Pushing yourself hard increases mental toughness in a way nothing else can

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
July 28, 2016

Cyclists are a great example of athletes who know a thing or two about what it means to be tough (um, did you see the power of the women on La Course or the speed of the men finishing Le Tour de France?!). Now, a new study shows that hard workouts might give you more grit off the course too.

Researchers from the University of Kent took 11 professional cyclists and nine recreational riders and put them through a series of computer tests designed to "mentally fatigue" them before sending them out on a timed ride. After the ride, each group was given a different computer task to test their willpower. The elite riders' times showed that they were better able to power through a physically tough challenge even when their minds were tired and distracted. What's more, they showed greater willpower after the ride. The study was published in PLoS ONE. (See also: 31 Biking Tips from Elite Female Cyclists)

Not a pro cyclist? No problem. The scientists say that they believe this shows that anyone can increase their resistance to mental fatigue through hard physical training. Sure, some of this can probably be chalked up to inherent personality traits but learning how to accept a certain amount of pain and suffering, and work through it (something any semi-pro cyclist will tell you comes with the sport's territory), is something that high-level athletes have had to learn in order to excel at their sport.

Anyone who's ever toughed it out at the gym knows that successfully doing something hard, like making it through an agonizing CrossFit WOD, makes you realize you are capable of doing so much more than you thought. That same concept could be applied to crush your PRs as well. Improve the mental side of your game by learning how to harness your willpower and eliminate distractions could help you push through boundaries you never thought possible. (Training your body physically for an upcoming race? Great! But don't forget about Your Mental Marathon Training Plan.)

While the researchers didn't look at how the pros or the recreational cyclists compared to people who don't ride or who don't work out much at all, we'd venture to guess that cyclists, spinners, CrossFitters, dancers, HIIT-ers, and just about anyone who makes exercise (and tough exercise) a priority, would see a boost in mental toughness and willpower compared to those who don't.