September 26, 2011

Tough Workout? Motivational Secrets Help You Kick Ass

Photo: Jontunn

Sometimes you can smell a lousy workout coming a mile away--you're so full of dread, slothfulness and self-pity you can barely tie your shoes or lift your water bottle.

Other times, a horrifyingly discouraging workout comes as a complete surprise!  You set out to tackle your usual routine full of cheerful vigor and eager anticipation... only to slam unexpectedly into a brick wall of supreme suckiness a few short moments after you've begun.

Wait, when did my leg muscles turn into lead weights? Could covert top-secret government agencies have started monkeying around with gravity, it feels incredibly heavy today! And crap, my watch must be broken... because I'm dying here and there is NO F#%CKING WAY I could only have been exercising for one and a half minutes!

Of course you could always bail--and depending on the situation, that's sometimes the most logical and sensible option. You might want to consult an effortometer, and depending on the read-out, dial back your original expectations and cut yourself some slack. Perhaps you've been over-training, or are coming down with a cold, or haven't slept enough, or have too many other demands on your limited motivational stockpile for the day.

But what if you know you'd be much, much, much happier with yourself if you could somehow suck it up and get through your workout exactly as planned--right now, not some other day?

Six Secret Workout Motivational Tips For Tough Days

Of course, as you will soon discover, these are not secrets at all, but are obvious suggestions that you know perfectly well already. But if I offered up a more accurate heading:

Recycled Exercise Motivational Advice You've Heard A Thousand Times Before But That Might Actually Be Useful To Remember Because You're Not Actually Doing It All That Often, Are You?

...then what are the chances you'd keep going and read any of these suggestions?

So anyway, here we go with some motivational "secrets":

1. Embrace the Wimpy Warm-Up

Sometimes all it takes to deal with an abysmally pathetic beginning is to back off your normal warm-up pace, slow way the hell down, and extend the whole "warming up" part of your workout past your normal time frame. Admit you feel crappier than usual, and don't be all punitive and inflexible with yourself--ease in more than usual, hope for the best, and sometimes the sluggishness disappears as mysteriously as it came.

2. Recall the Paradoxical Pukeyness Principle

You might not know it by that name, but this is the often-forgotten fact that sometimes the best workouts you've ever had in your life began as grueling, afraid-you're-going-to-vomit ordeals. What causes an unpredictable "second wind" to occur? Who knows! But there is often very little relationship between how a workout starts and how it ends. Could this be one of those triumphant experiences where you fight past fatigue and apathy and somehow burst through to the other side with a sudden surge of strength and energy for a personal best performance? Or will you give up before you find out?

3. Change Something, Quick!

If you've already embarked on your run, swim, weight training circuit or whatever, it may be too late to do something drastically different like pogo-sticking your way up a nearby mountain or competing in a bog-snorkeling competition. However, even minor alterations to your standard workout can sometimes ease that icky sensation of "I can NOT stand to do this yet again today!" Play with the incline on your treadmill, or do your weights in totally the wrong order. Or choose different variations of the same old exercises, even if they're not as optimal. Use an old playlist of tunes you haven't heard in a couple years. Reverse the direction of your normal run. Try a new machine at the gym for 2 or 3 minutes; experiment with running backwards or sideways or skipping for a bit; close your eyes for a few seconds and see if you can manage not to kill yourself; dump half your water bottle onto your head; climb out of the pool half-way through your laps and do 10 pushups... it can be a profoundly stupid or trivial experiment, but in an Emergency Workout Suckage Situation, every little bit helps.

4. Break it Down

The single most stupid thing I tend to do when faced with an excruciatingly bad workout is to mentally rehearse just how awful and impossible each successive step is going to be. If the first set of leg presses feel this bad, how will we get to the next set, let alone all our other exercises? If my legs are this tired after 2 minutes on the elliptical, how will I ever make it to 45 minutes? Shockingly, this type of "it's only going to get worse" stewing and sulking is not tremendously helpful.

