Podcast, Psychology, Science

Functional Mental Toughness with Bradford Cooper, PhD | EP#228

 April 6, 2020

By  Mikael Eriksson


​Bradford Cooper, PhD, is an academic, business executive, and extremely accomplished endurance athlete (among other achievements, he has won the Race Across America). He joins us to discuss his research in the field of Functional Mental Toughness (fMT), its implications and practical takeaways for endurance athletes of all levels.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • What is functional mental toughness and why is it important?
  • Mental toughness is ever-changing, not fixed
  • Mental toughness is a trainable skill, not an inherent trait
  • The quantifiable impact of variations in mental toughness on endurance performance
  • Tactics and strategies for improving mental toughness: the Prepare, Thrive, and Activate framework

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What is functional mental toughness?

05:25 - 

  • The research area of functional mental toughness is trying to find out what kind of cognitive strategies people who experience great success, in any kind of field, uses to enhance their progression in life.

    It’s very much come to be about being able to see the possibilities instead of obstacles in the process of getting reaching your goals.
  • There is a debate going on wether functional mental toughness is more of a trait of character or if it is something that is highly trainable and variable.

    My opinion is that mental toughness is something that is highly variable, which is supported by several recent publications of mine.

    In my research, we have demonstrated how attitudes and mental strategies of the same individual is affected by sleep, nutrition, at which state of a race one is in, before or after a training session etc.
  • One has been able to show that the mental strategy chosen has direct physiological consequences, for instance, people who were told to think of the pain that comes with intense physical work as a challenge instead of as a threat actually increased their cardiac output.

My research

13:00 -

  • I wrote my pHD on this subject, which constituted of four publications.
  • First, we wanted to find out if mental toughness is something that is variable and changeable, otherwise, there would be no point of spending time on it.

    For this we looked at 13 elite runners out of which 10 exhibited variable in mental toughness.
  • Second, we investigated what were the top optimizers of mental toughness and in that second study we found that sleep and self talk stand out as the most important influencers.
  • In the final two follow up studies we dug deeper into how these two factors affected mental toughness.

Measuring mental toughness

17:08 -

  • We used a very straight forward questionnaire of eight questions developed by a highly considered Australien professor to validate the degree of mental toughness in our studies.

    By having a very simple way of measuring mental toughness that took less than 3 minutes to carry out, we could execute an ample number of tests of the study participants in a variety of different situations.

Inter- and intra individual in mental toughness

19:46 -

  • To start with, athletes tend to rate themselves as tougher than the general population, which we are not really certain of if that is actual the case or if it is more about differences in athletes’ versus the general population’s way of viewing themselves, probably it’s a little bit of both.

    Despite this, we say a big degree of inter individual differences in mental toughness among athletes who already to start with is located in the top range of the spectrum, my guess is that we would see even greater inter individual differences if the studies would have been carried out with subjects of the general population.
  • The intra or day to day individual differences in mental toughness could in some athletes vary greatly due to factors that are not clearly visible from the outside.

    Therefore, it is more or less impossible to be able to look at an athlete and from that one time decide wether this is a mental tough athlete or not.

Influencing factors and the strategies that can be used ot increase mental toughness

26:35 -

  • Start by thinking about mental toughness in analogy to a bank account: you want fill your account up as much as possible, you want to avoid any leakage of money and you want to be able to access it when you need to.

    Mental toughness is something that you need and only should utilize at certain points, which for instance could be during a critical and painful phase of a race.
  • I use to describe mental toughness from three main threads, which are thrive, prepare and activate (accessing the bank account).
  • Thrive (foundational well-being) is very much about being strategic about certain important aspects of things that influence performance, if one takes caffeine as an example, it is well-known that caffeine increases performance but only as long as we have not adapted fully to it, so as an athlete one should aim to be strategic in regards to caffeine intake in order to be able to get the full benefits out of it.
  • In regards to the preparation part, here the threat versus challenge part come in again.

    How do we prepare ourselves for times when things will get tough? Will we look at it as a challenge or as a threat?

    Another key aspect of this is the reflection part of what you do, more and more I have come to realize how essential this is in order to reach success.

    To develop within any field, one must stop and reflect over how things went.

    This should be done both specifically to what you’re trying to develop, for an athlete that would typically be to shortly reflect on what was going on during each training session, but also on a broader scale analyze what is going on in life on a more general level.
  • For the activate part, this is where self-talk comes into play.

    In one of our studies, we looked at how much 800m running times where affected after positive self-talk had been implemented to the athletes.

    We could see a major improvement over the 800m distance following the introduction of self-talk methods to the athletes.
  • The two basic forms of self talk is instructional and motivational self-talk, and they are basically exactly what they sound like.

    Some people prefer the one before the other and one should can find out which one suits you the best during tougher training sessions or B- and C races.

How to approach a half marathon race traditionally and with mental toughness strategies

55:10 -

  • Traditionally the focus is on the training and maybe a little bit on fueling.

    On race day, the most common way of pacing oneself is by RPE together with having an idea of what kind of pace one can hold.
  • With a mental toughness perspective you’re also focusing on sleep a little bit extra since mental toughness for very many people is highly correlated to sleep.

    We also would like to decrease the energy leakage, which we are doing by reducing as many mental stressors as possible in the days prior to the race.
  • The biggest difference however, between the traditional and a mental toughness inspired approach is in the preparation part.

    The main thing here is to have the ”why” extremely clear, why do you want this, why this race, why race against these people, why this date?

    Knowing why you want something will be extremely important as you go through the really challenging parts of the race.

    In my opinion, goals are really effective for training but not so much during competition.

    During the races, the ”why” and the actual process (focus in the moment and the execution process) is much more important.
  • Lastly, to be able to activate effective self-talk one needs to train this specifically.

    In my research, we have found that unless one does not practice self-talk, one is not using it in race situations as well.
  • Instead of focusing very strongly on being in the moment and embrace the situation during a race one can also sometimes go in the completely other direction and try and dissociate from the situation (dissociate from the pain), which for instance could be thinking about loved ones.

Rapid fire questions

1:09:44 -

  • What is your favorite book, blog or resource related to triathlon or endurance sports? Alex Hutchinson’s book Endure.
  • What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success? Laser focused.
  • What do you wish you had known or done differently at some point in your career? Have less laser focused… During many years I ignored a foot injury despite knowing exactly what I had to do to make it heal properly.


Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

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