We all know them. Those women who have seemingly superhuman discipline and determination with their training.
They never skip a single workout, ever. And when they’re in the gym, they train like machines. And not just in a physical sense. Strength, speed, power, athleticism . . . all those things can be developed over time. It’s more than that.
They seem to have this ability to push their limits time after time after time and leave it all in the gym. No matter what they’re doing, no matter how they’re feeling. They just give it all they have without fail.
They say that your mind will fail a thousand times before your body will. And that’s true. It’s your mind that sets your limitations. So it’s your mind that you need to work on if you want to be one of these women. But you probably already knew that.
This blog post outlines the 6 steps you need to take to build a strategy for becoming one of these superstars yourself. These steps concentrate purely on your thoughts, your mindset and your mental focus.
There are a number of other strategies that we’ve written about in previous blog posts which you can also use in conjunction with these to build your mental toughness. I’ll list the links to these at the end of this article for further reading.
Once you’ve mastered this mental approach, your physical results will follow. And then you’ll be one of the elite that everyone watches in awe.
As you go through these steps it’s important to keep in mind that what you’re focusing on training here is your mind. That’s your primary goal. Remember, train your mind and your body will follow.
1. Detach your thoughts from what you’re about to do
The first hurdle to overcome is lack of consistency. Without consistency, you simply aren’t going to see the results that you’re looking for.
Skipping the occasional workout here and there gradually leads to skipping workouts more regularly, maybe once a fortnight, then once a week, and then even more. Before you know it you’re skipping more workouts that you’re actually doing.
Consistency means not skipping any planned workouts . . . ever. If something really serious does come up and you really can’t attend a workout, you make it up later.
So the primary goal of this first step is very simple . . . to get you to just show up. Time after time.
You do that by detaching your thoughts from where you’re going, and what you’re going for. You just go through the motions – you put your gear on, pack your bag, and head out the door. How cold it is or how you feel doesn’t matter, because in your mind, you’re not going to work out. You’re just going “out”.
The purpose doesn’t enter you mind for a moment.
Your mindset should be the same as when you’re about to take a shower, for instance. Think about that for a moment.
When you’re about to take a shower, you don’t think about how you’re feeling or whether you really want to do it. You don’t anticipate in your mind what it’s going to be like, or how long it’s going to take. You just do it with total detachment. Without thinking.
How often have you ever skipped a shower because you weren’t in the mood, or because you were tired? Never, right?
In the same way, just go through the motions unthinkingly to get to the gym in the same way.
What you did yesterday doesn’t matter, so don’t think about it. What comes next once you arrive at the gym doesn’t matter either, so don’t think about that. In fact, you shouldn’t even know what you’ll be training until you’re actually in the gym.
If you approach showing up at the gym with the same mindset, your mind won’t have any reason to start fabricating excuses for why you shouldn’t go.
Suddenly you’ll be showing up with clockwork consistency, which in many ways is the hardest part of sticking to your program.
2. “Chunk” your workouts
Chunking your workouts means to break them down into smaller, more manageable chunks, or pieces. This uses the same principle taught by that old joke, “How do you eat an elephant? . . . One bite at a time.”
Chunking is a very effective strategy for psychologically dealing with any very challenging activity that would normally demoralize you when looked at in its entirety.
As part of their brutal training program, the US Navy SEALs have to endure a training cycle known as Hell Week. It’s a five-and-a-half day ordeal that starts on Sunday, ends on Friday, and includes only two hours of sleep, on the Wednesday. It’s aimed at testing the mental tenacity and resolve of the candidates.
As you can imagine, Hell Week is one of the most challenging training experiences on the planet. And the way the successful candidates manage to survive is to just focus on making it to the next meal, when they’ll get some small amount of rest and some food.
Basically, what they’re doing is chunking the program into manageable phases. Otherwise, the scale of what lies ahead of them would crush their morale and almost certainly drain them of their strength to go on.
As far as your workouts go, weight training sessions are already inherently chunked into sets. Similarly, Interval Training sessions are already chunked into intervals and Circuit Training sessions into circuits.
Longer-term endurance training sessions such as running, swimming, Bootcamp, calisthenics, etc. you can chunk into laps, time periods, or phases, as appropriate.
3. Delete the past and the future
Like the Navy SEALs mentioned earlier, you need to focus solely on your current chunk at all times during your workout. Don’t think about how much you’ve already done, or how much you have left to do. The past and the future don’t exist. Delete them from your thinking.
It’s a natural tendency to want to mentally keep track of what percentage of your workout you’ve completed, but you need to resist that. All that should exist in your mind is the present, and nothing more.
When you’re in the middle of a chunk that’s followed by a rest period, for example, a set of weight training or an interval of interval training, then focus on giving that chunk everything you have. Ignore the fact that you’ll have more to do later. Remember, the future doesn’t exist to you, so future chunks are someone else’s problem. They’re not for you to worry about.
All you need to focus on is doing your best in the current chunk, and that’s it.
