Manliness recently published an article on an excellent method to develop mobility: self-myofascial release.

Hormonal and Adrenal Changes

Another example of physical toughness is harder to see. It consists of the metabolic and hormonal changes that go along with hard training. These can manifest in better energy management, so that you fatigue more slowly, and recover quicker, so that you can come back hard with surprisingly little time to recuperate. When most people would be down for the count, you’re back in the ring, having already caught your breath and cooled off.

The simplest way to train this kind of toughness is by limiting your rest between workouts or exercises, sometimes even at the expense of your performance. Be careful, however: there is a fine line between stimulating adaptation and overtraining, so remember that you need to give your body time and resources to build itself up stronger than before. Eat well and sufficiently, and get enough sleep. These habits will build up a store of resources you can lean on when rest isn’t so easily available. Occasionally, apply an acute stress, like intermittent fasting, to teach your body to adapt quickly and be efficient with energy, or train with little sleep. But in general, you’ll be able to handle more if you’re well-rested and well-fed.

Another interesting technique I’ve recently been using to improve my cardiorespiratory durability is nasal breathing. This involves restricting myself to only breathing through my nostrils, even during hard workouts. The result is more efficient oxygen usage. This technique causes me to regulate my pacing somewhat, but I’ve noticed that I don’t get out of breath nearly as quickly, even when I switch to regular breathing for a particular workout.

Environmental Tolerance

A relatively rare form of physical toughness is environmental tolerance. The most well-known variety is altitude acclimatization, in which athletes train at elevation and compete at sea level. This is normally seen as a way to gain an advantage in sports, but adaptation to low oxygen is also an example of physical durability, the ability to handle a difficult environment.

Another example is cold tolerance. The body will literally increase its ability to generate heat if you habitually go without excessive clothing and expose yourself to acute cold shocks. Even in the winter, it is possible to train with only a t-shirt and shorts. You’ll learn to distinguish between the superficial sensation of cold on your skin and the deep chill that threatens hypothermia. The first gives you feedback about your environment while the second is an indicator of potential danger.

In addition to training with less clothing, I also only take cold showers, which has also improved my ability to tolerate a wider range of temperatures without feeling real discomfort. Of course, both of these are pretty uncomfortable at first, but over time, they become less so, and you will find yourself becoming noticeably more hardy in general.

Physical Toughness Training Summary

  • 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.
  • 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.

Conclusion

My favorite way to develop pure toughness, both physical and mental, what I call ruggedness, is through outdoor training with minimal protection. Inspired by Erwan Le Corre and the MovNat method of training to approach exercise the same way I approached camping as a kid, I frequently train in a wild environment with nothing on but a pair of shorts, climbing trees, hoisting and throwing rocks, scrambling up and over boulders, and running over gravel-covered trails.

The constantly shifting terrain and objects challenge my body, but they also challenge my patience and focus. When a relatively small rock becomes nearly impossible because of its shape, it is frustrating. When I’m trying to sprint up a hill but keep slipping on loose sand, it is frustrating. When a gnarly tree branch makes pull-ups into a twisted mockery of the pristine movement I rock at the gym, it’s really frustrating. Slight pain from scratches or harsh ground is a constant, and with no clothing, the cold is often an issue, especially if there’s snow.

Everything is harder, or rather, I should say everything is more complex. The result is that I learn how to tolerate stress, both mental and physical, and how to adapt to make something work despite the fact that the environment is not cooperating. I deal with it or fail. When I’m out there, it doesn’t matter that I can deadlift 3x my bodyweight on a bar, because that doesn’t change the fact that a rock is completely off-balance and seems to be actively trying to roll onto my toes. And that doesn’t change the fact that I’m picking it up and carrying it up the mountain anyway.

That is the definition of tough.

______________________________________________

Khaled Allen writes about the psychology and the realities of living up to your potential with integrity at Warrior Spirit. He is also a MovNat trainer and a self-defense coach living in Boulder, CO.

{ 69 comments… read them below or add one }

1 damjan October 3, 2013 at 9:09 pm

Great text, enjoyed it severely.

Some extra related ranting I did as a comment when I shared this text on FB:

In fact, you could be physically near to retarded, but have the willpower of a hungry grizzly bear.

Maybe physically retarded people actually have higher willpower than all is well kind of people.

Adaptation to new environments, situations, obstacles, problem solving, objectivity, all this is so tightly wrapped in willpower, that without it, you could pretty much have none of them.

Asceticism shouldn’t be considered just fasting, physical hardship, not enjoying pleasures of life… It’s actually utterly NOT that.

