How hard do you push yourself when you work out? One trait that most successful athletes have lots of is mental toughness. The same applies to people who get the most results from an exercise program. That’s because getting fit involves stepping outside of your comfort zone. Once a workout becomes “comfortable,” the progress stops and so do the gains. Many people keep it at this level and never maximize their fitness potential.
Mental toughness and the ability to push through even when things are uncomfortable is what leads to change. Of course, it’s not necessary or healthy to max out every time. Everyone needs light days and recovery days, but it is important to develop the mindset you need to eke out an extra rep or do a few more squat jumps during a high-intensity interval workout. That’s what high intensity is all about. How can you develop mental toughness and not let your mind hold you back?
Getting Fitter by Developing Mental Toughness: The Importance of Self-Belief
To be mentally tough, you have to believe in your ability to accomplish your fitness goals. If you don’t believe in your own mind that you can do it, you’ll quickly give up when it becomes uncomfortable. Some fitness trainers and coaches recommend using positive affirmations and motivating phrases to develop mental toughness. These are helpful for some people but a better approach is to visualize yourself accomplishing a task.
Before a workout, create a mental image in your mind of lifting that heavier weight. Don’t JUST visualize. Try to incorporate as many senses as you can into that visualization. Imagine how the weight feels in your hands and the sounds in the background as you lift it. “Feel” the burn as you push through it. Then “taste” the sweetness of victory as you reach your goal. Right before your workout and at other times throughout the day, spend some time rehearsing in your mind what you want to accomplish using all of your senses.
Mental Toughness: The Driving Force of Motivation
People who have mental toughness athletically are also motivated. Motivation is important for accomplishing anything athletically. It’s what keeps you working out instead of lying on the couch. To stay motivated, know WHY you’re working out and remind yourself of those reasons when you feel like skipping a workout. Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. A study showed that people are more likely to stick with an exercise program when they’re exercising for health rather than to fit into a smaller dress size. Write down all of the reasons you’re working out, and keep reminders of your progress within easy view. Even better – keep a fitness journal. Give yourself some visual cues too. For example, keep a “before exercise” photo on the refrigerator next to an “after” one. The worst reason to exercise? To meet someone else’s expectations. Make sure you’re doing it for yourself.
Another way to stay motivated is to read inspirational stories in fitness magazines and our website – stories about people who transformed their bodies through exercise, overcame obstacles like health problems through exercise and get inspiration from athletes who have learned how to be mentally tough in their sport. When you see what other people have accomplished, sometimes against great odds, it empowers you.
Mental Toughness: Focus, Focus, Focus
To have mental toughness and accomplish your fitness goals, cultivate the power of focus. When it’s workout time, tune out all distractions and switch your mind to “exercise mode.” That’s the beauty of working out at home. You won’t have well-meaning gym buddies stopping by to chat between sets. One reason workout DVDs work so well is that they keep you focused and motivated. Learn how to turn off the outside world and enter “the zone” when you exercise.
Mental Toughness: Embrace the Pain
People who accomplish great things from working out and see changes in their body, push through when it starts to feel uncomfortable, even when their brain tells them to stop. There’s a physical component to pain and an emotional one. It’s typically the emotional one that limits us. Research shows that when people are anxious or depressed, their tolerance to pain is lower. The good news? You can endure more discomfort when you have a higher purpose or a goal. Remind yourself of that goal when you want to drop the weight due to the burn. Think of how GOOD you’ll feel when you walk away from a workout having given it 100%. Regrets from not having given it your best effort are painful too.
Once a week or so, challenge yourself to a very high-intensity workout. Tabata interval workouts are a good option since they force you to push hard for only 20 seconds with 10 seconds of recovery. Do them regularly to build a tolerance to discomfort and greater physical and mental toughness.
Mental Toughness Carries Over to the Rest of Your Life
When you build mental toughness through your workouts, it carries over to the rest of your life. It’ll give you the confidence, motivation and focus to succeed in other areas of your life as well. Learn to push through when you feel the discomfort and reap the benefits in all areas of your life.
Psychology Today. “Embracing Pain”
Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, April 18 (2), 201-218.
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