The cure: focus on the next thirty seconds or so and FORGET THE FUTURE. Who knows, an asteroid could hit the earth and you won't have to do any push-ups after all! Or, if that's too gloomy, just allow yourself to consider the rest of your workout is entirely negotiable... if you can just get through the next 30 seconds.

And it helps to find a bunch of different mini-goals, one after the other, especially if you have any exercise gadgets with you. "I'll keep going until the next song on my playlist" then "well, I need to at least reach an even 2 miles, I can't stop at 1.9," then "oh wait, my pedometer says I'm at 3900 steps I gotta make it an even 4000," and then, "hey, it's almost an even 20 minutes, I can't stop at 19:30," and then "wait, now this song is almost over, maybe I can make it 'til the next one starts?"

Eventually you'll either get in the groove... or drive yourself so nuts trying to make it through your workout that you can deserve to call it a day.

5. Pump it Up! ...Wait, WTF?!?!

This is the most counter-intuitive trick I use. Sometimes, when I'm dead tired and can barely manage even my slowest pace, I make myself throw in ONE hideous all-out interval to a non interval-training day. Weirdly enough, exponentially increasing the misery for a short time sometimes kicks off a waterfall of brain chemicals that can wash out some of the lethargy that's been clogging up the circuits.

6. Mess With Your Head

Say you're attempting to make yourself hoist some disagreeably heavy weights or you're trotting sluggishly on the treadmill, marveling over the unfairness of having such a crappy workout when you've been so damn virtuous and wondering if the minute hand on the clock will ever, ever, ever move forward... Well, try to remember that even if your body may be stuck there having a lousy time, your brain is totally free to leave. Your imagination can put you ANYWHERE, doing ANYTHING you want with ANYONE you'd like!

But what if the misery of your current bodily state is too distracting to allow yourself to enjoy making out with a hot celebrity on a tropical island, or consuming a luscious six course meal of all your favorite foods? Well, then perhaps you might at least be able to coax along a more inspiring or exciting fantasy to accompany your exertion. You're... competing in a reality-show weightlifting competition and you'll win a million dollars if you can just complete this last set! You're being chased by a horde of hungry werewolves! You've gotten a last-second invitation for an exotic cruise by a wealthy and well-connected benefactor, who will take you (and your family, if you're feeling generous) on an amazing adventure... but only if you can run to the pier before the ship sails.

Anyone else have to use goofy mental tricks to slog through workouts from hell? Got any tips to share?


  1. Great ideas, Crabby. No ideas here. If I'm feeling lethargic or not into it, I cut my exercises in half and tell myself I'll get back at it properly the next day. I'm going to try a few of your suggestions.

  2. Love this post! Good stuff here.

    Sometimes, I've found it helpful to use Annoyance as a way to get my body moving. For example, if something is annoying me, I'll dwell on it to the point where I'm mentally blowing the small annoyance up to the level of a Huge Problem. Then the adrenaline starts to flow and I find I'm getting the workout done. Kind of a cross between exercise & therapy.

  3. Great advice. Changing things up works good. I know for sure, the less I do, the less I want to do. So keep moving is my motivational speech.

  4. Perhaps I'd add, take the first step!

    I don't really have that, here comes a lousy workout feeling. For me, it's more the dread of here comes a very hard workout.

    It seems for me, with karate for example, even if I'm very tired or sore, once I start, the workout sort of maintains its momentum unless I take a long break in the middle.

    Hopefully, your good suggestions will keep readers keeping on!

  5. Fome...I have a few go to tunes that pump me up.
    Every once in a while tho I hit a wall when I workout...and stuff I could get through before seems rediculously hard. I just try and finish the best and tell myself I did it before so it won't kill me and do the best I can and hope the next day is better...I figure if I crawled out of bed at stupid oclock to work out and made it al lthe way in to gym I have to at least try :)

  6. Fome=for me. Sorry. Typing is bad today...and yet that works somehow doesn't it?

  7. Works fome too geosomin!

    And I'm impressed by how none of you just take the "bail" option--something I've been known to do when I just can't get my head around finishing.

