May is National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, and it’s a good time to discuss something many of us ask ourselves as we work towards our fitness goals: how do you strike the right balance between challenging yourself and overcoming any mental hurdles you may have, while still listening to your body and not pushing yourself so hard that you end up with an injury. Finding equilibrium is the key to staying active over the long haul.
Scenario 1: Getting the Workout Started
Dragging yourself out of bed early in the morning for a jog or heading to the gym instead of home after working a long day can be some of the biggest challenges to staying active. What’s interesting to note about these scenarios is that, assuming you’re getting enough sleep at night, the challenge is primarily mental. The next time you’re having trouble getting your workout started, take small steps. Commit to a 5 minute jog, or just doing a warm-up at the gym. Once you get started, if you meet your commitment and want to finish, that’s fine. You kept your word and should feel proud of yourself. You may find though that once you get moving, you end up staying and doing more than you thought!
Scenario 2: Doing Your Best during the Workout
Sometimes during our workouts, we let our thoughts get the better of us, and stop short of what we could truly accomplish. Staying focused and motivated is critical to getting the most out of your fitness routine, and ultimately getting the results you want. Remember why you’re working so hard in the first place. Is it to improve your posture? Fit into a smaller dress or pants size? Get better at your sport? Keep your ultimate goal in mind.
Next, establish a positive, supportive environment to get you started and keep yourself pumped up as you exercise. Have a playlist of inspiring music ready. Close your eyes and visualize yourself running that last sprint with strength and speed, and tell yourself that you can do that bonus set of repetitions. These are the methods that elite athletes use to reach their highest potential, and they can do the same for you!
Listening to Your Body
Scenario 1: Know When to Put the Brakes on a Workout
All that being said, it’s important to push yourself safely, and recognize the distinction between discomfort and pain. It’s normal to feel muscular burn during your last set of reps or sprints, but if you feel a painful twinge or tweak don’t disregard it. The adrenaline that courses through your body when you exercise can also decrease the feeling of pain and suppress an issue that needs your attention. It’s better to cut one workout a little short than to get injured and have to stop for weeks, all because you didn’t listen to your body.
Scenario 2: Know When to Skip a Workout
Finally, if you feel like you might be coming down with something, consider whether it’s really the best time for a workout. Exercising places stress on your immune system, which is typically a good thing: it breaks down your body a bit to teach it to grow stronger. If you’re just feeling a bit tired, your immune system may get a nice boost from your workout (you may want to take it a little easier than usual though, to be safe). On the other hand, if you’re feeling awful, too much exertion may push your immune system too far, landing you with a cold or other sickness. Each person has a personal boundary that tells them when it’s time to hold off on working out until they feel better. For example, for me it’s a bad sore throat with some body aches. Find yours and respect it-the more attuned you are to your body, the better decisions you’ll be able to make and the better your fitness levels will ultimately be.
So tell us: What steps do you take to push yourself mentally to make sure you do your best during a workout?
Jason Machowsky is a sports dietitian, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and certified personal trainer at the Tisch Performance Center. He has an undergraduate degree from Cornell University and a masters degree from Columbia University. This post is adapted from a piece Jason wrote for his personal blog on fitness and nutrition.