Tough Workout? Motivational Secrets Help You Kick Ass

Photo: Jontunn

Sometimes you can smell a lousy workout coming a mile away--you're so full of dread, slothfulness and self-pity you can barely tie your shoes or lift your water bottle.

Other times, a horrifyingly discouraging workout comes as a complete surprise!  You set out to tackle your usual routine full of cheerful vigor and eager anticipation... only to slam unexpectedly into a brick wall of supreme suckiness a few short moments after you've begun.

Wait, when did my leg muscles turn into lead weights? Could covert top-secret government agencies have started monkeying around with gravity, it feels incredibly heavy today! And crap, my watch must be broken... because I'm dying here and there is NO F#%CKING WAY I could only have been exercising for one and a half minutes!

Of course you could always bail--and depending on the situation, that's sometimes the most logical and sensible option. You might want to consult an effortometer, and depending on the read-out, dial back your original expectations and cut yourself some slack. Perhaps you've been over-training, or are coming down with a cold, or haven't slept enough, or have too many other demands on your limited motivational stockpile for the day.

But what if you know you'd be much, much, much happier with yourself if you could somehow suck it up and get through your workout exactly as planned--right now, not some other day?

Six Secret Workout Motivational Tips For Tough Days


Of course, as you will soon discover, these are not secrets at all, but are obvious suggestions that you know perfectly well already. But if I offered up a more accurate heading:

Recycled Exercise Motivational Advice You've Heard A Thousand Times Before But That Might Actually Be Useful To Remember Because You're Not Actually Doing It All That Often, Are You?


...then what are the chances you'd keep going and read any of these suggestions?

So anyway, here we go with some motivational "secrets":

1. Embrace the Wimpy Warm-Up

Sometimes all it takes to deal with an abysmally pathetic beginning is to back off your normal warm-up pace, slow way the hell down, and extend the whole "warming up" part of your workout past your normal time frame. Admit you feel crappier than usual, and don't be all punitive and inflexible with yourself--ease in more than usual, hope for the best, and sometimes the sluggishness disappears as mysteriously as it came.

2. Recall the Paradoxical Pukeyness Principle

You might not know it by that name, but this is the often-forgotten fact that sometimes the best workouts you've ever had in your life began as grueling, afraid-you're-going-to-vomit ordeals. What causes an unpredictable "second wind" to occur? Who knows! But there is often very little relationship between how a workout starts and how it ends. Could this be one of those triumphant experiences where you fight past fatigue and apathy and somehow burst through to the other side with a sudden surge of strength and energy for a personal best performance? Or will you give up before you find out?

3. Change Something, Quick!

If you've already embarked on your run, swim, weight training circuit or whatever, it may be too late to do something drastically different like pogo-sticking your way up a nearby mountain or competing in a bog-snorkeling competition. However, even minor alterations to your standard workout can sometimes ease that icky sensation of "I can NOT stand to do this yet again today!" Play with the incline on your treadmill, or do your weights in totally the wrong order. Or choose different variations of the same old exercises, even if they're not as optimal. Use an old playlist of tunes you haven't heard in a couple years. Reverse the direction of your normal run. Try a new machine at the gym for 2 or 3 minutes; experiment with running backwards or sideways or skipping for a bit; close your eyes for a few seconds and see if you can manage not to kill yourself; dump half your water bottle onto your head; climb out of the pool half-way through your laps and do 10 pushups... it can be a profoundly stupid or trivial experiment, but in an Emergency Workout Suckage Situation, every little bit helps.

4. Break it Down

The single most stupid thing I tend to do when faced with an excruciatingly bad workout is to mentally rehearse just how awful and impossible each successive step is going to be. If the first set of leg presses feel this bad, how will we get to the next set, let alone all our other exercises? If my legs are this tired after 2 minutes on the elliptical, how will I ever make it to 45 minutes? Shockingly, this type of "it's only going to get worse" stewing and sulking is not tremendously helpful.

The cure: focus on the next thirty seconds or so and FORGET THE FUTURE. Who knows, an asteroid could hit the earth and you won't have to do any push-ups after all! Or, if that's too gloomy, just allow yourself to consider the rest of your workout is entirely negotiable... if you can just get through the next 30 seconds.

And it helps to find a bunch of different mini-goals, one after the other, especially if you have any exercise gadgets with you. "I'll keep going until the next song on my playlist" then "well, I need to at least reach an even 2 miles, I can't stop at 1.9," then "oh wait, my pedometer says I'm at 3900 steps I gotta make it an even 4000," and then, "hey, it's almost an even 20 minutes, I can't stop at 19:30," and then "wait, now this song is almost over, maybe I can make it 'til the next one starts?"

Eventually you'll either get in the groove... or drive yourself so nuts trying to make it through your workout that you can deserve to call it a day.

5. Pump it Up! ...Wait, WTF?!?!

This is the most counter-intuitive trick I use. Sometimes, when I'm dead tired and can barely manage even my slowest pace, I make myself throw in ONE hideous all-out interval to a non interval-training day. Weirdly enough, exponentially increasing the misery for a short time sometimes kicks off a waterfall of brain chemicals that can wash out some of the lethargy that's been clogging up the circuits.

6. Mess With Your Head

Say you're attempting to make yourself hoist some disagreeably heavy weights or you're trotting sluggishly on the treadmill, marveling over the unfairness of having such a crappy workout when you've been so damn virtuous and wondering if the minute hand on the clock will ever, ever, ever move forward... Well, try to remember that even if your body may be stuck there having a lousy time, your brain is totally free to leave. Your imagination can put you ANYWHERE, doing ANYTHING you want with ANYONE you'd like!

But what if the misery of your current bodily state is too distracting to allow yourself to enjoy making out with a hot celebrity on a tropical island, or consuming a luscious six course meal of all your favorite foods? Well, then perhaps you might at least be able to coax along a more inspiring or exciting fantasy to accompany your exertion. You're... competing in a reality-show weightlifting competition and you'll win a million dollars if you can just complete this last set! You're being chased by a horde of hungry werewolves! You've gotten a last-second invitation for an exotic cruise by a wealthy and well-connected benefactor, who will take you (and your family, if you're feeling generous) on an amazing adventure... but only if you can run to the pier before the ship sails.

Anyone else have to use goofy mental tricks to slog through workouts from hell? Got any tips to share?

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