  8. I'm with Dr.'s the getting started that tends to suck. Warm bed, snuggly dog, who wants to go out in the cold dark morning to work out? Once I'm there and I'm in it, though, however tough the workout itself is the endorphins start and everything is fine. And when I'm done...oh, reinforcement galore! I just kicked ass! Woo hoo!

    Also, I absolutely do numbers 1, 3, and 4 all the time. Usually if I'm hitting a wall getting to a weight that I want to lift (this is usually when I hit walls) I dial it back down and focus focus focus on technique. Where are my knees? Is my weight over my heels? Are my wrists neutral (or whatever is appropriate for the lift)? Core stabilized? Am I hitting the full range of motion? Dialing in the technique at a lower weight almost always means I can get back to where I was stuck and move past it. And if not...well, hell, my technique was better when I failed, right? =)

    Since somebody else does my programming for me (I am a robot and otherwise would do the same thing EVERY TIME) I don't have a problem with a rut. Even when we return to benchmarks, it's generally been a long time since the last visit and I've improved.

    But if there's anything I'm queen of, it's playing with numbers. This isn't a set of's 8 reps plus 7 reps plus 5 reps. I count up, I count down. I tell myself I just have to get as far as that tree...that car...that signpost. Fifteen box jumps is five and five and five. Etc. I'm pretty sure I do more counting and arithmetic between 0600 and 0730 than I do the whole rest of the day.

    Also...bog-snorkling. snort

  9. Ah essbee, I admire that you focus, focus, focus on technique. My general approach to technique also involves an F-word, but it's a different one. (Which is probably why I've been known to injure myself!)

  10. I just don't move if I don't feel like it. There are too many things I Absolutely Have to do when I'm exhausted. Exercise isn't one of them.
    I can't say that I've every punched through that wall. For instance, when I'm walking to the mailbox on a day I'm at home all day, sometimes it seems much harder than usual, but it would be silly to turn around and get the car when I'm already a third of the way to the road (my driveway is almost half a mile) so I keep plodding, all the way there and back, and I keep right on feeling as though I'm wading through mud.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  11. I bet a lot of folks who have to walk a mile to pick up their mail WOULD take the car Mary Anne--good for you!

  12. I've got one for you: Scent and aroma therapy.

    No, not the aroma of sweat and wet sneakers. I mean scents that help wake up the mind and the body. Grapefruit oil can change my mood and make me more positive about my workout. Real Pine scent can boost my energy and Rosemary helps me work through the aches. There are some others, too, that work.

    Oh, I laughed and laughed when you wrote you could not believe you had only been working out for a minute and a half. I remember the day I did that!


  13. I am sort of like DR. J too.. I might be tired but I know myself & I am thinking a hard one is coming at me. I tend to feel it out. I always get started unless I can really really tell I am sick or just over tired - no excuse but just the real knowledge that I should break. Rarely happens! ;-) Once I start, I usually feel better BUT if it is just not happening, I put in the best effort I can & to me, something is better than nothing & my something is usually more than some people's something! ;-)

  14. You have a lot of tricks up your workout sleeve...

    When I'm trying to slug it out, Bob Harper inevitably pops into my head: stand up and finish what you started. That phrase works often.

  15. Great advice, and timely, since this seems to be happening to me more often lately.

  16. I steal from others...Just Do It! is my mantra.

  17. Great Advice! I tend to practice #1 the most. Even on days I start my warm up with 110% effort and it just spirals downhill. I let myself kind sluggishly get through some of my workout and before I know it I"m giving it all I have. It turns out being an awesome workout each time and even find the energy to go a little more after.

  18. I used to really really really need tips and tricks until my work out time (whatever it is lengthwise) became my only ME-TIME.

    Now even what I hate, errr, dont adore (cardio) can be too ephemeral if it means when it is done Im back to work or mamaing :)


Thanks for commenting, Cranky Fitness readers are the BEST!

Subscribe to comments via RSS

(Note: Older Comment Threads Are Moderated)