We’ve all been there. You’re in the middle of a tough group workout, gasping for breath and feeling like at least one muscle (more like all of them) is about to give out. You think your body is saying, “No more!”— but is it really your body, or is it your brain?
“Our body tends to do what our mind tells us to do,” says Brandonn Harris, PhD, professor of sport and exercise psychology at Georgia Southern University. “We have these thoughts, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t go on, I’m not fit enough for this’ and our body tends respond to that, so you feel more fatigue, you perform slower and your performance plateaus.”
But that doesn’t need to happen. You can overcome the naysayer in your mind and feel like a champ for finishing the grueling session. Follow these expert tips to develop mental grit — and know the signs to watch for that indicate you really should stop exercising and come back another day.
1. HIT PAUSE
First, stop and take a deep breath. “I am big believer in listening to your body when pushing it to the limits,” says Shaun Jenkins, head coach at Tone House, a group fitness studio in New York City known for its challenging workouts. “Each workout experience is different, thus stopping for a quick moment to assess your limits and what you are experiencing is very important,” he explains.
2. IDENTIFY THE BARRIER
Take this time to zero-in on what’s making you doubt yourself. “What is it about what you are doing that is leading you to feel like you can’t keep going,” Harris asks. Maybe you feel like you’re taking too long, you’re overly tired or you think you’re not physically conditioned to do the class. Think about your self-talk and see if that’s limiting you.
3. REFRAME THE SITUATION
This is one way you can develop a different “playlist,” as Harris calls it, rather than the negative statements rolling through your mind. To reframe an experience, take the situation and sensations you’re feeling and find an alternative perspective. You’re not sugar-coating it — you’re simply shifting your perspective to see this workout as a challenge and a way to test yourself. Rather than thinking, “I’m so tired,” tell yourself something like, “My body is getting stronger” or “I know it’s tough, but I’m challenging my body, and I will feel great when I accomplish this,” Harris suggests.
4. COUNTER WITH YOURSELF
Another way to remix your playlist is by countering. This time you put on your lawyer hat, Harris says, and look for evidence that contradicts the negative statement. Oftentimes we speak in absolutes: “I’ll never be able to do this.” When that happens, think of past experiences where you’ve been successful. Have you done this workout or something similar in the past? Think back to those and tell yourself, “I can do this. I have before.”
5. DON’T COMPARE
Especially when you are struggling, it’s hard in a group fitness class to not look around and think, “Everyone else is crushing this workout! Why can’t I?” Stop. “Everybody works differently. We all have different levels of cardio and strength fitness,” Harris says. “Who knows how long some others in the class have been doing this? Define success relative to your own previous experiences, not what others are doing.”
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6. YOU DO YOU
If you need water or to take a breather at anytime, do it. Then get right back in there. “Keep working out, even if you are not working out as intensely,” Jenkins says. You’ll still get a good sweat session in and feel better afterward.
7. GET A PEP TALK
Some trainers are known for being motivational, and if you need a little encouragement and there’s time to pull your trainer aside, say something. They may give you just the boost you need. Or many classes have that one cheerleader participant who supports and encourages everyone. If there’s one in your workout, don’t be shy — introduce yourself, they can help you reset your mind and even do a few rounds of exercises with you. It’s a huge help when you worry you’re the slowest person and fear you’ll be last to finish the round.
8. IGNORE THE BENCHWARMERS
In a group class, you may not be the only person feeling challenged. If someone else is on the sidelines, and you think you can motivate each other, go for it. But beware that you may also find yourself wanting to sit out just because they are. “Look at this from a self-reference perspective, not based off what someone else is doing,” Harris says. “Maybe they do need to take a break. Let them. Stay in tune with yourself, and if you feel like you can keep going, do it. Don’t get caught in their trap.”
9. OBEY WARNING SIGNS
Mental roadblocks aside, there are some situations where your body is telling you to stop. If you experience shortness of breath or agonizing pain, you must take a break, Jenkins says. Otherwise you risk an injury.
10. PRACTICE … AND PATIENCE
“Athletes didn’t pick up their skill overnight — it took time, commitment and practice,” Harris says. “Mental strength doesn’t happen overnight either.” Work on being able to tap into your negative playlist and change it to a positive one. And keep yourself accountable. “Holding yourself accountable for all of your success and failures will help you develop a strong mental grit when you want to give up,” Jenkins says. “I use this quote when life and workouts are daunting: ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’” Maybe it’ll work for you, too.
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT WORKOUT