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How to use humor to bust through pain | Mental Toughness Tips

Mental Toughness Tips

Using Humor as a Mental Toughness Tool

Sometimes all it takes is a laugh — a funny AF moment in the midst of a low point — to help you break through to the other side.

I coach Hillseeker® athletes to view mental toughness not as a single quality, but as a well-developed, expansive toolkit of skills, insights, experience & practiced behaviors — Batman’s über-utility belt, so to speak. This toolkit of mental toughness skills is a source that can ultimately be called upon when the going gets tough during a training session, race or emergency in life. Let’s focus a bit today on the tool of Humor.

As an endurance athlete, military fitness athlete, or CrossFitter, you’re putting yourself into extremely challenging situations often, but as a matter of choice. If you can’t laugh at the fact that you’ve chosen to introduce an incomprehensible (to most people) strain on your body and mind, then what can you laugh at?!

So, we’ve got humor already present in the often-ludicrous nature of the challenges we seek and sign up for. That’s worth a laugh now and especially at the moment sand is being blasted across your face as you try to tuck even deeper into your sleeping bag at 3AM or as you jump into an icy cold body of water or start a mountain descent on a road bike in a cold rain!

During training and events, visit with humor as often as you can. It will lighten up your mind and help you avoid the self-pity and self-dwelling that so often unravels endurance athletes when adversity shows up to play.

Graveness feeds negativity and negativity feeds fear and weakness.

Humor feeds positivity and positivity feeds courage and strength. Smile & laugh — be courageous and strong!

Here’s a quick how-to guide for applying Humor as a mental toughness tool:

Smile through the pain

Want to raise your pain threshold? Do it with a smile. Seriously, the next time you are doing a high intensity interval, try smiling a big toothy SMILE … even if you have to fake it. Or make it a sinister smile. Or a goofy smile. Doesn’t matter! Just smile. During events, smile often, especially at the times you are feeling the least happy. Feeling sorry for yourself because your legs have seized or your stomach hurts? Sort out your hydration and while doing so, smile at a child or the beauty of your scenic surroundings. Don’t undervalue this … it’s simple, effective and free!

Joke without regard for whether it’s funny or not

Joke with a volunteer worker at an aid station, joke with your fellow athletes, joke with yourself! Do something funny just for a brief moment and it will lighten your mood and those around you. It doesn’t even need to be truly funny. Just make the effort and it will help snap your mind out of obsessing about the challenge you’re facing.

30 hours into the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc run & still laughing and joking with people. It works! 

Embrace the hard stuff — Hooyah Hill!

During the five years I coached running at SEALFIT events in California, I introduced one important rule. When you see a hill, the immediate reaction is to shout “Hooyah Hill!”, which translated means “I’m happy to see this damn hill – bring it on!” The counter-reaction (and the one most common for people) is to see a steep hill in the path and react with “Arghh … hill”. With this reaction, the battle is lost before it’s begun and the body will absolutely under-perform.


Hooyah Hill! during the Marathon des Sables in Morocco

An enthusiastic, positively-framed reaction … even when faked … will set a tone for the mind that will enable the body to perform above expectations – and that’s exactly what we want to tap into!  And when that reaction is ironic, it will bring you a smile or a laugh – which delivers enough of a boost to extract just a little more performance potential.

Laugh at the Madness of it all

One of the best ways to “Embrace the Suck” is to introduce an activity so bizarrely funny to a stressful situation that you can’t help but break into laughter and break out of a pity party tendency.

In one of my experiences, on a cold night in the Pacific Ocean lying on my back in the surf while waves crashed overhead, this meant singing the Canadian National Anthem. You see, we had two Canadians on our team during the 50-hour no-sleep Kokoro 13. They remarked in calm voices while most of the team chattered teeth and shivered uncontrollably, that what we considered freezing winter water temps felt like Canadian lakes in the summer. The instructors overheard this, thus we honored Canada and her “warm” lakes each time we entered the ocean for surf torture.

As we focused our efforts on singing the opening “O Canada”, a massive wave rolled over the team. We surfaced, coughed and cleared the salt water and then pushed onward with the singing … “Our home and native land! True patriot in …” Crash, another wave hits. Soon we were laughing so hard we could barely sing in between the waves. And herein lies the beauty … we had forgotten about our “suffering” and had embraced the moment. With our minds distracted with humor, our bodies were enduring the “suck” – the adversity of cold-water immersion, darkness, waves, etc. without us thinking about it. We stopped shivering and whining. We were stronger as individuals and as a team because we sought humor and then embraced it! This will work for you as well, so grab a hold and find something to laugh at the next time adversity visits you.

As I trained for a 10KM swim in the English Channel in 2018 to commemorate the 74th Anniversary of D-Day, I often thought back to O Canada when I was swim training a Swiss winter in 5C(40F) water. It briefly took my mind off the suck of such cold water and that’s all I needed to get in the water and get the training done.

Link Humor to a Strong Training Experience

With Humor now tucked into your Mental Toughness Toolkit, it’s important to remember that you must keep all of your tools sharp and Warrior-Ready! This means spending time with each in practice before a race starts. CREATING AN ANCHOR EXPERIENCE IS KEY … try to anchor each of these tools into a moment in your training and adventurous life.

For example, for me humor is anchored in the Canadian National Anthem and waves crashing over our team in the Pacific & visualization is anchored the long stage at the Marathon des Sables, when my visualized peloton of friends & family pulled me through the desert. When racing the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, it was my sleep-deprived hilarious hallucination of seeing thousands of Bratwurst covering the forest floor that pulled me out of a funk. Humor works!

For you, perhaps humor will be anchored in riding out a thunderstorm under trees while singing Riding the Storm Out with your dog & an imaginary duo of Santa Claus and Prince. Whatever it takes!

The point is that it is critical to your ability to call upon these mental toughness tools that you ANCHOR them into an experience that is personal and unique to you. The greater the adversity in the anchor experience, the more secure the anchor will be. Once you’ve created that anchor, you will always have these tools at-the-ready to help you perform at your very best. For a deeper dive into mental toughness development, check out Flow State Runner and also the outstanding programs from SEAL Grinder PT.

Train smart, play hard and have fun!

— Coach Jeff

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