The Science Behind Mental Toughness

Mental toughness can be defined as a personal capacity to produce consistently high levels of subjective or objective performance despite everyday challenges and stressors as well as significant adversities. (Gucciardi et al., 2015)

Clearly, mental toughness is a beneficial quality to have, it allows you to push past inevitable setbacks to achieve success. But how do we become more mentally tough?

In a study by Jones et al., 2002, athletes ranked 12 attributes of mental toughness in order of importance. Numerous studies, including this one, show that the most important attribute of mental toughness is self-belief in your ability to achieve goals. Self-belief in yourself can be developed through vicarious experiences – by watching others who have embarked on a similar path and have achieved success, you can develop the belief that you can achieve that same success yourself. What you believe about yourself and tell yourself are crucial to mental toughness, Rewire has integrated self-talk mantras to help develop this and in turn, build your mental toughness.

“This record was in my mind for a long time, I’m so happy to have made it reality today.”

Geoffrey Kamworor – On his Half Marathon World Record (2019)
Integrated Self-Talk Mantras in the Rewire app.

In this same study, athletes ranked ‘bouncing back from performance set-backs as a result of increased determination to succeed’ as the second most important attribute of mental toughness. One of the athletes involved with the study was quoted as saying ‘Nobody’s rise to the top is completely smooth, there are always little hiccups or turns in the road.’ Negative results provide increased determination as no one ever wants to be known as a ‘failure’. This increased determination coming from failure is a key part of mental toughness, it differentiates those who will never give up from those who will.

The third most important attribute of mental toughness was a self-belief that you possess unique qualities and abilities that make you better than your opponents. Rewire is all about developing qualities that set you apart from your competition by providing mental training so that you can develop your mental endurance above that of your competitors, allowing you to have that self-belief that you are better than your opponents.

‘Every quarterback can throw a ball; every running back can run; every receiver is fast; but that mental toughness that you talk about translates into competitiveness.’

Tom Brady

The fourth attribute, and the final one we will discuss, is the ability to remain fully focused on tasks in the face of competition-specific distractions. Numerous distractions can occur in competitions, causing your mind to be taken off the task at hand reducing your performance. Using Rewire helps to develop your mental focus. You are ranked on mental focus after every training workout, with the ability to track it over time.

The metrics available in the Rewire app.
The metrics available in the rewire app including Mental Focus.

Laura Kline, Rewire Athlete and Former World Duathlon Champion, tells us: ‘It’s not letting your mind wander and your legs slow down as it [Rewire] keeps you focused the entire time.’

To summarize, mental toughness is universally accepted as a key part of athletic performance, as Eliud Kipchoge says: “If you don’t rule your mind, your mind will rule you”. Mental toughness allows you to achieve high levels of performance even in the face of setbacks. It’s time we started to work on it….

‘If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it.’

Michael Jordan

Studies Covered in Article for Further Reading

‘What Is This Thing Called Mental Toughness? An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers’
Jones G; Hanton S; Connaughton D.
JOURNAL OF APPLIED SPORT PSYCHOLOGY
Copyright © 2002 by the Association for Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology

‘The Concept of Mental Toughness: Tests of Dimensionality, Nomological Network, and Traitness’
Gucciardi F; Hanton S; Gordan S; Mallett C; Temby P
Journal of Personality 2015
© 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

How to use Self-Talk Mantras to Effectively Increase Performance

Does talking to yourself really help increase your performance? Yes! According to numerous studies, including this one from 2013, using self-talk significantly reduced an athlete’s rating of perceived exertion (RPE) – essentially how hard you feel you are working. This in turn led to a significant increase in time to exhaustion (TTE) meaning that the athletes could continue to work at the same intensity for longer (Blanchfield et al., 2013). In essence this means that by using self-talk techniques, you can increase your performance in endurance activities (or at least make it feel easier!).

So how can you use self-talk effectively to improve your performance? Pick four mantras, either from the list (below) or ones that you have created yourself. They need to be meaningful to you, so take your time to think about which resonate with you the most. 

Pick another two for the late stages of the race or training session suited for times when you can feel the lactic acid moving round in your legs and all you need to do is keep pushing and take your mind off the immense pain. Kline, the former World Duathlon Champion, says: “I might start a race with a mantra in my head ‘Calm and focused.’ And then I’ll reach a point where there’s going to be a lot of climbing and I’ll say ‘Consistent climbing’ over and over in my head. Then I’ll get to a point in the race where it’s go time… I’ll say ‘Bring it home’.”

