The Powerful Connection Between Physical and Mental Endurance

The Powerful Connection Between Physical and Mental Endurance

As I step out onto the road and slowly start to put one foot in front of the other, a common thought crosses my mind. “I wish I were one of those people who really loves to run.”

I am not a runner, and when I say I am not a runner, I mean I don’t crave running every day. It is not the thing that makes my world right again. But years ago, I started running just a little bit, and over time, it stuck.

For a long time, I thought all I was doing was building physical endurance, but years later, I realized how much this journey of running was really building my mental endurance as well. Sure, the relationship in the stamina of both mind and body is clear. When you pound the pavement, or sit on the bike for hours, you will improve at your sport. But what are the additional side effects of training your body and mind to endure? Over the years I have noticed something—

the time spent building my physical endurance also increased my mental endurance for all of life’s most important aspects. For me that is: marriage, parenting, building a business, surviving deployments, and thriving in each move.

I think I will keep this run shorter—probably about four miles. I reflect on that number. Four miles isn’t much, but at the same time it is a lot. It represents the base I have built over time. For most of my life, I could not pop out for runs many miles long. I just didn’t have a foundation. Now I can, even after a break. I am now in my late thirties and I think back on the last twenty years of adulthood. One thing I continue to see proven over and over is that: time invested builds a powerful foundation. It is hard to commit time and effort for days, months, and years and not really see big changes, but they are there. The beginning of each run is always hard. I have to be patient and let my body settle into it. It is easy to get frustrated or discouraged.

We live in a quick-fix world. Almost everything we want, we can have instantly.

Want to pull up your favorite TV show? Anyplace, anytime, you can. Need groceries? Order now, have them delivered in hours. See something on Amazon? You will have it in a day, or maybe even less. These are just superficial things, but they feed our instant gratification mindset, and it trains us to expect that across the board. For that reason, we need to continue to train our minds to work through the long-term projects.

Most of the accomplishments that really matter take a long time, maybe even a lifetime.

Last I checked, it still takes almost ten months to grow a baby, and you don’t learn to run a half-marathon in two weeks. There may be plenty of shortcuts out there, but the most rewarding things don’t have them.

I am beginning to catch my stride, settling into this run. It is hot. I can feel the temperature rising by the minute. I am going to embrace this small time in my run when it feels right. I know in a number of minutes it will all get hard again. It’s time to think about keeping my mindset right, to focus on staying positive when I start to get tired, frustrated, and discouraged. It won’t just be during this run. It will be later in the day when I have intervened in the fifteenth sibling fight of the day, or when I am just trying to send off one more work email and keep getting interrupted.

Building a positive mindset, a driven mindset, takes mental endurance.

It takes knowing that when you hit your stride, there is going to be a roadblock around the corner and that you need to stay focused and run through it. I look down at my watch and see the numbers ticking away. For better or worse, I have become a bit of a slave to my watch.

How do we fight against the cultural need for instant gratification? I believe it is by changing your mindset through habit. Setting a habit is less about the output and more about the input.


It is less about goals and more about systems. A running plan is a system that creates a habit. My watch helps me stay true to that system. Different types of runs do different things, with different intentions. If 80 percent of your runs should be long and slow, what does this tell us about the rest of our lives outside of running? What about sprints? Is there some comparison to everyday endurance there? If you are spending your days at a sprint, you are set for burnout in other aspects of your life. But if you apply them sparingly, the focus and results behind that time will be powerful. I think of sprints and long, slow runs as the skills we build. They contribute to our overall endurance.

The ancient Greek philosopher Archilochus said, "We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

As I continue down the road, I think about how I would rather be doing something else. All the work I have to do, the errands I need to run. I am tired. My legs are a bit sore. But then I tell myself to push through. It is a physical challenge to keep turning my legs over, but really, the greater challenge is mental. It is where I see the grit come in, adapting my mind to this grit to just keep pushing. I can't allow the little things to pull me down. This grit combined with habit, is where I see the most value in mental endurance.

How does your approach change when you are building for endurance instead of trying to hit the finish line?

I can hear my feet slap the ground. I am getting lazy. I try to remember to keep my cadence up. It is a small technique tweak that offers improvement. In Japan, this is called Kaizen. The word means, “change for the good.” It is continuous, incremental improvement. Recognize the 1 percent changes. What makes something rewarding? A lot of it is the time and effort invested. It is important to find joy in the process and not in the finish line. I think about the types of endurance activities there are—long, slow runs, tempo runs, intervals—and how much they apply to all the other things I am tackling in life. As I strive to improve my physical endurance, I have discovered I am also improving my mental endurance. Not just in sport but in life. It has really made me consider how we develop mental endurance.

Why is it important to embrace the long-view, and how do you focus on finding joy in the process and not just the results? This means more focus on the input and less on the output. Setting habits is the foundation to endurance.

As I approach my driveway again, I am a little disappointed with my run. It was slower than I wanted, but I remind myself, it is just one day. It is still time spent increasing my endurance and my base. Not every day is a fast day, or not any day in my case. But every run is a small building block. I move on to the rest of my day. I pull myself up to my computer. Time to work on building another foundation with my small business. And here I know from years of experience that time, grit, habit, and mindset will lead to the mental endurance that will get me where I need to be.

"The Powerful Connection Between Physical and Mental Endurance—in Sport and in Life," by Lauren Rothlisberger, as seen in Volume V of Legacy Magazine. Photography by Brittany Raynor.


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