How to Tackle a Tough Workout—with Your Brain

It's not always a physical challenge; sometimes the mental challenge of a strenuous workout is the hardest one to overcome.

So you’ve donned your workout gear and dragged yourself to the gym; now you’re going through the motions on the treadmill. So far so good. But 15 minutes into the run, you’re starting to sweat, your legs hurt, and a little voice inside your head tells you to press the stop button. How do you motivate yourself to finish the workout?

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that your brain plays such an important role in physical exertion: tell yourself you’re tired, and you’ll feel tired. I asked sports psychologists and local athletes to find out optimal mental strategies to get the most out of workouts and athletic performances.

Joel Fish, director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Center City, has worked with a broad range of athletes, from beginners to Olympic elites, so he knows just how important the brain is for athletic performance. “A huge percentage of exercise and fitness is mental,” says Fish, “whether that be composure, confidence, communication, focus, teamwork—it’s enormous.”

Fish says that everyone encounters mental blocks when it comes to exercise and physical performance, even the most seasoned athlete. It’s the pattern of that mental block that differs from athlete to athlete. For example, is how you slept the night before impeding your performance? Have you consumed the right fuel? Does a particular competitor shake your confidence? These are some of the many questions you can ask yourself to figure out where your weakness comes in.

Once you’ve identified the source of your mental block, it’s important to consider what you’re thinking and feeling in the moment. Do you sort of freeze up and feel unable to continue? Does your mind dive into negative frenzy? “Oh God, here I go again, my body is giving out on me, I just can’t do this.” Even professional athletes experience these thoughts; it’s how they deal with them that makes them persevere and succeed.

Fish says that being in touch with these thoughts is crucial. Sure, a coach or trainer can tell an athlete, “Don’t feel defeated” or “Don’t think that way,” but that doesn’t stop someone from experiencing those emotions. It simply denies the problem exists and offers no help in dealing with it. “Let’s be honest with what we’re thinking and feeling,” Says Fish.

By realizing how you respond to your mental block, you can develop a game plan to handle these emotions when they arise. Fish offers three examples of ways to help get yourself on track during a mental block. One is positive self talk, which can be used in numerous ways. You can have a calming speech prepared—”Don’t worry about it, shake it off”—or you could have a key phrase or word reserved for when you really start to hurt.

Fish once worked with a competitive tennis player whose phrase was: “Just give me the courage to do the best I can do.” Sometimes she simply thought “courage.” Both she and Fish knew what it meant. Fish says that positive self talk is very effective for athletes who tend to over-think or over-analyze too much.

Another mental coping mechanism is simply to take a big breath, hold it in for a few seconds and exhale slowly. This helps to release tension by slowing the heartbeat and decreasing blood pressure. The physical calm will carry over to your emotions. If you’re engaging in a strenuous activity that doesn’t allow for breaks, such as endurance running, focus on taking deeper, slower breaths as opposed to one big one.

The third mechanism makes use of visualization. Fish says to think ahead about all the good and bad things that could happen in the workout or performance event. In doing so, you can imagine yourself overcoming that wall or difficult situation. When you hit that point during the actual event, you’ll feel as though you’ve been there before and will feel more confident and in control.