Asceticism could be talking to the most uncomfortable person in the world for you, it could be looking in the eyes of the receptionist for 10 seconds, it could be yelling gouranga in the middle of the street when there is people around… It could be singing in front of women or men.

We NEED to be uncomfortable, more often, and seemingly irrationally, inflict unpleasantness to ourselves. Our capacity to reason well also depends on developing such willpower.

Asceticism could also be just not going through the most optimal path to work. Bring some absurdity in, let it in. Force it in. IT will work.

2 Sir Richard Lim October 3, 2013 at 9:12 pm

Overly Manly Man approves this article!

3 Alex October 3, 2013 at 9:21 pm

This is a great article and can work with any aspect of life you are trying to strengthen.

4 Steve October 3, 2013 at 9:29 pm

The mental toughness is it! At the end of sixty mile bike rides in Maine years ago, when I was climbing the last hill before home, utterly exhausted, wanting nothing more than to walk that last mile, I kept repeating, in cadence with the pedals, “I-don’t-walk! I-don’t-walk!” I was slow at the end, but I rode every foot of the way.

5 Matthew October 3, 2013 at 10:00 pm

Outstanding piece, Khaled. Physical preparation and fitness is good, no doubt, but day in and day out, life is going to test your toughness. Only when you’ve been knocked to the ground (literally and/or metaphorically) do you really discover what it is you’re made of.

6 Brock October 3, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Great article. As a doctoral student in psychology, athlete, and manly man, I love a good article on mental toughness.

7 Diego Martinez October 3, 2013 at 10:10 pm

I very much agree with your article in it’s entirety, but I will add this: Sometimes, you have no recourse but to endure, and it is then that your mental outlook will shine through. A number of years ago, I had a very serious accident on my motorcycle.

Long story short, I nearly killed myself, stopped breathing at one point, and had to be put into a medically induced coma on account of a brain hemorrhage. The initial recovery was a month and a half, at the end of which the doctors told me that I should not be healed to the extent that I was, and that I should not have recovered my prior faculties as much as I had.

The rest of the recovery played out over the next 2 years, and again, the doctors told me of the impossiblity that I had come back to my prior performance. What it was in the end was using a simple mantra. “Just keep pitting one foot in front of the other.” And so, I went from sharing a drink with Death, to recovering completely from a traumatic brain injury which many people only recover 75-85% of their previous capacity.

And so, I think that in some respects, you can call yourself tough and be correct. But there are other times that toughness is incalculable until you’ve had the trial by fire.

8 Tanner October 3, 2013 at 10:13 pm

Awesome stuff! I’m going to try to “get tougher”. I really like the set up the article, the links were awesome through out.

9 Kris October 3, 2013 at 10:22 pm

Go do a Tough Mudder event solo to test your toughness. Best thing I ever did was making myself finish that thing with no training. In reality it’s just 4 hours of running up and down mountains, through mud and over logs & creeks with a few electric shocks. But it makes you feel like you can accomplish anything after you’ve finished.

10 John R October 3, 2013 at 11:12 pm

I actually knew Khaled growing up and was unaware that he had become an author, outdoorsman, Buddhist, nutrition expert, or the host of other things that I have discovered in the past half hour on AOM and his own website (which is fantastic). Much to my delight, he is the embodiment of the true man; morally sound, reflective, capable, durable, spiritual, rational and dedicated. Great article, great website and great insight. I could not be more proud to have even this tangential connection to Khaled.

11 Wolf October 3, 2013 at 11:44 pm

Few things I’d like to point out.

“Anyone who works hard enough at academics can do well in school, and anyone who trains hard enough can do well in sports.”
This is not true as a general statement, this might be correct in terms of that one who works “hard” will be able to meet a certain baseline but “hard work” will not necessarily get anyone to a good finish line. This is a nice sentiment, but it ignores the truth that there are individual limitations on what we can and can not do – both in the physical and mental realm.

Someone might be able to cram things into their head or learn technique and this or that, but if you’re aiming high you won’t get there JUST by “working hard”. (and I dare say there can be a difference between working “hard” and effectively)

While there are some generally good sentiments in here I’d take them on a very individual basis as some of these can go horribly awry, e.g. injuries that can be sustained by barefoot running, extra-stress on the body of someone with a condition (e.g. auto-immune diseases or the likes). Sure, these don’t HAVE TO be in our way in everything we do but depending on their degree they DO limit the what we can effectively do.

Someone who says he’s gonna drink bottle of whiskey in a sitting and still retain full control of himself is most likely not being realistic.

12 Khaled October 3, 2013 at 11:45 pm

Thank you to everyone who’s commented so far! It’s a great honor to post on AoM, and I appreciate all the positive feedback.

