Mental Tricks to Get Through Tough Workouts

By February 14, 2020 Blog

Some workouts feel so satisfying they remind us why we exercise in the first place. Then, there are days when all we want to do is call it quits midway through. On these days, it’s useful to have a variety of mental tricks ready to keep you going.

“Sometimes, you need a lot of tools to be able to get through certain workouts,” says Carrie Cheadle, MA, a mental skills coach and co-author of “Rebound: Training Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries.” Because mental tricks work better for some workouts than others, it’s a good idea to have multiple tools in your toolbox.

Before using any of these mental tools, take stock of the big rocks that contribute to your overall health: nutrition, sleep and hydration. If you’re dragging in your workout, your issue could be physical — not mental. “Sometimes, we’ll have an emotional reaction, but it’s your body trying to tell you that you need to drink more or you need to eat,” Cheadle says.

Assuming your nutrition, sleep and hydration are all on-point, try one (or all) of these mental tricks to help you get through tough workouts.

1. HACK YOUR PLAYLIST

Research shows music can help you exercise longer — and harder. Middle-aged patients who listened to music while undergoing a cardiac stress test (treadmill exercise test that may be used to diagnose heart problems or gauge a safe level of exercise) were able to last a full minute longer — and exercise more intensely — than patients who didn’t listen to music, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Go into your workouts armed and ready with a playlist of songs that give you energy. “Have songs on there that when you hear them, you feel the energy in your body,” Cheadle says. The songs don’t have to be positive and upbeat, but they should give you energy every time you hear them. So, when you hit a speed bump during your workout and need a surge of energy to carry you the rest of the way, blast a song from your playlist that makes you smile or nod your head to the beat.

2. TAP INTO AN ALTER-EGO

When the workout gets intense, or all you can think about is calling it quits, think of someone you admire; it could be a childhood superhero, a professional athlete, a family member or the type of person you aspire to be. Ask yourself: “How would that person approach this workout when they’re feeling tired?” Cheadle says. Consider how that person would act, move and even talk. Then, imitate. “It gives you permission to make a different decision in the moment [you want to quit],” Cheadle says.

3. PUT YOURSELF ON THE HOOK

If you’re struggling to get out the door to do your workout in the first place, recruit a friend to go with you. “You’re less likely to flake on that other person than you are on yourself,” Cheadle says. Then, when you’re at the gym (or on your run), you’re more likely to have fun — which makes the time fly.

Or, if you prefer not to work out with friends, put yourself on the hook by paying for an exercise class in advance so you have more incentive to go. “One of the things I always ask people is, what will make it more likely for you to get in your workout?” Cheadle says. For you, that may mean investing money into your workout upfront.

4. SET AN END POINT

When you’re in the middle of a sprint or high-intensity interval and that inner voice is screaming at you to stop, that’s your brain coping with the energy demands of working at that pace. So, in order to calm that voice begging you to quit, give yourself an endpoint. Tell yourself: “You’ve only got five more reps to go,” or “You can do anything for 10 more seconds.” You’re giving yourself a directive to keep going, but you’re also helping your body understand you don’t need to put out that much energy indefinitely, Cheadle says.

5. FILL IN THE MENTAL SPACE

Aside from giving yourself an endpoint, you can grit your way through long or high-intensity intervals by filling the mental space with a repetitive mantra. (This tactic may be most helpful during repetitive cardio exercises like running or cycling.) You can count your steps or pedal strokes (count to a specific number and then start over), or repeat a positive directive like “Go, go, go” to the rhythm of your steps or pedal strokes. This way, your brain is too distracted to think about stopping. “What you’re doing is you’re forcing something into your information processing center so it doesn’t have room to process negative thoughts,” Cheadle says.