On Mental Fitness

Professional Mountain Guide Brenton Reagan grinds through a long gym-based endurance effort.


By Rob Shaul

In 2017, I conducted a focused “mental fitness” experiment on myself.

Specifically, at that time,  I’ve been trying to not look at the clock during long, 30-60 minute, gym-based endurance efforts.

My struggle with this has been revealing on a couple levels:

  1. Micro-Level – how lame I can be – especially some of the efforts I’ve devised to try and know how much time is left, without looking a the clock;
  2. Macro-Level – how “mental fitness” is mode specific, can be developed and lost, takes maintenance and requires constant vigilance.


Mode Specificity

Many years ago I worked a few weeks with a world-class alpinist – a total mountain badass.  

Alpine climbers, especially those who venture to the Himalaya, Canadian Rockies and Alaska, know how to suffer: high altitude (can’t breath), extreme cold (shivering), constant exposure (fear) … this athlete was one of the world’s elite.

But, during his first coached hard work capacity event with me – something simple like burpees plus sprints – he pulled back, didn’t push hard, didn’t seem mentally fit.  I made note of it and in my immaturity, wrongly judged him a sissy. A couple days later, he did another similar effort. This time he crushed it. No mental issues at all. Why the difference? Certainly not my exceptional coaching.  This athlete was mentally fit in his “mode” – alpine climbing – but when exposed to a new “mode” – gym-based work capacity – he simply wasn’t used to it. The second time through, he knew what to expect, what it felt like, and he was ready to apply his proven mental fitness to this new “mode.”

I learned something that day.

Even within our relatively narrow world of training at MTI, I’ve experienced and seen my lab rats experience similar reactions many times – when we switch from a strength cycle to a work capacity cycle, for example, and we all get our butts mentally kicked by sprints. Or when we switch from unloaded running to ruck running and get mentally hammered by the ruck.

This has been part of my current struggle with our gym-based endurance efforts … a new “mode.”

The point here is mental fitness can behave like physical fitness – when you switch “modes” it may take a session or two or three, for your body and mind to register the change and recalibrate appropriately.


Mental “Fitness” vs. Mental “Toughness”

When I first started coaching I had another term and called it: “mental toughness.”

Mental “fitness” is a much more accurate term. “Fitness” implies an attribute that can be developed, and built. But also an attribute which can decondition, and be lost.

In my role as a strength and conditioning coach, I learned part of my athlete’s success depended upon my ability to “coach” their mental fitness, just as hard as I coached their physical fitness. We developed a set of mental fitness “rules” for our work events to help athletes, and I developed a style of “sticks & carrots” to develop my athletes’ mental fitness.

This shift from being a righteous, judgmental dick, to being a demanding, but servant coach, took me an embarrassingly long time. I still have work to do, but I’ve come a long way.



Mental fitness, like physical fitness, must be maintained. We’ve seen this at the micro-level, from cycle to cycle, but also in working with SOF personnel. The obvious SOF examples are athletes who demonstrated great mental fitness to make it through selection, schools, deployments, etc., but now senior, have let themselves go physically and mentally.

The less obvious is SOF personnel who have “big boy” rules for fitness training and end up only doing what they like an/or what they’re good at. Regardless of the training intensity, there’s a “comfort” in this and by definition, we have to be made uncomfortable to train and maintain mental fitness.

Switching “modes” in your fitness training is one way to develop your mental fitness and keep it sharp.


Constant Vigilance and Aristotle’s Wisdom

Circling back to my own mental fitness “experiment” – I’m developing some new programming with a couple of my older (40+) veteran Lab Rats, James and Cody. Here was the first part of our session….

(1) 30 Minute Grind wearing 25# Weight Vest

  • 5x Sandbag Toss & Chase @ 60#
  • 20x Step Ups @ 20”

Here are some of the thoughts I had trying not to look at the clock, but still try to figure how much time was left ….

  • We had music on and so I figured each song was about 3 minutes long, so I tried to count songs.
  • Intensely watching Cody and James, who were looking at the clock, for any “clues” as to much time was left
  • Having to force myself to shut my eyes during the Sandbag Toss and Chase when I was moving toward the clock so as to not “steal” a glimpse
  • Whining to myself that I worked all weekend and therefore should give myself some slack now….

The goal, of course, is not to look at the clock, but rather to not think about the clock at all. The goal is to just grind through, workmanlike, no emotion. Failed that today.

Years ago in High School, I read Aristotle. All I remember now is him describing the idea that the more you acted with integrity, the easier it became to do so.

But no matter what, it took constant vigilance.

This has certainly been my experience in this narrow mental fitness “micro experiment.” If you thought I was a freak show today, you should have seen how desperate I was just a few weeks ago when I started this “experiment,” and couldn’t make it through one of these events without looking at the clock. The more I’ve practiced, the easier it has become.

This happens not only over several weeks but also within a single week. We’ll do similar efforts tomorrow and Thursday, and it will be easier for me not to look at the clock Thursday than it was today.

“Easier” but not “easy.” It still takes constant vigilance.

I find when I begin an individual grind, I have to be especially on guard to avoid “accidentally” seeing the clock. As the effort continues, I fall into a rhythm, forget about the time, and have even been surprised when the effort ended.

For the longer efforts, as the grind wears on past 45-50 minutes, my restraint ebbs, and again, I must be alert not to sneak a peak at minute 58.

I’ve read about this effect in non-physical aspects. How, for example, each morning we wake up with a full tank of restraint, but over the course of the day as we deploy it, the tank level continues to drop and later in the day we can have less restraint than the morning.

So for example, it may be easy to skip the donut at 8 AM, when you’re fresh, but much more difficult to skip the strong cocktail at 8 p.m., when you’re exhausted after a long days’ work and your “restraint” tank is near empty.


Transfer to the Field?

While I believe at certain times mental fitness is “mode” specific, athletes have reported transfer from what they’ve learned in the artificial environment of the gym to the real world outside the gym.

My professional mountain athletes report hearing me in their head extolling them to “keep grinding” during grueling mountain events, and note how mountain partners who haven’t trained with us suffer more mentally.

Military and LE athletes who have attended selection report that completing the long mini-events alone in our selection plans help “harden” them mentally for the real thing at selections.

So while there is transfer beyond the gym-learned mental fitness to real-world physical challenges, is there transfer from physical-challenge mental fitness to the mental fitness it takes to act with integrity in other areas?

Does the athlete who crushes the competition mentally in sport demonstrate a high level of integrity in life’s other arenas?

This is not nearly as clear.


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