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Building Mental Toughness with Joe De Sena

Joe De Sena is the founder and CEO of Spartan and the New York Times bestselling author of “Spartan Up”, “Spartan Fit,” and his recently released book, “The Spartan Way.” As a popular keynote speaker, De Sena has parlayed the teachings of his Spartan Principles into the SpartanX Leadership Forum, a series of events in which participants collaborate to solve challenges alongside business leaders while learning to overcome mental and physical obstacles. In addition to race events, the Spartan lifestyle that De Sena built encompasses all the tools one needs to transform their lives including partnerships with fitness brands such as Life Time, 24Hour Fitness and the DailyBurn; complementary training, nutrition plans, and content; television series on NBC and Facebook; forthcoming documentaries about the brand, sport and health; and an extensive line of apparel and licensed fitness gear and equipment.


"Stretch what you think is possible."


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  • I opened up the show by asking Joe what he found to be the common thread of the people he attracts for his Spartan races. Surprisingly, he responded that no set person chooses to take on the challenge. Spartan races are patronized by moms, monks, Marines, and anyone else ready to take their abilities to the next level.
  • Joe says that not much changes if you sit on the couch, eat popcorn, and watch Netflix. On the other hand,  when you are pushing past your fear at a race with 9 thousand other contenders, real change is bound to take place.
  • Races are like this: you’ve been told your whole life not to get dirty, but you are completely covered in mud. You’re crawling next to a crying mom or green beret under the barbed wire when you’ve been told your whole life to stay away from it. After that, you get to a rope climb. You can’t breathe; you’re sweating, thirsty, hungry and you say you are never going to do this thing again. Finally, you arrive at the finish line and you are elated! At that point you say to yourself, oh my God, I have to do this again! I’m much more powerful than I thought I was. I can do more than I thought I could. I’m never going to complain when I lose the remote control in the house anymore. 
  • You can’t get stronger by reading a book about pull-ups because knowledge by itself is not power, you have to put it into action.
  • Ten million people or more have gone through this race where they are doing things that they never thought they should or could do. Going through such a transformational process is a visceral learning experience.
  • If you don’t do the work, you don’t get the results.
  • Whether you refer to it as resilience, mental toughness, or fortitude, it’s like a muscle and it can be built.
  • From birth, we were pretty resilient creatures until we learn helplessness — what Joe refers to as being wrapped in bubble wrap. We get told what our limits are. We start to get in our heads about what we are capable of and not capable of. All of that becomes our frame of reference or the goggles we wear through life.
  • When you do the hard stuff that scares you and pushes you to change all of your habits leading up to that hard thing, you transform whether it’s by planning a concert or doing an interview.
  • Some of the basic resilience that is deep down inside — that was masked over with layers of bubble wrap — sneaks its head out. If you grab hold of it and run with it, you can go pretty far.
  • For Joe, it started with the realization of doing something for 3 hours, then 30 hours, then 30 days. The more he pushed himself, the more he realized he could do anything.


  • What do you do about the voice in your head that tells you to quit or give up?
  • The brain is spitting out anything it can that appears logical to the person spitting it out. It’s all to avoid discomfort.
  • The person that can shut that part of the brain off and says, I need you to be quiet because I’m just going to put one foot in front of the other and I’m going to keep moving, will meet success on the other side.
  • The children and adults taking part in a Spartan experience had to do 40 hours of wrestling, whether they had ever wrestled or not. They had to climb a rope 300 times which is equivalent to 6k feet of rope climbing. They had to do 1400 perfect pushups, 1400 perfect leg races, and 50 mi. of hiking with 30k feet of elevation. All of that is hard for anyone to wrap their head around.
  • How is that even possible? It was possible because Joe and his team led everyone by putting one foot in front of the other.  How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
  • It seems insane, but it was done.
  • If you can shut that voice down in the brain, stop talking, and put one foot in front of the other, it becomes possible.
  • If you fight for your limitations they are yours.
  • The human nervous system will fight for the reasons why you can’t do something so you avoid the pain, discomfort, and change.
  • You are wired to keep everything safe and anything new can be threatening to you.
  • Being in a community, having a coach or mentor to go through it with you is encouraging and certainly helps you on the journey.


  • Building mental fortitude and resilience will serve you in your relationships, your physical health, and career achievement.
  • The only way to build mental toughness is by doing something physical. You are not going to do it by reading a book. You can learn techniques reading a book or cool tricks by listening to a podcast, but you have to get in the game.
  • That could mean getting up and going for a run. If you’ve only run up to 3 miles, run 9. If you can’t run 9, walk 6 if you have to.
  • Stretch what you think is possible.
  • If you think you can’t take a cold shower, turn off the water heater.
  • You have to do something physically hard that scares you and that will toughen your brain.
  • You can meditate or fast. If you want to get mentally tough, you could not eat for a couple of days. You have to do something hard that’s aggravating.
  • The beauty is in the butterfly. Everyone wants to become a butterfly but the struggle and growth happen in the cocoon.
  • Getting yourself to do difficult things is a great way to prove yourself wrong.
  • We take ourselves to another level when we challenge ourselves.
  • While the comfort zone is a nice place, nothing grows there.
  • Check out the “Spartan Up” podcast here.


  • Take a screenshot of this episode, tag us on social media (@RealJoeDeSena & @JimKwik), and share your greatest “aha!” moment from this episode with us.
  • Share one thing you are going to do to get yourself out of your comfort zone.
  • Get Joe’s book, Spartan Up! here.

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