It’s funny to me that I’m a distance runner, because, in some ways, I’m one of the laziest people that I know. I live for naps and can watch TV in impressive 12-hour stretches. I’ve ordered delivery from a restaurant that’s half a block away.
Still, somehow, I’ve managed to physically push myself well beyond what I thought my limitations were, and continue to run faster than I ever thought was possible. Running, like any kind of exercise, is a mental sport (as runners like to say, we’re all insane). Here are some simple mental tips that have helped my idle ass take its game to the next level, and that will work for virtually any kind of physical activity you’re trying to improve on.
Think about finishing in small increments
It’s easy to become daunted by an insanely intense workout day. Whether you’re planning to run 20 miles or do 200 crunches, that pit of dread is likely to start brewing in your stomach long before you step into the gym.
Make a monster workout more digestible by mentally breaking it down into smaller chunks. I’ll often focus on one thought for each five miles of a long run. Suddenly, I’ve breezed through a bunch of easy runs instead of surviving one big never-ending one.
Keep your eyes off the clock
A watched pot never boils, and a watched mile counter never turns. Staying fixated on how much further you have to go will only make the time pass more slowly, and will keep you from ever getting “in the zone.”
If you’re working out on a machine, put your towel over the digital display and see how long you can go without checking it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much faster time seems to go.
Have a reason to exercise other than wanting to look good
Sure, having a banging spring break bod is a nice side effect of intense exercise, but for a lot people, “wanting to look hot” isn’t something that they’re actually emotionally connected to. As one of the many people who’s struggled with body image issues in the past, I’ve found that thinking about how good I’m trying to look brings up negative thoughts that actually stop me in my tracks when I’m trying to push myself harder.
Try focusing instead on reasons for exercising that genuinely make you feel good about yourself, like wanting to get stronger or to test your own limits. That’s the kind of stuff that will help you power through when your abs are shaking and you’re pretty sure you can feel your heart in your esophagus.
Find a mantra
It’s cheesy and it sounds like something that would go down in your mom’s yoga class, but having a mantra of some kind will keep you focused ... and keep you going in the toughest stretches of your workout. It will also help keep your mind occupied and away from thoughts that will slow you down: “Is this over yet?” “I’m sore.” “I want a burrito.”
Start mentally saying some short, rhythmic phrases to yourself until you have a few that work for you. You don’t have to tell anyone what they are, or even that you’re using them. Namaste.
Set specific daily goals
It’s fine and good to say you’re going to work out hard today, but the reality is that working out hard is, well, hard. It’s only natural that, as soon as you hit that first wall, you’ll decide that you’ve done enough and then call it a day.
I’ve found that giving myself an actual number to hit -- whether it's miles, or reps on a machine -- pushes me past that moment when I would have otherwise stopped.
Find something you like about the sensations you’re experiencing
This may come as a shock, but nobody is actually making you work out. You’re doing this because on some (sick) level, you enjoy it. Remember that. Consider what you “like” about a tough workout -- maybe this is the one time in your day when you’ll be away from your computer, or maybe you can start to enjoy the sensation of building muscle rather than just thinking of it as pain.
Soon enough, you’ll be back at your job or on the couch watching TV. Think of this as a treat. A sadistic, sweaty treat.
Feel grateful to be working out
It’s easy to forget, when you’re exhausted and in pain, that working out is a privilege. Some people have physical limitations that keep them from being able to lift weights, or run, or take that punishing spin class. You are lucky you get to do 75 squats today!
Know the difference between an injury and normal soreness
This takes some experience and getting used to, so if you’re new to working out, you should consult a trainer or teacher before trying things that leave you achey and sore. Accepting that pain is a part of your workout is key, however.
Running on a cramp is uncomfortable, but it’s not unsafe. You can’t find your limits without testing them, and you can’t test them unless you’re willing to push through soreness. If your breath is OK and you’re not injured, then you’re probably fine to keep going. Sorry.