Can physical training impact our mental toughness?

Exploring the potential of the human mind and body

We are all aware of the importance of mental toughness, or resilience, in coping with stressors in sport and driving optimum physical performance. But, what if it also works the other way round – can physiological factors drive our mental state, and can we use this to our benefit? Research suggests that physiological stressors can and do impact our state of mind. Perhaps a suitable training environment can build both a stronger body AND a stronger mind.

According to research by Marshall (Marshall et al, 2017), mental toughness improves post-race, after 6 months triathlon training. They suggest that coaches should structure training plans to progressively challenge their athletes whilst providing regular feedback on their successes. In their study, Mental Toughness did not differ between the faster and slower runners, and did not impact race times, but may assist in an athlete seeing challenges as opportunities.

Therefore appropriate physiological training leads to:

In his seminal paper ‘Arousal and physiological toughness: Implications for mental and physical health’, Dienstbier (1989) suggests that the popularist view that stress is negative may be incorrect. Instead, being exposed to intermittent stressors could be positive, and lead to an increase in physiological toughness. Consequently, and in connection to psychological coping, physiological toughness may lead to improvements in the completion of complex tasks. Furthermore, in our overly mechanised world, where many physical demands are minimised, there is limited natural toughening. Dienstbier (1991) later added, that within our genetic constraints, systems are strengthened through their use, and may atrophy through lack of use. Might this also be true of our psychologically systems, which are after all underpinned physiologically by the brain? We may surmise that physiological stressors, for example, aerobic training, or exposure to cold and altitude, might both harden us physiologically, and also psychologically.

Some of these key points were subsequently picked up by Fletcher and Sarkar (2016). Their ‘Pressure Inurement Training’ suggests that the pressure on an individual, increased by manipulating the challenge and the environment, results in a stress-related response leading to positive adaptations. Their ‘training’ aims to maintain performance and functioning whilst increasing the pressure in an environment comparable to that in which peak performance is required.

Both challenge and environment can be manipulated through increasing the demand of the stressors including, type (e.g. competitive or non-competitive), property (e.g. degree of novelty), or other dimensions (e.g. frequency, duration etc). Appropriate support must also be maintained, and manipulated through increasing the significance or relevance of the appraisals, their importance, and consequences.