Early Stage

  • ’Calm and Focused.’ – Laura Kline, Former World Duathlon Champion and Rewire Athlete
  • ’You’re doing great’ – Ryan Hall, Olympian in the marathon
  • ’Stay relaxed’ – Tyler Pennel, Former U.S. National Marathon Champion
  • ’Calm Confidence’ – Annie Bersagel, Former U.S. National Marathon Champion
  • ’Swift and smooth’
  • ’Steady forward momentum’
  • ’Your race. Your pace.’
  • ’Keep this up’
  • ’One step at a time’
  • ’You’ve got this!’
  • ’Feeling good’
  • ’Going strong’

Late Stage

  • ‘Bring it Home’ – Laura Kline, Former World Duathlon Champion and Rewire Athlete
  • ’Tough times don’t last, but tough people do’ – Ellie Greenwood, Western States Record Holder
  • ‘Just keep pushing’ – Ian Sharman, Former Winner of the Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run
  • ‘Whatever it takes’ – Ryan Vail, Former USA Cross Country Team
  • ’Never give up’ – Chrissie Wellington, Ironman World Champion (2007-2009)
  • ’Fortunate, Fearless and Fast’ – Payson McElveen, Professional Mountain Biker
  • Go faster. Push harder. Today, define yourself.’ – Deena Kastor, Olympic Marathon and Long Distance Runner
  • ’Beast mode on’
  • ’Breathe in Strength. Breathe out weakness.’ – Amy Cragg, Olympic Marathon and Long Distance Runner
  • ’Shut up legs!’ – Jens Voigt, Previous holder of the Hour Cycling Record
  • ’Push through this’
  • ’Consistent Climbing’ – Laura Kline, Former World Duathlon Champion and Rewire Athlete

The mantras that you have picked should be meaningful enough to you that you can remember them without any problem. However, you might wish to have an extra reminder. Write them on your hands or fingers if you need, or even engrave them onto the handlebars of your bike. The good news is with the Rewire system you can program your personal mantras right into the training app and they will appear during the most challenging points in your workout automatically. Throughout exercise use the phrases as and when you need, repeating them over and over, taking your mind off the pain.

Using mantras in the Rewire app

By using these mantras, your perception of how hard you are working will be lower and this will allow you to push yourself beyond the previous limit set by psychological factors, thus enhancing your endurance performance.

After a few sessions you will have become accustomed to using self-talk and will likely have naturally selected the mantra which fits the best for each part of the race, those being the ones that you repeat the most since they mean the most to you.

Keep pushing!

Talking Yourself Out of Exhaustion: The Effects of Self-talk on Endurance Performance
by Blanchfield AW, Hardy J, De Morree HM, Staiano W, Marcora SM
Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2013

Mental Toughness Podcast Interview with Rewire Co-Founder Sun Sachs (Audio)

Listen to an interview with Rewire co-founder, Sun Sachs and elite ultra athlete, Laura Kline talking about how Rewire Cycling can be used in training and racing on the Pain Cave Podcast

pain+cave+pod+logo
Interview on the Mental Toughness Podcast – The Pain Cave

Listen on:  iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify

How Does Mental Fatigue Effect Watts?   

Most of us have slaved over improving our functional threshold power (FTP) via countless hours of structured power-based training.  Likewise we’ve geeked out and spent lots of money looking for ways to save watts using the latest aero bars, wheels, bars, skin suits, shoe covers, wax chains, helmets and even water bottles.   Of course,  these are all valid and worthwhile…ok maybe the water bottle is debatable 😉   But what if there was an even more significant way to improve performance and watt output on the bike?

In this 2018 study scientists set out to measure the impact of mental fatigue on critical power and watt output.   What they found is that under mental fatigue conditions, cyclists didn’t lose any critical power but had a significant reduction in watt output over the control group.  Since the test group also had a lower lactate accumulation during the testing these findings suggest that they had some untapped potential left on the road.  Just how much you ask?   

It was a Staggering 33% Reduction in Watts due to Mental Fatigue   

OMG!!  This easily beats out all of the aero gear and then some in terms of potential gains in performance.  Clearly mental fatigue training is an essential component to getting faster and developing mental toughness in sport.  

Do you need all your gadgets? The relationship between RPE and other training load metrics

In a recent study scientists compared the efficacy of an athlete’s rating of perceived exertion (RPE) vs. standard training load measures captured by our various gadgets like HR (measured with LuTRIMP), power (measured in kj spent) and training stress (measured in TSS) over a 4 year period from 21 professional cyclists with the Germany-based Team Sunweb.   After analyzing 11,655 training sessions, time trials, and road races (which included multi-day stage races like the Tour de France) they found that there was an almost perfect correlation between RPE and these other measures.  So RPE is in fact, a gadget-free way to accurately measure your physical load during training.   