@damjan: totally agree. It’s impossible to separate the mind and the body, and overcoming fear mentally is tied with overcoming weakness physically. Your points on asceticism were well-taken.

@steve: I can certainly relate. My years as a cross-country runner taught me a lot about mental toughness, as did the two marathons I’ve accumulated.

@matthew: It’s true, that life more often tests toughness than strength. Can you get up and try again after failure? Can you adapt and grow and learn? There are so many examples of strong/talented folks who don’t endure, and are surpassed by those with determination and grit.

@Diego: thank you for sharing that awe-inspiring story. I would agree with your point, that toughness can only be really discerned in the context of a real-world trial. We can only train ourselves so much (ideally your training mimics the physical AND mental aspects of real world challenges as much as possible) but when things get REAL, that’s when you find out how committed you are.

13 Evan October 4, 2013 at 1:28 am

I had a struggle about two months back when I started my first full-time job. I was dog-tired doing a few eighteen hour days per week as I finished my last college course, and woke up for my part-time job at 4am and didn’t get out of my new job til 9pm. Icing on the cake was a coworker who would love to get after me for not automatically knowing how to do the job, and I began to feel like I was at every breaking point. I was tired of being on my feet for twelve hours a day, mentally drained from class and learning the ins and outs of a new job, and emotionally stressed from having to deal with captain asshole. It took two weeks, but my part time job was finished, shortly after I aced my class and got my degree, and now the coworker is somewhat tolerable, at times…..The moral of the story is perseverance

14 Aditya October 4, 2013 at 2:26 am

Great article and to quote Rocky “Its not how hard you can hit but how hard you can take a hit and stand back up again.”
To be tough, You need to Never give up.

15 Beemo October 4, 2013 at 2:58 am

as stated in the movie “Man on fire”:
“There is no Tough, there is Trained and Untrained”

great article, well written and very interesting
i’m going to get at it right away

16 Scriabin October 4, 2013 at 3:39 am

6 years as a grunt in the US Army, 1x 15 month deployment to Iraq and Ranger school taught me everything I’ll ever need to know about toughness. Being physically and mentally tough got me across the finish line…strength just made it easier to suck up.

17 Steve October 4, 2013 at 6:26 am

Tremendous post. Nothing could be more germane to this website. Thank you.

18 Charlie FPG October 4, 2013 at 7:19 am

Loved every second of it.

I’ve been dieting and doing gym every5 days a week. Started boxing and stopped hanging out with a f*ckbuddy. I have also very specific time frames for eating.

I need to push myself harder, I lacked of WP on boxing yesterday. But I’m pushing myself through.

I’ll find some outdoors place to train =D

Thanks =) I needed this inspiration

19 Matthew October 4, 2013 at 7:23 am

“They are immensely strong within their particular domain, but have very strict limits on their comfort zone. As soon as they are forced out of it, their performance drops drastically.”

You run without shoes. That’s your comfort zone. That doesn’t make you tough.

You can probably tell how tough someone is more by how they react to a dropping performance rather than how fast they can run without shoes. The ability to grind out reps of anything at near failure without complaining is more tough than running with calloused feet. The ability to run in uncalloused feet in the unlikely event that you need to run without shoes is also a better measure of how tough someone is.

20 Sam October 4, 2013 at 7:28 am

Lovely piece

21 Mark Krob October 4, 2013 at 8:01 am

This article is spot on. I had a former co-worker in the Ag industry who had many potential trademarks of “toughness.” He was a big fella at 275 lbs, semi driver by profession, Chosen Few MC member in his free time; big arms, gruff voice, big talker, and probably the biggest creampuff I have ever worked with. The man (“man” defined here strictly as a post-pubescent human male) would falter at the first sign of difficulty, and had absolutely no mettle to work through a difficult situation. I’m a soft-spoken guy, weighing in at a whopping buck-sixty soaking wet, and it did not take long for it to become abundantly clear to me that this monstrous, gravelly-voiced biker dude was the last person I would ever want to have my back, and I could physically and mentally work circles around him.

All that said, I’m suddenly inspired to go shoeless more often.

22 AZDuffman October 4, 2013 at 8:14 am

Two neat things here! One, I thought I was the only one who tried intentionally to “toughen up” my feet. For some time I would walk a mile a day in bare feet, I even had a neighbor notice. They surely thought it was weird, but long term it was good. I got out of it when I moved to Arizona and it was too hot to do so without burning myself.

On mental toughness I was once given a management assignment that went exceptionally bad, While toughing it out my assistant manager remarked that I was one of the most mentally tough people he met because I stuck it out. I was near cracking inside, but it felt good to have people notice.