When you’re in the middle of a rest period, focus on resting and getting your breath back, and nothing else. The temptation at that point is to think about how much you have left, but again, resist it. Stay focused totally in the present. Focus on your breathing, catch your breath and rehydrate yourself.
When you’re in a chunk that’s immediately followed by another chunk, such as a lap or time interval of a long run for example, you’ll need to pace yourself. You can’t just exhaust yourself in the current chunk.
You can achieve that without having to think about how much more you have to do (remember, the future doesn’t exist) simply by telling yourself to finish your current chunk at a certain level of exertion (on a scale from 1 to 10, for example) or at a certain heart rate (a heart rate monitor would come in handy here). That way you’re still keeping your mind in the present.
Whenever you’re starting a new chunk, whether or not it follows a rest period, take a deep breath and mentally tell yourself that you’re just starting out (remember, the past doesn’t exist). Say to yourself in your head, “Let’s go”.
Physically you may actually be more tired than when you started your workout, but that doesn’t matter. Mentally you should be just starting out. You may be able to do less than when you were physically fresh but that doesn’t matter either, in each chunk you simply do the best you can with what you have.
4. Cut out the negative self-talk
One of the most debilitating things during a workout is that negative self-talk in your head. It’s basically your mind trying to convince you to let up or to stop altogether, and it can really hold you back from achieving anywhere near your best.
What your mind is doing is basically a self-protection mechanism. It’s trying to get you to avoid any further pain, which it always sees as a bad thing.
During a workout you need to keep in mind the fact that the only warnings from your body that you should listen to is physical pain. The pain from injuries or impending injuries, that it. Things like joint pains, pulled muscle pain, tendon pains, chest pains, and so on.
All other warnings, like the discomfort of exerting yourself or the mental self-talk, are just lies.
There are two approaches to combating the negative self-talk, and you can use whichever works best for you, or even both, depending on the situation.
The first is mental detachment, and this probably works best for longer-duration, lower-intensity activities. This involves keeping your mind totally blank, or not thinking of anything at all. It’s a state of keeping yourself mentally and emotionally disconnected from what’s going on.
A distraction such as music would work well here in preventing you from focusing on how you’re feeling and what your body is experiencing.
The second approach is to replace the negative self-talk with positive and encouraging thoughts, thoughts that urge you to keep going and push harder. This is a fairly common strategy used by people performing high-intensity activities such as weight training or interval training.
Once again, the right kind of music can help quite a bit in this regard, by keeping your mindset strong and aggressive.
5. Lie to yourself
Whenever you’re faced with a situation where you don’t think you’ll be able to complete a chunk, the next step is to lie to yourself.
Remember, what’s happening at that point is that your mind is quitting. It’s telling you that you’ve reached your limit, but the fact is that your body has plenty left. Imagine if your life depended on finishing that chunk, I can guarantee you that suddenly all thoughts of not making it would fade.
So then, how exactly do you lie to yourself?
Simply by telling yourself that you only have a fraction of the work left to complete the chunk, say a half, and once you’ve completed it you simply do it again.
For example, let’s assume you’re running and you have a minute left to go to complete the chunk, but you really don’t think you can make it. When you’re really tired and trying to catch your breath, a minute is quite a long time.
Tell yourself that you only have thirty seconds to go, that’s all. That will seem far more achievable and your mind suddenly won’t be so deflated. It will allow you to dig deeper and keep going. Once you’ve completed the thirty seconds then once again tell yourself that you only have thirty seconds left to go. With the finish line so close your mind will again be encouraged to keep going.
Lying to yourself is a useful strategy for bringing yourself back to the present, since looking ahead can often really sap your determination.
6. Adopt the warrior mindset
One of the biggest sources of excuses for skipping a workout is the expectation that everything has to be just right for a workout to happen. You have to have plenty of time, the temperature has to be in the right range, it can’t be raining, the gym can’t be too crowded, you have to feel good and not be tired, and so on.
The practical reality however is that more often than not, there’s at least one thing that isn’t perfect. You can’t let that hold you back, either from showing up for your workout or from doing the best you can.
You need to adopt the mindset that going for your workout is like going to war. War is never organized, clean and precise. It’s chaotic, unpredictable and imperfect. The unexpected and unwelcome happens all the time, and you just have to suck it up and deal with it.
Whenever something isn’t to your liking, don’t let it stop you. It might be very hot, it might start raining in the middle of your run, you might have a stone in your shoe, you might still be sore from a previous workout, whatever. Show yourself that you’re stronger than all these obstacles.
In fact, you should welcome them because overcoming them is part of how you condition your mind to be stronger. Remember, you’re training your mind here.
Remember that your workout doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective, it just has to be done. If something happens to make it not as good as it could have been, it doesn’t matter. Completing your workout is always going to be far better than not doing it or only doing part of it.
Workout PR’s are always nice, but the most important thing is that you just show up and do your best, no matter the situation.
As I mentioned in the introduction to this article, you can implement these 6 mental strategies in conjunction with others to ensure you’re as consistent as possible and that you get the very best out of yourself in each and every one of your workouts.
Here are a few of our other blog posts that outline some powerful mental strategies you can use: