When you want to give in, use these tips to push through that mental block and safely finish the most challenging workouts
Whether you’re running a marathon or struggling to keep up in tabata class, you’re bound to have off days when you don't think you can hang in there for a minute longer. But giving in to your desire to quit makes it easier to do so again the next time, says Tom Holland, C.S.C.S., author of The Marathon Method, and that can become a slippery slope.
"If you feel as if you can't go on, just do it. Slow down and take it a step at a time," he says, adding that you'll feel better at the end of your workout and be glad you stuck with it to the end. “The workouts you don't want to do are the ones that make you feel the best afterward. Pushing through becomes easier each time."
Wrap up your next grueling workout feeling like a rock star by calling on these expert tips.
Mindfulness is more than a trendy term. Being 100-percent present in the moment can help if you hit a wall during a tough workout. "When you start feeling a lot of discomfort, especially toward the end of a race, focus on your skills," Holland says. "Think of each foot strike, each pedal stroke, and relax your shoulders. Take your mind off your discomfort by refocusing on your body mechanics." Tuning into your body works for any type of exercise, not just races.
As a professional soccer player and Olympic medalist, Lauren Sesselmann often relies on team members to help her keep her head in the game—a tip that easily works with any workout partner. “We have a code word for each other,” says Sesselmann. “When I start to lose focus, a team member can see it and will use my code word—‘chocolate cake’ (because she loves the dessert)—to make me laugh and help me refocus.” If you run or train with a friend or partner, give each other nicknames, funny or serious. Then tell your workout partner to use yours when she sees you losing ground in class, and you do the same for her.
Studies show we can train ourselves to use positive self-talk to change our perspectives, attitudes, and reactions. “You can change your mindset with one word," Holland says. “Whenever a negative word or thought comes to mind, swap it with a positive one.” For example, if you start thinking, “I feel like garbage,” switch it to “I feel great.” Or find a word that inspires you and makes you smile. Keep your focus on that word and repeat it over and over to yourself when you feel like quitting, Holland recommends.
Keep going by finding the thing that motivates you to continue through the discomfort or past the thought of quitting, says Mike Basevic, a behavioral strategist, performance coach, and author of No Limits: Mastering the Mental Edge. “That key motivating factor, if strong enough, will easily move you past the thought of wanting to give up.” For example, visualize the body you want or the dress you want to fit into for that reunion or wedding. “Focus on the end goal and the result you desire, not on the work you have to do to get there,” Basevic says.
Progress doesn’t happen in one continuous upward climb, says Eileen Loeb, a New York City personal trainer and founder of BodySmart Personal Training. “It’s more like a wave, with some highs and some lows. Just know that the lows aren’t forever.” Stick with it and it will be easier to get back in the saddle the next time on a, hopefully, better day, says Loeb. "Recall a strong workout day to help you realize you’ve had success before—and you can again. It wasn’t a fluke.”
Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is, says Steve Siebold, a former professional athlete and author of 177 Mental Toughness Secrets of the World Class. “Winners have a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude. They’ll pay any price and bear any burden in the name of victory.” Part of that attitude involves expecting an element of difficulty, Siebold says. “Most people run into an obstacle and seek escape. If you’re not ready to suffer adversity, you’re not going to be successful.” Real pain, of course, should never be ignored. But running through rain or other lousy weather, feeling fatigued, or experiencing any other less-than-perfect workout situation can be overcome with a little mental toughness.
If you feel you can keep going longer while listening to your favorite songs, it's not in your head. "Rhythm and tempo directly tie in to alertness and focus, as well as facilitating muscle coordination and movement," says Joseph A. Cardillo Ph.D., author of Your Playlist Can Change Your Life. Research has shown that music can help boost endurance and make your workout seem easier. Cardillo recommends choosing songs with 130 or more beats per minute.
If the urge to quit comes from a physical pain, it's a good idea to heed it. "Not a lot should prevent you from finishing a race, even if you have to walk across the finish line. But if you're injured or in pain and know that continuing on is going to result in a more serious injury, you may have to bail,” Holland says. “There's no race so important you that you can't do it again." Same goes for a workout—you can always take on that WOD another day, when your body is at its best.