23 Khaled October 4, 2013 at 9:10 am

@wolf: You are right. “Hard” work alone will not account for everything. Working smart is and effectively is essential. I meant to include that idea in the phrase “hard work,” since most people who end up working hard at something learn about doing it effectively (I actually wrote a post about this very topic: Why Passion is’t Enough (http://www.khaledallen.com/warriorspirit/passion-vs-skill/), making the important distinction, as you do, between simply working hard and taking the time to understand HOW to do something).

Your interpretation of my statement was correct: I was referring to a certain baseline of academic or sports performance. However, in my experience studying psychology, people tend to overestimate their weaknesses and underestimate their ability to adapt. My point is that moderate success in anything is within reach for anyone if they are willing to cultivate the right outlook and mindset.

The only thing I want to add is that nobody knows if they are ‘world-class’ material until they really try. There have been too many exceptions, caveats, and unlikelies in history for anyone to definitely state that they could never be truly great, not matter what their disadvantages. Perhaps the disappointment is greater for those why try and fail than those who never try at all, but disappointment is a part of life and is itself a step on the road to success.

24 Chris October 4, 2013 at 9:22 am

I had a similar experience to Diego’s when, at 25, I nearly died of cancer. I was stationed in Korea and thought I just had a bad cough. When it had been going on for weeks, I went to the doctors and they found a tumor in my chest. The cough had been my body’s efforts to force blood to circulate because the tumor was pressing in on my heart, lungs, and the major blood vessels in my chest.
When I finally got back to the States, the doctors told my parents to pray it was lymphoma because nothing else would respond to treatment quickly enough and it had grown to the point they estimated I’d only have five days to live if chemo didn’t start to shrink it. I remember sitting in the ICU, my body weakened by the tumor and the surgeries and my brain blurred by the morphine. I remember having to dig deep and decide that I was going to fight this, no matter the odds. And it was hard. I didn’t know things were working until I woke up on day 6, then day 7, then day 8…
It’s been four years now, and I’m not back to where I was, but that very same “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other” mantra helped me defy the doctors’ expectations in my case, too.

In a way, it’s why I smirk when I see gyms that have “boot camp” programs. Having gone through military training, I can tell you that our version of “boot camp” is very different. A boot camp at a gym is physically challenging and is meant to push the clients’ bodies. But you go home after the workout, and you can quit any time you want. Military boot camp, however, is different because it works to foster these elements of toughness- cultivating the will to push forward when you’re tired, stressed, don’t want to be where you are, and want to quit. The world is very different when the challenges that put demands on you cannot be escaped.

25 Jonathan October 4, 2013 at 9:59 am

Excellent article!

I am really happy to see the suggestion of fasting included. I’ve always thought that the ability to fight through hunger (especially for longer periods) is a good indicator of mental toughness.

26 Brandon October 4, 2013 at 10:09 am

Great article about toughness and what it really means.

I ran a Tough Mudder in Georgia in 2012 that this applies to. It was in the beginning of February and the day started out in the low 20′s and didn’t get much warmer than that. Of course the first obstacle you do is a swim through a trailer full of ice water. I spent the rest of the day unsuccessfully trying to get dry, trying to get any kind of feeling in my feet and hands, and trying to prevent cramps. Running actually felt better because of the tiny bit of extra warmth you would get. Every obstacle felt like life and death because you didn’t want to slip into that ice water again. More than a few people in my group that day had to stop and be carted to a heat tent due to the cold, one guy actually got full body cramps and had to be hospitalized. I managed to not skip any obstacles and even though my time was horrendous (walked most of the time with one of my buddies who was cramping up), finishing that race was one of the toughest physical and mental accomplishments of my life. The icing on the cake was that it was on a sunday in some strict county in GA so we didnt get our post-race beer!

This year’s Tough Mudder was on a nice breezy day in April and felt like a walk in the park in comparison.

27 Finnpower October 4, 2013 at 11:22 am

We Finns have a word for this:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sisu

28 Ed October 4, 2013 at 11:38 am

Well, I guess it is cold morning showers from here on out…..
This is going to suck….

29 Rick Reed October 4, 2013 at 11:41 am

One of my favorite trainers, Maria Mountain, discusses myofascial release in this video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4UqpZrxqkE
and here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqOF5hUlrJg

30 LEONARD October 4, 2013 at 11:49 am

I have recently come in contact with several homeless men and have had lengthy talk with them. Also, I recently have watched several outdoor documentary’s about men climbing mountains. I am absolutely SHOCKED at the similar traits between these two groups of men. That is, being “homeless” and “mountain climbing”. The homeless men’s lifestyles are basically what your are describing in your training program above. They see themselves as survivors. Just some thoughts…

31 Alex Birkett October 4, 2013 at 3:18 pm

I love this article. You struck on so many good points.

