As I stand in front of a squat rack staring blankly at in excess of 400 pounds, I can feel the associated physical sensation without having to actually touch the weight. The cold of the steel bar bearing down on my shoulder blades, the tightening, contracting and firing of every muscle from my toes to my nose, the awakening of an old hip injury, the increased heart rate and heavy breathing. In this moment, I have to choose – do I proceed or do I cower?
I learned a very important lesson during my baseball career – the physical side of training can’t be separated from the mental. It is human nature to balk when confronted with a difficult and possibly painful workout; we are genetically conditioned to avoid pain.
Aparna A Labroo and Jesper Nielsen note in a study from the Journal of Consumer Research:
Our natural inclination is to avoid — or try to avoid — anything immediately aversive even though it may be beneficial for us in the long term
Despite my love for weight training, even I have to admit that the anticipation can produce some unpleasant thoughts. Research on elite athletes is showing that the pain from training is mental, rather than physical.
To Dr. Alexis Mauger, a researcher at the University of Kent in Britain who is studying the relationship between pain and the limits of athletic performance, this suggests pain tolerance can indeed be trained. In part, he says, it’s about: “Learning to break through a conservative pain barrier so that you can operate closer to a true physiological limit.”
So how do you push beyond that barrier and achieve what you are capable of? The mental trick I use is envisioning the positive sensations I get from my workout and the benefits that will come. Labroo and Nielsen continue:
One way for us to overcome aversions is to trick our minds…These results suggest our aversions are derived in part from our bodily sensations, and the influence of these sensations may be more far reaching than one might have presumed.
If I’m about to venture out on a 7 mile run, I can choose one of a myriad of thoughts. I can talk to myself about my current state of lethargy or focus on the sting of my feet as they pound the pavement. Alternatively, I can fantasize about the endorphin rush associated with a long jog and the heady feeling of accomplishment after I’m drenched in sweat. I can blanket my brain with thoughts of my heart growing stronger with every beat. The thought of a fitter physique unequivocally causes an upturn of my mouth’s corners, rather than a frown. Even the reward of the post workout meal can have a true net positive effect on my sessions and me.
Before every set, I remind myself that the first rep is the hardest, actually picking up the bar is the most challenging and that the benefits of mind and body strength and wellness is my motivation.
You’ve heard me quote Martin Luther King Jr. before; his words apply to the mental game of training as much as anywhere else in life. “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”