Mastering the Mind: Combining Mental Toughness Techniques with Thru-Hikes

I wrote this as a reply to a person in the Muay Thai subreddit but think it would be helpful here.

“It’s mostly mental.” I don’t think there’s much debating this subject when it comes to thru-hiking. But what can you actually do about it? We know that our success or failure on trail depends on the mind, but knowing that isn’t so helpful. How can we actually develop, train, and toughen the mind?

Well for one doing things like thru-hikes is a fantastic way to train the mind. That’s part of why I keep coming back – after every hike I am less afraid, less anxious, and more comfortable in my own skin and the coolest part is that it sticks long term!

Develop the habit and change your signaling. Something makes you nervous, anxious, afraid? Our default habit pattern for this would be to turn away from whatever that is. You need to change this. Develop the awareness to become aware of when you’re feeling these signals and then consciously change the pattern. Nerves, anxiety, fear – that’s a sign that maybe I should pursue this thing that’s making me nervous. For me right now this is a live Muay Thai fight. Yeah I feel nerves about getting in the ring with full contact elbows knees rules. But that’s why I’m going for it. It’s part of the continual process of moving toward discomfort/pain/fear/anxiety.

And not in a masochistic way. Not doing this because I hate myself haha. I’m doing it because this practice helps me live a rich and fulfilled life. For me fear, anxiety, and depression have held me back more than anything else. So this is my practice to take away their power and to live my life to the fullest, not bound by these feelings.

Checkout my comprehensive thru-hiking preparation training program here. It covers all your bases – from physical training to mindfulness practices and mental resilience training. Gear, nutrition, it’s all covered.

This was my reply to the question “Training for Mental Toughness” in the context of Muay Thai

Oh I’ve got lots of thoughts!

Figuring out my mind has been my primary focus in life for the last decade plus. I grew up suffering loads of depression from childhood trauma and recognized from an early age that it was these internal mental projections of fear, anxiety, depression that were keeping me from the life I wanted to live. It really sabotaged me constantly. I failed at literally every big project I undertook – opened a gym, co founded a startup, joining ROTC. I quit all those things because I would reach a point where the stress, anxiety, and fears of it would overwhelm me and I’d lapse into a state of paralyzing depression and just stop all forward progress and then things would just fall apart.

This was extremely frustrating. To the point where I came very close to killing myself in my 20s. But something inside made me keep pushing on.

I learned about this thing called the Appalachian Trail in 2016 and it really spoke to me. It was a hike from Georgia to Maine, 2,189 miles. I recognized that if I could stick to this thing and complete it maybe then I would be able to turn my life around.

45 days after learning that the AT existed I’d moved out of my apartment, sold off a lot of my things, and started walking from Georgia with a 50lb pack. It ended up taking me 205 days. I finished a few days after Thanksgiving. Both of my feet had stress fractures and my joints were throbbing because of Lyme disease(didn’t know it at the time, I thought that joint pain was just normal at the end of such a long hike).

When I set off on the trail I had made a firm determination in my mind that nothing would make me quit. And I held through it. The trail was the perfect training ground for the mind. Having to face pain and discomfort every single day and keep going despite it taught me that my fears, anxieties, and stress didn’t have to control me. They’re just another feeling, and feelings are fleeting and change. All the pain and fatigue I felt in the morning waking up – temporary and fleeting. I could wallow in how much I hurt and change nothing, or I could get up and move with the realization that I’d feel different as soon as I started moving. I had these concepts taught to me again and again, 10-12 hours everyday, and they stuck.

After the AT I attended some 10 day vipassana meditation retreats. This further amplified my journey of discovering and mastering the mind. Because change requires awareness. If you are not aware of how your mind is working, and how your habitual habit patterns are sabotaging yourself then how can you ever hope to change it?