For example, “It is a myth that you’re either born tough or you’re not.”

I agree. In fact, some of history’s toughest had to overcome some incredible setbacks that they were born with (JFK, Teddy Roosevelt).

Personally, I can relate as well in terms of ski racing in youth.

I had no idea, then, that the sport would be so beneficial in terms of developing toughness. But, I suppose standing outside in a pair of suffocatingly tight boots and a thinly made racing suit in negative weather helped me out more than I realized later in life.

I’ve learned to relish in the little bitter moments. They’ve helped me develop the mental toughness to overcome future obstacles.

We should remember the Chinese saying: 吃苦 (Eat Bitterness), as a reminder to endure hardships.

32 Gary October 4, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Wow!!

That was one great article. I’m going to bookmark it and come back to really delve into the links.

I know these things work, because I’ve discovered them in Tae Kwon Do class. My performance became much better when I stopped thinking, “Oh, I hate this (excercise, form, calisthenic).” and started thinking, “I can do this!”

33 Gregory Bolton October 4, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Some people I noticed equate toughness as to themselves intimidating others by wanting to fight.
The thing they fail on is that they really don’t want to fight. That is until they run into a really tough individual.

34 John October 4, 2013 at 11:53 pm

I have noticed this, mental toughness and the ability to ignore minor uncomfortable circumstances seems to be missing in most men. Turn the heat a few degrees lower or higher and listen to them whine. I might not be the strongest guy, but I’ll outlast anyone.

35 Dan Vogelsong October 5, 2013 at 8:52 am

This was a great article.
This reminds me of a couple of good articles on bOINGbOING and Getting Stronger (and, IIRC, one article here) about Stoicism, which practice the same basic ideas.
One of the things I had gleaned from Stoicism is the practice of Negative Visualization – basically, thinking about what-ifs and worse case scenarios. While that seems depressing and pessimistic on the outset, the idea is that, while you have things “under control”, you visualize the worst possible situation – death of a loved one, loss of a job, dissolution of a relationship – to get those emotions out of the way early. The idea is, we humans have a tendency to expect things much worse than reality, so if that ‘terrible thing’ were to happen, a Stoic would find that it really wasn’t as bad as he had previously conjured. Not only that, negative visualization can inspire one to think outside their means – “What would I do if I got sick/lost my job?” could inspire savings, paying attention to health insurance, or diversifying income streams; “What would my family do if I die?” could prod you into making sure that will is finalized, the estate planning completed, and life insurance is established. Barefoot running, gaining a thicker skin, and Environmental tolerance could all fall into that as well. Diets and exercise are fantastic, but the bulk of people get locked into a rut – eating the same things, doing the same exercises – so “exposure over time” doesn’t have to just apply to Environmental tolerance.

36 Jackson October 5, 2013 at 10:47 am

Overall great premise. I’d not ever distinguished the difference between strong and tough until I read one of Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker novels. It clicked and made a lot of sense. It’s like seeing a big football player walking around in the cold like a little girl. He can take the pain of a lot of weight because hes trained himself to. But a little cold pain
and he curls up and weakens.
Tough should be the concrete foundation, strength the appealing structure without.

37 jerry October 5, 2013 at 11:16 am

Train the mind and the body will learn to respect you.

38 mark October 5, 2013 at 2:17 pm

As always I seem to get as much from comments as the article.

39 Pat F October 5, 2013 at 8:50 pm

I’ve been set on fire; 65% 3rd degree burns when I was 16. I can say you speak most of the truth. As someone who’s been starved near to death I can also say that there’s nothing wrong with having a bit of soft in front of the hard. Being able to withstand the worst the world can throw at you has made me a successful, thick skinned man. Building strength and toughness is the core to being a successful man. As a young, post college man I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve scared aggressors off by taking a punch and laughing it off. Being tough AND strong makes a man better prepared for tomorrow.

40 Jake Long October 6, 2013 at 12:13 am

The article and even the comments have been extraordinarily valuable. I often find myself getting into a rut with my training and realize that I need to include more toughness training. Ever since my high school wrestling days, I’ve been particularly aware of my toughness. I think that to many people, toughness training is a foreign concept. They don’t look beyond working out and eating right to look good, and that’s a shame. Of course, I do think that can be a good place to start. To me, fitness is about being fit for whatever comes your way. Sometimes we run into obstacles that we realize we weren’t prepared for. Then we must alter our training. There’s a story about Bruce Lee being challenged by another martial arts instructor. In short, Bruce Lee defeated the other instructor but said that it took too long, and it drained him too much. From then on he became nearly obsessed with training all aspects of his fitness.

