What is "tough?"
Updated: Jan 6
What is “tough?” Almost every athlete who I have ever worked with has indicated a desire to be “tough” with regard to completing their workouts. Usually, they associate this word with working hard or feeling a high level of perceived exertion. While this certainly is one definition of the word “tough,” I want to propose a different definition.
Almost every single athlete who I have ever worked with has the capacity and ability to work hard. When it comes to going “hard,” I don’t question that they can or want to put forth their very best effort to do so. What I have found, however, is that many athletes struggle with holding back when it’s appropriate to do so, and going easy or resting when it would be exceptionally beneficial.
I firmly believe that being “tough” means doing hard things. What “hard things” actually means can vary greatly from day to day, and sometimes, it means doing the mentally tough thing (which may or may not correlate with the physically hard thing). Sometimes, being “tough” means doing the very thing that you do not want to do.
In the lead-in to this year’s Vega IRONMAN World Championship, professional triathlete Sarah True said, “It takes more confidence to hold back than it does to crush yourself.” This is absolutely 100% spot-on. Exercising that restraint to hold back when it’s time to do so is something that usually takes time and experience to learn, and it’s usually a very tough concept for athletes to grasp. The confidence that Ms. True is referring to does come from experience, and therefore from trial and error. Oftentimes, learning this lesson requires an athlete to crush themselves, thereby learning the consequences of not holding back. This situation (where an athlete is crushing themselves or having an unintended negative result from workout or race) is the very situation that all good coaches seek to help athletes avoid.
Anyone can push to their hardest. But how many athletes trust their training and their abilities enough to check their egos at the door to be able to hold back? How many athletes can let other athletes pass them on training rides when their plan calls for them to go easy? How many athletes can stick to their plan when they are on their own and feeling good? How many athletes can look within themselves and train within themselves without worrying about what other athletes might be doing?
If athletes feel good during a “hold back” workout, it is because they are holding back, not in spite of it. Properly timing easy workouts or intervals in relation to hard workouts or intervals and in relation to other stressful things in an athlete’s life is critical to managing the overall intensity, stimulus, training load, and training stress that is imposed over the course of an entire training plan. Successfully reaching the end of the path to an athlete’s goal is much more than an individual workout that is completed at a hard effort. It requires all kinds of toughness along the way - sometimes going hard, sometimes going easy, and sometimes doing things that the athletes don’t necessarily want to do (such as: reaching outside of the athlete’s comfort zone to learn a new skill, executing a smart race plan, strength training, getting a good enough quantity of quality sleep, stretching, eating nutritious food, etc).
I challenge YOU to identify something that would make training or a workout tough for you based on this definition. Then, once you’ve identified it, face it head-on and challenge yourself to do that tough thing in your training or in your racing.
Being “tough” doesn’t always mean doing the physically hard thing, and you very well may not feel a physical response when you do do something that is tough. I can promise you this, though: when you do do something that is actually tough for you, you will take your training to a different, higher level than where you have been previously, and you will be that much smarter, stronger, and faster for it.