How to Build Mental ToughnessFeb 14, 2023
We are all just a few steps away from breakthrough performances. Record-setting professional endurance athlete Alyssa Godesky tells us how to go the extra mile.
By Amelia Perry
Every endurance athlete has stared down the wall–that place where everything hurts, you’re far from the finish, and you just want to stop…or at least slow the hell down. In that moment, the difference between finding a way over that wall or grinding to a halt almost always comes down to mental toughness, the ability to pull into the reserve deep within us and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
It’s a skill we all have to some extent, we’re active women who do hard things, whether it’s the brutal Murph CrossFit Challenge on Memorial Day, running a marathon, or even just pushing ourselves out of bed to workout on a cold winter morning when we’d rather do anything but. Some of us may naturally have more of that mental muscle than others, but we can all train it and make it stronger.
This week on the Women’s Performance Podcast, we welcomed Alyssa Godesky to help us do just that. As a professional endurance athlete, Alyssa has over 30 full distance Ironmans under her belt. Wanting to try something different, she set her mind on attempting Fastest Known Time (FKT) challenges. In 2018 Alyssa set the FKT for the 272-mile Vermont Long Trail, completing it in just 5 days with a total of 17 hours of sleep. In 2020 she achieved the Women’s Supported FKT for the Adirondack 46 High Peaks, and in 2022 she achieved the overall supported FKT for the New Hampshire 48 High Peaks. If we could pick one person to talk about mental toughness - Alyssa Godesky is it.
Alyssa’s Tools for Mental Toughness
Alyssa believes that we are all capable of building our mental toughness – no matter how tough we already are. It takes applying some basic principles she shares here.
Choose your challenge wisely
First and foremost, be sure that the goal you’re setting out to accomplish is something you feel passionate about in the first place. As Alyssa explains, it’s not “mentally tough” to push yourself to do something you truly don’t enjoy or get any satisfaction out of. For her, she learned this lesson while she was studying at the Naval Academy - and dropped out.
“I think a lot of people would say, you should have just been more mentally tough and stuck it out and finished what you started. When in actuality, I built my own mental toughness by realizing a lot of it has to do with the perspective you take, and the confidence it gives you by picking your own path,” she says.
She describes the decision to quit the Naval Academy as one of the toughest things she has ever done. However, this decision allowed her to find something she was truly passionate about that she could dedicate her time and energy to. Ultimately, it’s not “tough” to stick it out in something that you really don’t want, that isn’t your dream, or that doesn’t make you excited.
Discover what makes you stop
As a coach, Alyssa has seen that oftentimes her athletes throw in the towel when they’re otherwise very close to breaking through that wall.
“As a coach, it makes you realize that it’s very close most of the time and it is just about finding a place you can go to in your mind, to be able to be like, okay, just a little bit further, a little bit longer, right, one more minute, one more mile. And you see so many times where people will often just give up.”
To help them push through that point, she helps them understand why they stopped. Is it pain? Weather? Boredom? Once you discover what is making you stop — you can then work to mitigate that. That may be as simple as being better prepared for the weather or developing strategies to occupy, or even turn off, your mind (more on that in a bit).
Taylor Swift Music
To push a little harder, reach a little farther — sometimes all Alyssa needs is some good ol’ Taylor Swift cranking in her ears. Music is a well-researched tool for increasing motivation, lowering pain perception, and providing a distraction from unpleasant efforts. It’s simple. It’s accessible. And it works. Taylor Swift may not be your jam. But you almost certainly have music that will keep you moving.
Turn off your brain
A lot of people will ask accomplished athletes what their “mantra” is. For Alyssa, it’s absolutely nothing. No really! Finding a place of pure nothingness in her own mind can help her push herself harder than ever. By turning off her brain, and just letting her body do the work – Alyssa has been able to set some serious records. Here’s what she has to say about this:
“I’ll tell myself, Alyssa you just need to blackout and let your body keep walking for the night. Turn your brain off. I don’t even think about a mantra because my brain just needs to go blank and my body will keep moving”.
It’s important to note that oftentimes, our bodies will send us important messages that we really do actually need to stop. However, it is up to us to make the distinction between what it feels like to want to stop vs. the need to stop.
Practice Practice Practice
We are all more than capable of pushing forward and making our goals happen. All we have to do is get out there, use our new tools for mental toughness, and make it happen. As with any skill, it takes practice. So put these skills to work on a regular basis. When you get that urge to stop, ask yourself why? Are you passionate about what you’re training for? Are you running into the same stumbling blocks like weather or nutrition that you can work around? Are you letting too much noise inside your mind drown out the simplicity of keeping going? Answer those questions. Work on the stumbling blocks. Then keep putting one foot in front of the other.
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