Mental Toughness: The Missing Secret to Effective Body Recomposition

Image by sirchutney via Flickr

Over the last few months I’ve blogged in detail about:

  • my transition to a more primal way of living,
  • compliance to paleo diet, and
  • changes to my training regime to deploy Minimum Effective Dose principles.

This has all resulted in less time working out but increased fat loss and muscle gain.

However, one aspect which is commonly ignored during any body recomposition journey is how to change psychologically to be able to stick to such a regime. In this post I’ll touch on a topic called mental toughness.

Mental toughness is important when it comes to keeping fit, losing body fat and coping with stress (which in itself potentially causes weight gain). Developing mental toughness is the psychological edge that enables you to:

  • Generally cope better with the many demands that are placed on you
  • Specifically, to be more consistently determined, focused, confident, resilient, and in control under pressure.

How to build mental toughness?

For example, if you have a limited level of mental toughness you may decide that you hate to make mistakes as they stress you out and make you feel like a failure? Result: you may want to avoid trying to focus on your diet as perhaps you’re not the worlds greatest cook or you may want to keep on doing what you know best, such as participating in hours of ineffective chronic cardio trying to lose weight. The upshot of this is that you’ll avoid many, and possibly life changing, experiences because you have to be Ready, Willing and Able to fail to build new skills.

Impact of mental toughness on training?

For me trying, failing, reflecting on the reasons why then trying again is key. Ask others for their advice and guidance and look for the positive aspects when you slip-up. For example, when I completed an Ironman triathlon (see the above photo) I entered several Olympic distance races first and tried different things to see what effect they would have on my performance: nutrition, tyres, bike computers, wetsuits, etc. Some were had completely terrible outcomes, some worked fantastically well. This meant that on Ironman race day I knew that I’d done all I could to succeed: and I did!

Developing more mental toughness…

So, how can you develop your mental toughness? On Ralph Jean-Paul’s blog he suggests that the main aspect to developing mental toughness is the same as developing a muscle: repetitive use and practice. Examining the more spiritual aspects of mental toughness, take a look at this quote from the Fort Hood Resiliency Campus of the US Army’s web site:

Any human being functions in three modes i.e. Physical (Body), Mental (Mind), and Spiritual (Soul). These three aspects of our lives are not independent from each other, but dependent and usually intertwined. They are reflected in our behavior, our relationship to others, and seen in the way we respond to challenges and crisis.

This article has some nice guidance on improving your mental toughness:

  1. Overcome fear of failure
  2. Make no excuses and take full responsibility for all your failures and all your successes
  3. Accept that you will fail, make a lot of mistakes and learn from them. Failing is a big part of the game
  4. Be here, now (i.e. take it one step at a time)
  5. Focus on the process rather than the outcomes
  6. Develop routines to help you get in the zone

Motivation for mental toughness?

I would also say that you also need a high level of intrinsic motivation too, i.e. motivation which comes from within. Here your motivation is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself. In other words, if you want to go paleo, or change your body YOU have to want to do it, nobody else. You need to psychologically make the link between going paleo or losing fat, and the following:

  • being able to attribute the result of improved health and fitness to internal factors that you can control (e.g. the amount of effort you put in),
  • a belief that you can influence the desired goals (i.e. the results are not determined by luck),
  • how interested you are in mastering a topic: in other words, you need a deep understanding of the topic to be successful.

So going back to my Ironman example, the desire to beat a previous personal best, racing against others in my age-group and the cheers of the crowd were all extrinsic motivational factors and much less effective than the fact I WANTED to do it for me!

Do you believe you’ll be successful on your health and fitness journey? If not, why? How mentally tough are you? Leave a comment below:

Guest post by Rob Thompson.

Rob Thompson

After being addicted to Chronic Cardo for several years, Rob quit being a middle of the pack Ironman triathlete and marathon runner to focus on living a paleo and primal lifestyle, and now adopts minimal effective dose fitness techniques. He blogs about this journey over on:

2 thoughts on “Mental Toughness: The Missing Secret to Effective Body Recomposition

  • September 17, 2011 at 3:09 am

    Thanks for putting this out there, this a good introduction to the mental toughness game, and the points raised are all valid and sensible.

    The part that is left out, as almost always, is ‘how’.

    Making suggestions like having intrinsic motivation is okay, but without a framework for developing something like that, you might as well tell a soldier to shoot accurately and not provide a method for learning it.

    I realise this is no fault of the writer, space being a limiting factor in articles like this, but perhaps I can shed some light on the ‘how’ of developing mental and emotional strengths?

    I have written a book based on my experiences as a trainer, coach, hypnotherapist and NLP Master Practitioner that’s sole focus is the ‘how’. The field of NLP has been especially fruitful in showing me how people of all ages and abilities can learn how to change their internal lives, quickly and effectively. You can go check out my website for a summary of how these things work, or you can use one of the myriad online resources available to us all. But check it out non the less!

    Keep up the good work,
    George Super Boot Camps

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