Since my 2016 AT hike I went on to ride a bicycle 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada in 2018 and hike 1,900 miles back right after. In 2020 I worked one of the most difficult and dangerous job that exists, fighting wildfires on a hotshot crew, digging line in 100+ degree heat for 16 hours a day. In 2021 I ran a 106 mile race two days after finishing a 3 month, 2,100 mile hike. I won that race by 2 hours. Then a week later ran the rim to rim to rim in the Grand Canyon in 12:45. In 2022 I became the 13th person(or 16th, the records are fuzzy) to hike a Calendar Year Triple Crown, hiking the AT, PCT, and CDT all in one year. It took 290 days, with only 1-2 days off each month.

The last paragraph isn’t meant to brag. I wanted to list all of that out to show what is possible. I didn’t grow up with an athletic background or anyone that taught me anything about mental toughness. I grew up playing video games – specifically MMOs like Ultima Online and World of Warcraft. 80-100 hours a week if I didn’t have any other obligations.

Anyway my point is this – if I can develop my mind, attitudes, habits, and beliefs to the point that I’m at now then anyone can do the same. I am not special. I didn’t have a crazy upbringing that made me extra tough. I didn’t go to war with special ops. I lived a pretty normal life up until I went to go hike the Appalachian Trail.

What I’ve learned is that it comes down to awareness, intention, and disciplined daily effort. You must be aware of what needs to change. You must then make the firm intention to move toward your goals. And then you must work at it with disciplined effort.

Easier said then done. But every time you fail you just need to try again. It’s pretty cool the places that you can take your mind.

I remember joining a MMA gym in my early 20s. I dreaded going to that class. Sometimes I’d get sick with anxiety thinking about how much that class would hurt. Fast forward to today, I’m 36 and living and training in Thailand. 2 hour sessions everyday, six days a week, in sweltering heat. Zero anxiety about class or the pain. It’s way harder than that MMA class, but my mind has been conditioned for years now and I’ve learned over and over that pain is temporary and it’s nothing to get worked up over.

It can all be developed with intentional practice.

Become aware of all of your pain/discomfort/fears/anxieties. Don’t push them away. Feel them. Explore them. Where does your anxiety reside? For me it’s a thrill type feeling in my chest. Then build the habit pattern to not react. Cut off that story about how bad this is or how you can’t go on. Replace that with the reality that this is temporary. Realize that you can never be pushed harder than your limits. Literally. If you go to your limit you’ll just take a break, or pass out. So – how bad is it really? How bad can it really get? Okay so you got pushed to your limit in the last round of padwork – that lasted all of what 30 seconds? A minute? And then you’re taking a break. Don’t let your mind build an elaborate story about it. See reality for reality – it was 30 to 60 seconds of pain that was NOT unbearable. You absolutely were able to bear it. It didn’t kill you. And if it did, it wouldn’t be your problem anymore. So what’s the problem? Why worry?

Awareness. Intention. Effort. Do that daily and your mind will be blown away at the places you can go in time.

Jack Jones

Jack Jones

Quadzilla at Couch to Trail
Jack is on a quest to explore the world and find adventure. He is passionate about using his adventures to inspire others to follow their heart and step out of their comfort zone. He has hiked ~13,000 miles and was the 19th person to complete a Calendar Year Triple Crown in 2022.
Jack Jones

Comments 2

  1. issy

    I met you on the AT when you first started out in GA. Am amazed at what you have accomplished!!
    You are truly an inspiration.
    Best wishes and thanks for sharing your adventures.

  2. Griffin

    Finding your channel has been a real inspiration to me. Your story makes you so relatable to me and you’re really inspired me to make a change for the better. I’ve already stopped drinking coffee and I’m now a month sober.
    I’m excited to start my own thru hike and just have one simple, clear objective every day that integrates and aligned my mind and body. (Nitzche said to never trust a thought that comes to you when not on your own feet).
    I noticed in a few of your videos you made mention of the amount of calories you were taking in. What were your macros during an average day. Also what supplements were you taking. (Forgive me if you’ve awnserd this question before somewhere else, I’m new to here)

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