41 Jeff October 6, 2013 at 4:10 am

hmmm, all this reminds me of a childhood story, the tortoise and the hare :)

42 mims October 6, 2013 at 9:42 am

loved this article. the only sour note for me, was the author’s using the rescue of his GF from a kidnapper as mental fodder for finishing a run. Ouch.

As a woman, I hope I would be tough enough to escape that kidnapper myself. Everyone needs toughness, and though I appreciate the gallant impulse behind that comment, everyone deserves a partner who has their back and could mutually be there to rescue the other.

43 RobSanDiego October 6, 2013 at 4:52 pm

I had a paper route when I was 14 and had a piano fall on my foot (they sound just like in the cartoons when they fall!). I asked my 5’10″, 160 lb. brother if he could do it, after three days he said it was too hard. I was 5’6″ and 114 lbs. but I managed to deliver the newspapers, even when it snowed and I was falling about every third house because the plastic bag around my cast kept slipping on the snow.

I don’t let things stop me now, my brother only sees obstacles.

44 Emerson October 7, 2013 at 8:31 am

I agree 100% with this article, and love reading the articles on this website. It reminded me when I was in the outdoors, always working with my hands, and gashed my hand open with whatever I was doing, and never even noticed it until someone pointed out the blood on my hand. Went to get stitches, and the medical doctor said she had a tough time stitching it shut as she had never encountered such “thick skin”. Thanks AOM for the memories.

45 Edward Druce October 7, 2013 at 9:02 am

LOVED this post. Never thought about toughness like this. Will definitely be taking on the challenge of cold showers and going out without my jacket on : )

46 Chris October 7, 2013 at 8:00 pm

One thing I’d add I learned from U.S. Army Ranger School, and then subsequent combat deployments….be prepared to fail.

No matter how big and bad you think you are, at some point you’re going to hit the wall and cry like a baby. It’s what you do next that makes you tough.

47 Benjamín October 8, 2013 at 6:03 pm

Great work!

I Just have a question, if anybody is willing to answer. What´s the limit between being strong emotionally and being just being indifferent? For example, if my mother died and I just went off to do my homework like nothing (It happened).

Was I strong or just an as***le?

I have got both answers froms some persons. I just wanted to add some of the instructed men that visit this site i you were so kind.

-Benjamín

48 Rob October 9, 2013 at 12:33 am

@Khaled – Great piece my friend. I’m very proud of you. Keep it up. Liked the foam roller reference. Useful stuff. I can so imagine you running around with just shorts on in the snow, haha!

@Benjamin – Sometimes people don’t go through what are considered the normal stages of grief. I’ve heard of people having close ones die and not feeling a thing. You’re not a bad person because of it. It’s important to notice if you’re blocking off the emotion by numbing yourself through distraction or other methods.

49 Dan October 9, 2013 at 10:37 am

as a boy my dad would drop me off in the Adirondacks for a week at a time, Canoe ,backpack, some staples and waterproof matches. I loved it, I have always thought it thought me to be unafraid and self reliant. Over the last 4 years I watched my wife die of cancer, many of my friends, ask me how I stayed so strong through the process. This article reminded me of those lessons my dad let me learn alone in the wilderness. Thank you. I believe you are on to something.

50 Lasse Jørgensen October 12, 2013 at 3:58 pm

I think this is an excellent article!
I believe this article really puts things in perspective according to being big and buff doesn’t equalize being tough.

Before this article I had never made any thoughts regarding toughness… So this was really and eyeopener for me as well as a kickstarter!
Just begun to run only in shorts and t-shirt even at 5 degress celcius, it feels great! I feel like a viking (Yes I come fra Denmark).

Just at great article! Thank you.

51 Timothy October 13, 2013 at 7:58 pm

Great post. I have one idea to add. A while ago I started making a technology curfew for myself. I would start it at 8 pm and after that time no TV, video games, iPhone or iPad, no computer. The exception is if it’s social, such as watching a movie with friends. This can be a minor way to make myself uncomfortable and challenge myself. For example, I might have to get clever if I need directions, so I would have to use a map, ask someone for directions, or try to rely on memory or intuition. It also means being comfortable not know everything immediately (Wikipedia).

Over time I’ve made a couple changes such as allowing myself to check my schedule that I keep on my iPad, but generally it has been a great tool.

