Don’t underestimate the power of mental toughness when it comes to crushing your workouts and making serious gains, whether you’re in the gym or crushing an outdoor competition like an OCR. It can be more difficult to build than muscle, but it’s worth it.

Try taking these five steps to train your brain to be tougher.

Whereas normal people evaluate results, highly effective and highly successful people evaluate the steps that caused them. “The mind can only fully focus on one thing at a time,” says sports psychologist Jason Selk. “If you’re focused on the results, you cannot be focused on the steps that caused the results, otherwise known as the process.”


Visualization is the No. 1 tool in performance psychology. “Science confirms one minute of visualization is the equivalent of seven minutes of physical practice,” says Selk. Visualize yourself performing well for short clips—two to 10 seconds. Do it before every workout or competition. See the process and the results—i.e., don’t just see yourself finishing an obstacle. See yourself approaching it, traversing it, and coming out the other side.


It’s totally normal for your heart rate to accelerate before or during a race, match, or even an intense workout session. “Unfortunately,” Selk says, “it handicaps performance.” To control your heart rate (and avoid the yips), use this technique: Breathe in for six seconds, hold for two, breathe out for seven. Do this before the event, periodically throughout the event during breaks, or anytime you’re feeling nervous.


Expectancy theory states that whatever you focus on expands. “So you want to learn to talk about yourself in a very positive manner,” Selk says. “Make it a point, even if you’re joking, not to talk negatively about yourself. Instead of saying, ‘I’m not very good at that,’ start saying things like, ‘I’m learning to improve at that.’”


Develop a mantra that forces you to focus on your strengths and goals. When crafting it, say the statements as if they already occurred, even if they haven’t. “The more you talk to yourself the right way, the more you believe it,” says Selk. “Once you believe it, the competition better look out.”