Whether you are a fitness fanatic or a just getting started, there can be times when you find yourself slogging through a tough workout and seriously questioning whether you can finish it. Whether it’s all worth it. We all have days like that. But before descending into a spiral of angst, swat away those negative thoughts and adopt some of these effective mental strategies designed to help keep you going when the going gets tough.
Here’s how to power through the lows when you’re just about to give in.
1. Count down instead of up
Rather than count your miles, workout time or number of reps from one upward – try counting backward. This means that by the time you’re nearing the tail end of your workout and are starting to feel tired and cranky, you’ve already counted down to smaller, less scary, more manageable numbers. In other words, there’s not much left. And the numbers prove it. For example, if you are going to do 20-reptitions of a particular exercise, count downward so that, as you get near to the end of your set, you are counting down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 rather than 16, 17, 18, 19, 20. Counting downward is much more empowering and less daunting that counting upward.
2. Use a mantra
A mantra is a word or phrase you repeat over and over which can help you get through a tough workout in several ways. Firstly, a mantra is a distraction in that if you are reciting a mantra, you are less able to fret about how tough your workout is.
Secondly, a mantra is empowering and motivating – or should be! This is a good time to check that you’re not subconsciously repeating negative mantras to yourself during your workout and throughout the day generally. It’s not just life coaches who say that what you repeated tell yourself your mind and body believes, but scientists back this up too. Self-talk – good or bad – isn’t simply mindless chatter. Telling yourself you can do something can help make it happen. But equally, telling yourself you that can’t do something can make that a reality. So cut out the negative self-talk. Cut out the “I’ll always be fat”, “I’m weak”, “I can’t do this” from your life and replace it with positive messages about yourself. This takes a little work because it’s always easier to be a critic. And generally we’re harder on ourselves than anyone else.
Finally, a mantra can help keep your breathing smooth and regular as you can recite it in time with your inhalations and exhalations. Good mantras include “further, faster, stronger, better”, “with every step I leave my old self behind”, “strong as steel but light as a feather” or “I CAN and WILL do this”. Personalize it and make up your own empowering mantras.
3. Negotiate (with yourself)
Tell yourself, if you do one more mile, make it to the next lamp post, or exercise to the end of the song, then you will stop. Generally by the time you finish that mile, reached that lamp post, or finished that song, you’ll have busted through that wall and can keep going. If you aren’t doing cardio, you could apply the same deal to a set of squats – one more rep and then you’ll stop.
4. Be your own coach
And kick your own butt. If you are working hard but feel that you are tempted to stop before the end of your workout, give yourself a stern talking to – just like a tough coach would. Imagine one of your other favorite coaches (real, celebrity or fictional) giving you a motivating pep talk. Tell yourself to keep going, to suck it up, that you CAN do it. You can use whatever type of motivation that works best for you – hard and challenging or soft and nurturing – but the essence of the message should be do not stop.
5. Break your workout down into more manageable chunks
Instead of thinking of your workout in terms of 60-minutes – a large and intimidating number, mentally break your workout down into four lots of 15-minutes. Think of each chunk of time as a mini-workout which is easily conquered. This helps make longer workouts seem much less overwhelming. You could even design your playlist into 4 different themes to further encourage your brain to think of them as separate and more manageable.
If you are doing five sets of heavy squats, don’t waste energy thinking about set number five, just focus on your first set. Once that is done, focus on set number two. Never think about five sets of squats but a series of single sets of five instead. You can also apply this strategy to distances; a four-mile run becomes four single miles.
6. Shift your focus
If all you think about is how tired you feel, you are much more likely to want to stop and rest. Distract yourself by listening to workout music (super effective), thinking about an element of your technique, focusing on your breathing, or even thinking about what you are going to do once your grueling workout is complete. It’s surprising how distracting just thinking about correct form can be. Plus exercising with good form makes the exercise easier. If you start to think thoughts like “My legs feel heavy!” drive them out with thoughts of other things.
7. Get mad
Sometimes, aggression can help you push yourself much harder so you can crash through tough workout barriers by sheer force of will.
Think of things that make you angry, such as work arguments, your last break-up or social injustices – whatever gets you going – and then turn that hurt into anger, work through it, and aim it squarely toward your workout. Before you know it, you’ve smashed through your bubble of discomfort and finished your workout stronger than you ever knew you could. Not just a workout, but some free therapy too, you’ll also feel emotionally tougher, lighter, and more free for having processed and thrown off some emotional baggage during your workout. The best sort of multi-tasking.
8. Only count every other rep
A long set of a particularly gruelling workout can be a daunting prospect. To make it easier, instead of counting every rep, count every other rep instead. For example, for a set of 12-reps, count one AND two AND three AND four AND five AND six AND. For reasons unknown, the ANDS always feel easier than the properly counted reps and the set subsequently seems shorter.
Exercise is often as much about mental as it is physical strength, and a tough workout can teach you a lot about yourself. Anytime you work past those nagging doubts or thoughts of quitting, it’s a big win. It makes you physically and mentally tougher. And remember, no one ever got seriously fit or strong doing workouts that were easy.