52 John October 13, 2013 at 10:23 pm

As a student of mental toughness I think you hit the nail on the head here. Very well thought out.

I’d like to add to what you said about mobility. What’s made the difference for me is yoga. Yes yoga.

If you want to up your game for mental toughness check out sealfit.com. I did their courses and you learn to be very tough.

53 Ed October 14, 2013 at 10:35 am

Cold showers update:
So…It has been 2 weeks of cold showers so far. They still suck however, they aren’t so bad once your body goes numb.

54 Lcpl Mac October 14, 2013 at 8:42 pm

Out here in 29 Palms MCAGCC, we make a game of it. The pavement here gets hot enough to literally fry an egg, and certainly to raise the palms of your hands a few degrees. See where I’m going with this?

55 Bob October 15, 2013 at 12:13 am

@mims
“loved this article. the only sour note for me, was the author’s using the rescue of his GF from a kidnapper as mental fodder for finishing a run. Ouch.

As a woman, I hope I would be tough enough to escape that kidnapper myself. Everyone needs toughness, and though I appreciate the gallant impulse behind that comment, everyone deserves a partner who has their back and could mutually be there to rescue the other.”

I get your point, but nothing the author said suggests he thinks differently than you. The fact that you comment as though he did says more about you than him. I mean, I’d like to think I could escape people who ALREADY SUCCESSFULLY KIDNAPPED ME, but it would still be nice if my girlfriend exerted herself on my behalf, if only to call 911.

56 CathyC October 20, 2013 at 11:44 pm

As a woman, I read this and could relate to it just as a human being. I enjoyed being “one of the boys” as a child and still like a man’s world. The one thing I had to learn in life is being tough. Enduring when things become unendurable is something that is very hard to learn. Once having gone thru the fire, future hard times become easier. I’m greatful for having experienced a tight budget, being adventurous, and living in the African bush for 9 years. When I read my grandparents memoirs, I can feel the pain of the great depression and dust bowl years like I went thru it myself. Learning not to whine and seek comfort is not an easy skill to master, but so golden when achieved.

57 Jamespv October 21, 2013 at 2:04 am

I love the definition here. Material science in mechanical engineering makes a similar distinction. Strength is just how much force a material, like a steel, can handle. Toughness, however, is an integral, a sum of many tiny slices. It’s from the relationship stress and strain, the amount of pressure/opposition and how much it stretches without failing. In many cases, a tough material will outlast a technically “stronger” one.

58 Hannah October 27, 2013 at 4:09 pm

I’m fifteen years old and I completely agree with this. You see, for a while, I was frustrated at how small I was and how skinny and I thought I wasn’t tough enough because I wasn’t physically strong. But then I realized that mental toughness was responsible for a lot of what I could handle. Last summer I went on a mission trip to Honduras with my school and we had to ride in the back of a truck for eight hours to this village in the middle of the mountains, and since there was a wall made out of metal bars all around the back of the truck, we could stand up during the ride. Everyone was enjoying themselves until the rain started pouring and then I was the only one that remained standing. The rain lasted for hours and it would smack up against my face leaving me numb. As night feel, the rain gradually lessoned, but we were all completely soaked, and the temperature had dropped. On top of that, we had to go over this rugged gravel trail which made the truck shake like crazy. Everyone had to get up and stand a certain way so that they wouldn’t get bruised by the metal bars. I was shaking, and my legs had stiffened, so much that I could hardly even move them. Not to meantion that the back of our truck was a square, not a rectangle; we were packed. But I stayed postitive about it the entire time, and all the other people in my truck were complaining. Two senior girls, and four senior guys, I was the only freshman that came. When we got out I could barely even walk, my legs just wouldn’t move. But by the next morning I was fine. My point is, I enjoyed myself because I was thinking only about the positive things. And It gave me pleasure to think I was the only one who could tolerate the truck ride; that’s what made me keep standing.

59 Captainmaddog October 27, 2013 at 11:31 pm

First off my father beat me until he was breathless, with foot in my back, holding me to to the ground, when I was 8 years old for breaking a window with a BB gun (didn’t shoot my eye out). First day to school got my hand caught in the bus door & broke two fingers…no crying with pain…not call for the door to be opened…just bear it until home & broken fingers found my mother & another beating for getting hurt. Became a successful combat operator because I could ignore the pain & meet it out with no remorse. Of course I’m a liberal with no quarter for chickenhawks. DFWM. Being a man means being tough on one’s self, but kind to others.

60 Szymon Myszograj November 3, 2013 at 11:17 am

Beautiful. I agree completely about how toughness is something one has to develop for oneself, but I also think that in some cases, it’s hereditary. Maybe not in terms of genetics, but definitely something you might have picked up from your father, or from the conditions you grew up in.

