Vintage man leg on rock posing in desert shirt off.

With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Sunday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in October 2013.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post written by Khaled Allen.

As a little boy, I was scrawny, weak, and prone to illness (much like a certain former president). For a long time, I thought I was just doomed to be pathetic, until my dad took me canoeing. In the mucky, hot, poorly maintained trails and portages of the Boundary Waters in the north woods of Minnesota, I learned that I could be tough, scrappy, and indomitable. I took a brutal pleasure in carrying the heaviest pack I could over long and steep portages, willing my toothpick legs to take one step, then another, then another, until I saw the blue expanse of the next lake peeking through the trees. That was all I had to work with: a willingness to push myself harder than anyone else, to charge headlong into the roughest terrain, and to ignore cold, rain, heat, bugs, and my own internal discomfort.

With the popularity of high-intensity workout programs, military-inspired training, and brutal adventure races, mental toughness is in the spotlight. The gold standard of a hardcore athlete is how much pain they can tolerate. But what about simple, plain old ruggedness? What does it mean to be physically tough, as well as mentally tough? Is it enough to simply be strong, or is there something more to it?

Strong But Weak

I will always remember the day I dropped in on a CrossFit class and went out for the warm-up jog with no shoes on. One of the other guys there, massively strong and musclebound, was shocked and asked me if it hurt or if I was scared of broken glass. I explained that I’d toughened up my feet over the last few years and it didn’t bother me at all. If I was caught shoeless in an emergency, the few seconds I needed to put on shoes could make the difference between life and death. It didn’t matter how fast I could sprint if my feet were too tender to handle the asphalt.

I see that reaction all the time: big guys with lots of muscles who wince as soon as the shoes come off or who insist on wearing gloves whenever they lift weights. They are immensely strong within their particular domain, but have very strict limits on their comfort zone. As soon as they are forced out of it, their performance drops drastically.

Defining Toughness

Men in particular often confuse toughness with strength, thinking that being strong is automatically the same as being tough, when in fact the two are distinct qualities. As Erwan Le Corre, founder of MovNat, says, “Some people with great muscular strength may lack toughness and easily crumble when circumstances become too challenging. On the other hand, some people with no particularly great muscular strength may be very tough, i.e., capable of overcoming stressful, difficult situations or environments.”

Toughness is the ability to perform well regardless of circumstances. That might mean performing well when you are sick or injured, but it also might mean performing well when your workout gear includes trees and rocks instead of pull-up bars and barbells. “Toughness . . . is the strength, or ability, to withstand adverse conditions,” according to Le Corre.

Being able to do that requires both mental and physical toughness. No amount of mental toughness alone will keep you from freezing in cold temperatures, but if you’ve combined mental training with cold tolerance conditioning, for example, then you’ll fare much better

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