Fun Fact: The creator of the RPE system, Gunnar Borg made many different scales for self assessement. The one used in this study is a 15 point scale from 6-20….which seems odd except for the fact that it was originally created for athletes and modeled after heart rate from 60 bpm to 200 bpm. It has also been shown to be the most accurate when rating physical exertion while the 10 point scale is used most often by doctors to rate things like the level of pain a patient is experiencing, etc. SOURCE: “Borg’s Perceived Exertion and Pain Scales by Gunnar Borg”

Remember they said “almost perfect”….  The study also found that during competition RPE tends to degrade and become less accurate.  Scientists found that in road races both RPE and heart rate tend to be less accurate measures vs power and training stress citing that:

“…accumulating physical or mental fatigue makes this relationship weaker during road races. “

Essentially, even with highly trained professional athletes, their perception of effort becomes compromised with increased mental fatigue.   So if the mind is incorrectly perceiving the limits of the body imagine what would happen if we could more accurately understand just how far our body can go?  This is pretty interesting and aligns well to the science behind the Rewire system which is based on mental fatigue training designed to make you more mentally tough and to reduce the perception of effort during competition. 

Take Aways…

  1. Regularly use RPE in training
  2. Remember your RPE may be much less accurate in competition
  3. Incorporate mental fatigue training into your program

For more info check out this study:

Relationship Between Various Training Load Measures in Elite Cyclists during Training, Road Races and Time Trials” by van Erp T, Foster C, de Koning JJ International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance © 2018 Human Kinetics, Inc. 

101 Guide to using RPE in Training

In sports training, rating of perceived exertion aka RPE is used as an internal assessment for training load during training and competition. The original scale was invented by Stockholm professor of Psychophysics, Gunnar Borg in 1966. Since its invention the RPE scale has been established as the gold standard for self-assessment in the sports world as well as in many other arenas with variations of the scale used by medical doctors and clinicians for assessing things like level of physical pain a patient is experiencing, etc.

Not all scales are created equally.

The two primary scales invented by Borg are the “Borg Ratings of Perceived Exertion (RPE) ” and the “CR10 scale”. The RPE scale is a 15 point scale from 6-20 used to assess the perception of effort where as the CR10 is a 10 point scale from 1-10 primarily used to assess pain and discomfort. Athletes often mistakenly use the CR10 scale but the science has shown that the best one to use is this RPE scale below.

Fun Fact: RPE 15 point scale from 6-20 seems a bit odd except for the fact that it was originally modeled after heart rate from 60 bpm to 200 bpm.

How to Use the RPE Scale

Either while exercising or immediately afterwards rate your perception of exertion based on this 15 point scale.

  • 6 – No exertion at all
  • 7 – Extremely light
  • 8
  • 9 – Very light
  • 10
  • 11 – Light
  • 12
  • 13 – Somewhat hard
  • 14
  • 15 – Hard
  • 16
  • 17 – Very hard
  • 18
  • 19 – Extremely hard
  • 20 – Maximal exertion

As Borg writes in his book Borg’s Perceived Exertion and Pain Scales by Gunnar Borg:

“Try to appraise your feeling of exertion as honestly as possible, without thinking about what the actual load is. Don’t underestimate it, but don’t over estimate it either. It’s your own feeling of effort and exertion that’s important, not how it compares to other people’s. What other people think is not important either. Look at the scale and the expressions and then give a number.”




Some Additional Context on Levels

9 – corresponds to “very light” exercise. For a normal, healthy person it is like walking slowly at his or her own pace for some minutes

13 – on the scale is “somewhat hard” exercise, but it still feels OK to continue

17 – “very hard” is very strenuous. A healthy person can still go on, but he or she really has to push him- or herself. It feels very heavy, and the person is very tired

19 – on the scale is an extremely strenuous exercise level. For most people this is the most strenuous exercise they have ever experienced.


Pro Tip: Some RPE scales out on the internet will have strange things like additional numbers on the scale in fractions e.g. “7.5 – Extremely light”. These are bogus or manipulated scales. Also remember that the 10 point scale was designed for pain assessment and is not the same thing as the 15 point RPE scale which was designed for athletes and coaches to assess physical intensity in training and competition. Use the one above which is backed by over 50 years of science.

So the next time you are out training and your smart device dies….try using your own internal gadget as a backup 😉