3 Mental Shifts to Push You Past a Plateau
Strategically tuning in to—or out of—your body can unlock a stronger performance. Here's what to do when.
Imagine you're jogging up the same trail you've been tackling several days a week for the past month. You've tried eating the ideal pre-run snack, cranking up your music and checking your smartwatch every other minute to see if you're on track for a PB. And yet, your time to the top hasn't improved in weeks. Now imagine this: your dad calls, and you answer. You keep jogging while you're deep in conversation, and suddenly, you're at the summit—10 minutes sooner than usual. What the …?
Where you focus your attention during a workout can have a major impact on your performance for better or worse, says Lennie Waite, PhD, a certified mental performance consultant based in Houston. Most people assume that you have to tune in to your working body to dig deep and go harder, faster or longer, but that's not always the case, says Waite. Sometimes you need to disconnect from the physical action to turn up your enjoyment, turn down the discomfort and push past a plateau.
Where you focus your attention during a workout can have a major impact on your performance for better or worse.
PhD, Certified Mental Performance Consultant
In fact, there are actually three mental engagement—or, in some cases, disengagement—techniques that you can whip out during a workout, race or competition to make those experiences more rewarding and your overall routine more effective. Here's when and why to use each.
01. Active connection: for the races, events or WODs you're trying to get a PB in.
If you're chasing your fastest 5K time or the top of a leader board, focusing on your body's state can help you squeeze out a better performance, says Waite. Often, athletes falsely believe that they're having trouble breathing and get themselves into a panicked state, explains Waite. But if they took a mental step back and thought about how well their entire body is functioning and feeling, they'd realise they aren't actually oxygen-deprived. "By tuning in, you often realise that you are fine, and that those warning bells of fatigue always come way earlier than they need to", says Waite.
In other words, many of us let our body control our mind, not the other way around. "Great athletes have learned how to think, 'How am I really doing physiologically? I am fine, so I'm going to ignore these warning bells for another mile or another five miles'". Start to listen to the sound of your foot strike, the cadence of your breathing, the beat of your heart or the ease of your stride, says Waite, to trust that you're OK—and likely OK to push a little harder.
Similarly, actively tuning in to your body as you power through a strength circuit can help you score sweeter results from your workout. When you zero in on the muscles you're contracting during an exercise (this is called the mind-muscle principle), you can train them more efficiently, says Lars L. Andersen, PhD, a professor with the National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Copenhagen. One study Andersen led found that focusing on the pecs during a bench press can increase their activity, as the mental attention boosts the neuromuscular connection. (And the more muscle activity per rep, the greater the strength improvement afterwards.) Think "core" during a plank, "glutes" during a deadlift, "biceps" during an upright row, etc., to eke the most muscle out of every rep.
The exception: this technique can backfire if you're working at very high intensities (think one-rep max), as concentrating on the muscles under such major tension could make you feel overly challenged. In that event, you may want to try the next technique …
02. Passive distraction: for the workouts you know well but that still challenge you, or the ones when you're dragging and need a little oomph.
Giving your brain a slight distraction, often via music, can be the ticket to a more enjoyable and efficient session. The right music can not only boost motivation, thanks to the pump-you-up lyrics and tempo, it can also strengthen the brain's signals that tell your muscles to activate, says Marcelo Bigliassi, PhD, an assistant professor of psychophysiology at Florida International University in Miami, who uncovered this in a study his team published in the journal Physiology & Behavior. The reason? The outward attention can help protect the brain from the performance-zapping effects of fatigue.
Whether you're running, riding, lifting or HIITing it, the "right" music is whatever you like best, says Bigliassi. Experiment with different genres to find out what works for you; you may think you're a hip-hop person, then discover '90s grunge really gets you. The higher your workout intensity, the better off you might be with songs that have strong lyrical affirmations, or words that remind you of your strength and dominance, adds Bigliassi, because they're more likely to help you bring more energy to your workout and heighten muscle activity when you need it most.
P.S. If you're looking to just zone out and make the time pass faster during, say, a walk outside or a slog on a cardio machine, listening to an audiobook or podcast can work well too.
03. Active disconnection: for the really, really tough training sessions you keep trying to improve on.
Physically exhausting workouts, like jogging up that intense trail, can quickly empty your mental tank, causing you to slow down or stop entirely, says Waite. Which is why sometimes you need a legit and total distraction to disengage from the hard work.
In fact, in another one of Andersen's studies, he found that mental distractions—in this case, a mathematical task—could ward off fatigue during a core endurance exercise performed by patients with back pain. That's just one (highly specific) example of how fully employing your brain in something other than your workout shifts its attention off of what your body's doing, so your body can keep going without the little voice in your head telling you that it can't.
The disconnection technique works best for challenges you've done enough to know what to expect, otherwise you risk injury. But there's another reason: "Especially when you're doing the same loop or training in the same environment, every time you look up, you know exactly where the pain monster jumped on your back last time", says Waite. "You're thinking, 'I'm coming up to that really hard hill', or 'This really rough terrain', or 'This area is where the sun is beating down on me'". That negative anticipation can lead to physiological effects. "You typically tighten your shoulders, you shorten your breaths and your heart rate increases automatically", says Waite. In other words, you're wasting energy before you even get to the "hard" part.
So, your move? Next time you're trying and failing to nail a PB in a safe area (so not on the shoulder of a road), consider a phone call with a family member or friend where you're both listening and talking about something really interesting or complex. Or play a mental game as you sweat, such as counting how many people you see wearing blue on your running path, or chat with your training partner as you run. "It takes your mind off the discomfort", says Waite, and, especially if you're having a positive conversation, "you're more likely to stay relaxed and open-minded, take deep breaths and use all the oxygen in the air instead of inadvertently limiting yourself".
If nothing else, it's another reason to call your dad.
Words: Caitlin Carlson
Illustration: Davide Bonazzi