61 Eric Bach November 7, 2013 at 8:13 am

Great stuff!
You must get comfortable being uncomfortable.

62 Bruce December 7, 2013 at 11:57 am

Great stuff! It reminds me when I grew up in Miami working with my grandfather starting at age 9. This incredible man had a hauling business requiring working in chaotic and uncomfortable situations. I would take my friends and some guys that I play football with and they would not only complain but never come back. As I reflect back I realize how tough I was then and the tenacity I still have now from those experiences. I wish it was something I could take my boys through. However your article has inspired me with some ideas to implement more toughness in their lives, besides football and wrestling. I’m a Wellness & Performance Coach, and yoga and chaos training has helped me tremendously especially when I decide to do it outside in different situations. Now I’m ready to get even more creative. Thank you for the boost!

63 Erik December 7, 2013 at 6:42 pm

Khaled and I hiked up to the Flatirons together in Boulder last year. He was wearing sandals. It started snowing and, while he must have been cold, he didn’t complain. Still has all his toes.

64 j December 9, 2013 at 6:19 pm

I think being strong means how much you can fight back and being tough how much you can endure without giving up. And in life, unlike in a fight, you cannot fight some things, like death, disease, breakup and so on, and that’s why being tough it’s probably more important.
I’m physically a weak person and was never good at any sports; I am also pretty weak against sickness and that sort of pain, but I still think I’m tougher than most people.
Unlike many stories I read here, my experience implied fighting against my own mind, that is a psychological disease so to say. I encountered it before and was in a hospital for a while, being on medication and everything and I swore to myself I’d never end up like that again (I was pretty young then) Years later, said disease returned and I was able to overcome it with only my will power. I knew that if I wouldn’t I’d die and I kept struggling, because it was my only option, aside of being in hospital again. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I knew that if I overcame it, I’d be able to win to anything. It did return several times, and I panicked, but I knew that I won the first time, which was the hardest, so I’d win again. And with fighting my own fear, while I was in a very bad state, at the same time my mind got very clear and sharp and got to see everything in a new light and fell a sense of certainty and control I hardly experienced in normal life.
I get worried from time to time and tend to be anxious, but I know that if things really get tough I can surpass them and that is like having my own back. For some people it might not sound like much, but I think willpower and the will to stay alive no matter what (not out of instinct, but out of choice) can win to much more than a strong, but not tough person can win to.
And to answer somebody who said something about the girlfriend getting kidnapped, unless you’re a martial arts master or something, you can’t really win to people with guns, therefore anybody can get kidnapped, be it a man or a woman. The writer just used his desire to protect a dear one to fuel his motivation.

65 Ste December 22, 2013 at 7:51 am

I once completed 30 miles with roughly 15kg on my back..not a unbelievable feat to be fair..however I had been out drinking until around 02:00 and the event started at 06.30.

That seriously took all the mental strength I could muster, actually did a half decent time considering.

Straight back in boozer after aswell.

Ah, to be young, foolish and something to prove!

66 Joe Owens December 23, 2013 at 10:58 am

A very good article. However, toughness and strength are genetic. I was weak at school, but could fight like hell.

67 jerry February 6, 2014 at 6:28 pm

First you must want to be tough for a reason…second you must be smart enough to find “your” way to toughness….third….you must appreciate others that are tough….Semper Fidelis

68 Ethan March 1, 2014 at 2:57 pm

I found this article very helpful as I am a runner (crosscountry), I have had many times dug deep and found the willpower to win, and beat the other teams runners, I had a amazing kick, a little over a half mile.

69 Stuart April 10, 2014 at 5:44 am

@Chris – Lyphoma.

I had the Burkitts Lyphoma in 2005. Aggressive chemo was the only answer (4 cycles of intense chemo, one after the other); I was at deaths door, and was told by most doctors (especially the ER one) that I was going to die. I knew I wasn’t, and I am still here. I had the pleasure of being in hospital for 6 months! I am actually now in a better place (physically and mentally) than I was then. I was told that if you don’t relapse in the fist 3 years , then the chances of relapsing are almost nil. I didn’t start with a cough, I started with pains in my side, then clotted blood came out my anus, and it wouldn’t stop until they located the cause of it (took 2 days of tests, and finally they just opened me up and found it). I could go on, I had pneumonia, cancerous fluid on both lungs, weight loss, all before chemo. But as this article so rightly states, being mentally strong can do wonders. It is this mentally strength that defines everything I do. I know what I can do, which is anything I put my mind to. I live in the UK for reference.

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