In the middle of a HIIT workout, when your shirt is soaked through with sweat and you’re about to start yet another round of burpees, it’s not uncommon to think, “I can’t do this. I can’t even do one more rep.” But what’s sending that message — your body or your brain? Are your muscles truly getting tired, or is it just your mental strength that’s waning?
While it’s always important to listen to your body and never push yourself to the point of injury, sometimes your brain can prevent your body from doing all it can. When it comes to performing feats of athleticism — whether that’s competing in an IRONMAN or trying to hold a plank just a little bit longer — mental toughness plays a huge role in what you can accomplish. Luckily anyone can develop mental strength. Just like training for a race or learning to do pull-ups, it’s something that takes time to master. The more you practice it, the more benefits you’ll see.
Why Being Mentally Tough Matters
Outside the weight room, mental strength helps you get through the ups and downs of life, like criticism at work or dealing with a breakup.
When it comes to fitness, being mentally strong and having grit means you can crush your training, even when you want to give up. Endurance athletes, like those who compete in IRONMAN races, especially benefit from being mentally strong.
In order to succeed, such athletes have to become experts at not only enduring physical unpleasantness, but overcoming it, too. That’s why we interviewed a handful of the best triathletes in the world, in addition to exercise psychologists, to learn their secrets on improving mental strength and pass them on to you.
“[Endurance athletes] need intrinsic motivation to succeed, as these sports require lengthy periods of focusing and managing physical discomfort,” explains Jennifer Carter, Ph.D., a counseling and sport psychologist at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. You might not be training for a triathlon anytime soon, but mental strength can help you get through a hard workout and achieve your goals faster. Ready to work your brain? Let’s get gritty.
10 Ways to Improve Mental Strength During a Hard Workout
1. Talk to yourself
Maybe not aloud and in public (you might get some looks), but thinking “I can do this!” or “Keep pushing!” can make a workout seem less strenuous. In a small study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, men who used motivational self-talk completed a 10-kilometer time trial faster and with more power than those who did not. That was despite reporting no change in perceived effort.
“[Motivational self-talk] allows you to do more work without it feeling more strenuous because it provides you a way to keep persevering despite high levels of exertion,” says Alister McCormick, Ph.D., a registered sport and exercise psychologist.
2. Cue up your playlist
Lose yourself in your favorite songs when you feel your mental strength wavering. Listening to music while exercising has been shown to reduce perceived exertion, increase work output, and make you enjoy the workout more. Scientists believe music stimulates the release of neurotransmitters and hormones like dopamine and endorphins, which are associated with feelings of reward and a natural high, helping decrease perceived pain. Researchers say the best music is music you like, so cue up your favorite Spotify playlist and get to it!
3. Take it one step at a time
“It’s a bit daunting to think, ‘I’ll race this entire IRONMAN,'” says triathlete Joe Gambles, who’s been competing at an elite level since the age of 16. “So I try and break down a race into smaller chunks — first the swim, then the first transition, then the first 10 miles on the bike, etc. — that way I can chip away at [the whole race].” McCormick says such “chunking” helps you focus on one thing at a time, and breaks a daunting task into more manageable pieces. It doesn’t matter whether that’s 10 miles of an ultramarathon or a set of lunges — this tactic can help you stay motivated no matter what task you’re trying to complete.
4. Follow a checklist
Focusing on the little things is key, McCormick says. “It’s about pacing. Whether you’re running at 10K or lifting weights, you don’t want to do too much work too soon. But you also don’t want to underachieve,” he says. To find the perfect pace, he suggests checking in on things relevant to your performance, which is exactly what IRONMAN athlete Michellie Jones does.
“I try to focus on something simple like keeping my pedaling smooth and round [on the bike] and remembering to breathe and relax my shoulders [on the run],” says Jones, who has over 175 career victories. And who’s to argue with that kind of success?
5. Think about your goals
Reflecting on why you’re exercising can help you stay in the game. “Remind yourself of your goals. Think about how good it will feel to cross the finish line [or complete the workout], and then focus on what you need to do to make that happen,” Carter suggests.
6. Think about your loved ones
Training for an endurance event requires a lot of time — time that could have been spent hanging out with friends or doing something fun with your kids. “I always think of the family and friends I have sacrificed time with to get my training done, and how disappointed they might be if I’m not giving it everything I have,” says IRONMAN athlete Leon Griffin, who entered his first triathlon as a teenager. “If I give anything less than that, I feel like I’m cheating them as well as myself.” You may not be training for something as grueling as an IRONMAN, but reflecting on what you’re giving up by doing a workout may help you give every minute all you’ve got.
7. Be grateful
During a workout, it’s hard to think about anything but how sore your muscles are and how much sweat is dripping off your nose. But consider thinking about how awesome it is that you get to do that workout. “In mentally tough moments, I always put myself in a state of gratitude,” shares Siri Lindley, who was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2016. “I think about how lucky I am to have two arms, two legs, a strong beating heart, and the ability, opportunity, and desire to be out pushing myself to the limits. The minute I go into thinking about what I am grateful for, I automatically start feeling better, inspired, and wanting to celebrate the opportunity to dig deep.”
8. Soak up the support
The crowds are often the best part of any athletic event, with their hilarious signs and energetic cheering. But you can also find support in a fitness studio, sports team, or online community. “When other people give you encouragement, it makes massive effects,” McCormick says.
Group workouts are led by an enthusiastic instructor who can help you get over a mental block. Feeding off the energy of others in a class can also motivate you to push yourself just a little bit harder. Even having a virtual community keeping you accountable can do wonders on the days when you feel like giving up. “Whether in the gym or a race, [encouragement from others] can be beneficial to help you keep persevering,” McCormick says.
This might be the easiest tip yet. Putting on a happy face is probably the last thing you want to do when grunting through rep after rep, but Jones swears it works. “A smile goes a long way — it gives you a boost mentally and physically. It helps even if it’s forced,” she says. This simple trick doesn’t take a lot of effort, but it could be just the thing you need to push yourself through to the end.
10. Embrace the pain cave
When all else fails, sometimes you simply have to accept that enduring a bit of pain (in the form of deep, muscle-burning agony, not acute injury) is part of becoming stronger, faster, and fitter. The “pain cave” is the most grueling part of a workout or race, and is well-known among endurance racers.
“Embracing the pain is part and parcel of the sport,” says Emma-Kate Lidbury, a podium regular on the IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 circuits. “I view it as a privilege to be able to push my body and mind to their limits. How will you cope with [the pain]? Can you keep pushing? Push through your boundaries and see what happens. That’s the really fun part!”
Others say embracing the pain makes them more competitive. “I know that if I’m in the pain cave, my competitors are likely deep in that cave too,” explains IRONMAN pro Matt Lieto. “It becomes a game of who’s most content to live there the longest.”
As long as the pain isn’t alarming and won’t lead you to an injury, finding comfort in the uncomfortable can help build grit and stamina, and make you feel like a baller when it’s time for your cooldown. “Muscular fatigue is a sign that we are effective in our training, and many athletes experience a high after particularly intense workouts,” Carter says.
So the next time you mentally hit a wall during a workout, call upon some of these tips to boost your mental strength and see just how strong you really are.