Take Action & Respond: What steps do you take to push yourself mentally to make sure you do your best during a workout?
While the post’s title seems like a dichotomy, striking the right balance between these two feelings ensures your ability to stay consistently active. Pushing yourself mentally usually revolves around two scenarios: getting the workout started and doing your best during the workout. Listening to yourself physically also has two main points: knowing when to pump the brakes during a workout and knowing when to skip a workout entirely (for health and wellness purposes). At the end of the post, I’ll share a story about a time when I managed to push myself mentally, and then not listen to myself physically to reveal how a balance of both sides are needed for long-term fitness and health.
Push Yourself Mentally
When everything is going well or our schedule is light, staying active can be relatively easy. However, most of life does not lend itself to the “best case scenario.” Getting out of bed when the alarm goes off at 5 or 6 AM for your morning jog or lugging yourself to the gym after a long day of work at 7 PM can be some of the most challenging circumstances we face when being active. The interesting thing about these situations is it’s primarily a test of mental strength (assuming you’re getting adequate sleep). Standing up out of bed or walking to the gym is not a physically harrowing task, yet it seems to make our legs feel like cinder blocks. Until we actually decide to start moving. Next time you’re not in the mood for your workout, commit to jogging for just 5 minutes. Or go to the gym and do just the warm-up. If you go, do this and still feel like you want to stop, then do so. You’ve fulfilled your commitment to yourself and should be proud that you took action, no matter how big or small. But once you start moving, you may also end up staying a little longer than expected.
And now that you’re moving, you may as well get the most out of every minute that you train. We’re busy people, so why spend 90 or more minutes in the gym (you know those people, the ones who do one set and then talk for 5 minutes with their buddies), when you can get just as good of a workout in 45 to 60 minutes and move on with your day? Keep moving, stay focused and only take your planned rest periods (or if you’re feeling very winded). If a friend wants to talk, exchange a quick word or two, but if they want to catch up on the last couple of weeks, tell them you’ll get in contact after the workout.
During our workouts we sometimes stop a few reps short or a few minutes early from what we can truly accomplish because of our thoughts. Maybe you don’t have a training/exercise plan so you’re not sure what to do next…so you don’t do anything at all. Or you get involved in a conversation with someone and by the time you’re done it’s been 20 minutes and you’ve started to cool down. Or your mind just starts to wander and you lose interest in the middle of the workout. Staying centered and focused is crucial to getting the most out of your workouts so you can get the results you want.
First, keep your eye on the prize. Remember why you are doing these workouts to begin with. For a sport? For your posture? To get into a dress or pants size? Next, create a positive, supportive environment to make sure you get going and then do all you can during exercise to “pump” yourself up. Listen to inspiring music, actually tell yourself that you can do that extra set, close your eyes and visualize that last sprint right before you do it. These are tactics elite athletes use to get the most out of themselves and their physical activity, so why not do the same for yourself? Maximize the benefit of your physical activity since you’re already doing it!
Listen to Your Body Physically
This is the counterpoint to pushing yourself mentally. When we psych ourselves up to “go the extra mile,” we need to make sure we do so safely. When working out, we tend to disregard small “twinges” and “tweaks” of discomfort (not to be confused with muscular burn during a set or sprint). Unfortunately, the adrenaline running through our body can decrease our feeling of pain and thereby suppress a more serious issue. “Pushing through it” often leads to even further problems. It’s better to stop a little short on one workout because of an unusual “twinge” than to be forced to stop for weeks because of an injury that happened because you did not listen to your body.
If the twinge is localized to one part of the body, you can always adjust your workout and focus on another area. For example, if you tweaked your leg during a squat, you can always do some rows or pushups. The rule is: if it hurts, don’t do it.
Finally, if you’re feeling under the weather, reconsider whether a workout will help or hurt. Workouts typically stress your immune system, in a good way. They break your body down a bit to teach it to get stronger. So if you’re just a little sluggish, then the workout may give your immune system a needed boost (do a lighter workout, though, just in case). But if you’re really starting to feel lousy, a workout may push your immune system over the cliff into a full-blown cold or sickness. Each person has a unique “line” that once they cross, they should avoid working out until they are feeling better. For me, it’s a bad sore throat with some body aches (which is the prelude to many other cold-symptoms).
My Story…and Lesson Learned
A couple years ago I was at a nutrition conference in San Diego and I had just completed a long day of going to talks, networking and mostly sitting from about 7 AM to 6 PM. Amazing how sitting and listening can be so draining! I had plans for dinner at 8 PM, so I only had a little while to get ready. So when I got back to my hotel room, it was very tempting to just kick back and relax for a couple hours. But I knew that there was a YMCA next door (only $5 to use) and I hadn’t been able to get to the gym the previous couple of days because of scheduling and travel. So I made a deal with myself: go and do a light warm-up, core and cardio workout (30 minutes) and call it a day. Hey, something is better than nothing!
So I went to the gym and got started. And of course by the end of my warm-up I was ready to do a lot more than a light workout. Turns out I did a bit too much! I remember pushing myself to do Farmer’s Walks (pretty much carrying two heavy weights around for a while) with two 75 pound dumbbells later in a workout that previously had me performing power hang cleans (a big powerful movement that worked similar muscles to the farmer’s walk). I felt a slight twinge in my upper shoulder but decided to finish off the last ten feet of the Farmer’s Walk anyway. By the time I woke up the next morning I could barely turn my neck and by the middle of the day my shoulder and back were in significant spasm. It was the last day of the conference and when I got in the taxi to take me to the airport later in the afternoon, my neck went into spasm every time the taxi driver sped up because the simple acceleration of the car made my neck fire in a similar way to the exercise that caused me to get hurt. Needless to say I stabilized my neck and shoulders as best as I could and took about a week off from working out. Thankfully I was back to normal within about a week and a half, but it goes to show that a “small twinge” can have larger issues associated with it. Lesson Learned: Ten less feet, or one week off?