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How to Exercise for Mental Toughness

Let’s talk candidly for a moment. Sometimes cardio and interval training can be a mental bastard to complete. The mental aspect of cardio and interval training is a HUGE component to whether or not you feel fulfilled in your training.

Generally, most people can identify with one of two categories: those who enjoy doing cardio or intense interval exercises, and those who don’t. Those who love it, love it A LOT. And those who don’t would rather do anything else! If you slot into the “don’t” category, you’re not alone.

Some cardio or interval workouts just plain suck because of how gruelling they feel. Leaving you asking, why bother even doing them? Besides all the great health benefits, let’s look at it from a different perspective: mental toughness.

Just to be clear, cardio exercise (sustained exercise over longer periods of time) and interval training (repeating short bursts of high intensity exercise followed by short low intensity bouts) are two different types of exercise and target different energy systems. I use these two forms of exercise as examples because they often provoke a similar reaction in people, “this sucks!” Sometimes cardio, intervals, or intense workouts in general can be very physically challenging. But what I think is important is how the exercises weigh on your mind too.

So what does it mean to have mental toughness or be headstrong?


It’s NOT being able to use your head to move heavy objects, it’s about being able to overcome mentally arduous tasks, be self-motivated, and unrelenting.

Here’s an example: You tell yourself you’re going to go for a run that’s challenging but also something you’re pretty certain you can achieve. Five minutes into your run you feel pretty good and you’re not sure why you don’t run more often because this running stuff is easy. 15 minutes into it your legs start to feel heavy, your lungs are working harder to catch up, and your starting to wonder if turning back now would be enough to burn off the calories for the [insert indulgence here] you had earlier. 25 minutes pass you now start to contemplate your entire existence, and wonder if you can even make it back to where you parked your car. 45 minutes pass and you finally drag yourself past the finish line.

Yes, it might not have been your fastest time, but you did it! There’s glory in that. In fact, there’s a pretty awesome emotional response that happens when you feel like you’ve conquered something tough. THIS is where you start to build mental toughness. Getting through those ass-kicking workouts feels amazing and once you get a taste of that victory you start to want it more. Then it becomes more of a snowball effect as you build more confidence and gain a stronger mental capacity to get you through it. You can even now take your newfound mental toughness and apply it to anything – your determination to be better at another skill, (cooking for me) do an unreal job with a project at work, or even just making sure you tackled all the items on your to-do list for the day. Your mental toughness knows no bounds!

Now, before you go out and start kicking your own butt every day thinking you’ll gain some superhuman mental toughness, let me set out some guidelines. If you haven’t exercised in a while, or ever, going out and doing an ass-kicking interval or cardio session is not going to be the best thing to start with. While there are a lot of benefits to doing them, the long-term adherence/success rate is low when people go from no exercises to very intense exercise. That’s no surprise when all you’re doing is beating yourself up over and over again.

Start slow!

Aim for an intensity that you know you can handle and slowly build up. If you’re just starting, aim for 1-2 intense session per week in combination with 2-3 strength training sessions to round out your training. Don’t know how to strength train or complete structured intervals? Find a certified coach who can guide you (i.e. us 😉 ).

If you consider yourself a trained individual the frequency can be roughly the same at 1-3 times per week of intense sessions and it can even include a variety of methods, like a strength-based interval session (i.e. pick several strength exercises and complete intervals with each of them in one large circuit). Where you’re going to get the most out of your sessions is when you push yourself with the intensity. If you’re pushing 9 out of 10 or 10 out of 10 in terms of exhaustion during the work portion, you’re at the right intensity. If you’re doing sustained cardio, aim for 7 out of 10 for the majority of it.

Now that you know how you can benefit from conquering a tough workout, I challenge you. Try integrating two tough workouts per week, 30-45 minutes each time for one month. Completing them will be a huge mental boost, I promise! As Neil Armstrong once said, “One tough workout to get through, one big victory for your mental toughness.” Or something like that…

Chad Cardoso


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