How to Break Through Mental Blocks in Training
It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or an elite athlete. Everyone has gone through phases of their training where you’re mid-workout, and your brain starts telling you that you just want to stop.
It’s not exhaustion. You know that you haven’t reached your limit. In fact, you’ve done training sessions in the past that were twice as hard without any issues. So what’s going on? Why all of a sudden is your brain telling you, “You know what, you’re tired. Just think about how much better going home and relaxing on the couch would be right now.”
In this article, we’ll go over some of the physical and mental culprits that tend to pop up and create barriers that get in the way of your training intensity. And most importantly, we’ll outline some of our favorite tips for overcoming these obstacles to help you power through your training sessions.
- Why Mental Blocks Happen in Training
- Tips to Break Through Mental Blocks
- Physical Tips:
- Mental Tips:
Why Mental Blocks Happen in Training
There are a variety of reasons why you occasionally run up against a wall during your training. Sometimes it’s during a workout, and sometimes it’s before your workout even begins.
But when you give in to selling your training session short, whether that be calling it quits early or giving less effort than you know you’re capable of, the result always ends up with a similar outcome. You feel disappointed about the workout and often can further perpetuate the problem into your next training sessions.
The first step in addressing the problem is identifying where it’s coming from. Because ultimately, that will determine the best course of action to fix the underlying issue.
There are two areas we’ll focus on for the purpose of identification. Physical and mental. Both having unique methods for breaking through the barriers and getting back on track with making progress.
Sometimes mental blocks don’t originate in your mind at all but can actually be ways your body is telling you that there is an aspect of your physical development that is lacking, deteriorating, or neglected over time.
It’s always important to rule out physical origins first. Not only will it ensure that your body is healthy, but it also helps you identify weaknesses in your development that will make you a better athlete once you address them.
One of the primary culprits in mental barriers caused by a physical origin is energy production. There are several ways your body produces energy during exercise. Phosphates for quick energy, glucose stored in the bloodstream, muscle, and liver, and even ketones stored in fat.
Your brain also relies on these energy sources to function. When one of these energy sources becomes depleted, your brain starts sending signals to your body that it’s fatigued, and you should stop training or dial it back to conserve energy.
Sometimes a simple fix is to re-assess your nutrition and hydration strategy. But other times, it all comes down to how efficiently your body uses and transitions between energy sources during different phases of your training.
Suppose your fuel source (nutrition) is in check. In that case, the next step is to determine if the culprit could be either a lack of muscle endurance or cardiovascular endurance.
Both muscle endurance and cardiovascular endurance are responsible for creating efficiency during your training sessions. If one of them has been neglected over time, it can become the limiting factor causing you to hit a wall during workouts you used to do without any problems.
We’ll get into some tips to help you fix those issues later in this article’s ‘Physical Tips’ section. Next, we’ll cover a few of the mental reasons you can hit a wall during training.
But what happens when you know that the reason you’re hitting a wall in your training isn’t physical at all? One day you feel like you can crush any workout in your path, and then all of a sudden, you feel like you’ve lost all motivation to even make it to the gym.
Just like your body requires endurance to sustain effort through a training session, your brain also has a different kind of endurance that you need: Resiliency.
Outside of fitness and athletics, mental resilience is defined as the process of psychologically adapting well in the face of challenges, adversity, uncertainty, or trauma.
The interesting thing about training we often forget is that it’s a form of voluntarily simulating stress, placing challenges in our way, and quite literally causing micro-trauma to your body.
For that reason, if you focus on how to get through a workout physically without also focusing on how to get through a workout mentally – over time, your physical development will outpace the development of your mental resiliency.
Luckily, mental resiliency is something that can be trained just like every other aspect of fitness. And we’ll dive into some of the best ways to help improve resiliency in the ‘Mental Tips’ section of this article.
Tips to Break Through Mental Blocks
Tip 1. Accelerating Through The Wall
Whether you’re out for a long run, hopping on the bike, or doing a kettlebell circuit, hitting a wall (or bonking) is a common experience for athletes of all levels.
Here’s a tip that will sound completely counterintuitive until you hear the explanation: Speed up to break through the wall.
It might seem ridiculous that when you’re already tired and feeling like you want to stop that you should instead speed up. But it all has to do with the discussion of energy production we talked about in the previous section.
Sometimes when you’re in the middle of a training session, and you feel like you want to quit, it is happening right around the same time you’ve depleted one type of energy source. When this happens, your brain gets the signal and says, “Hey! We’re out of energy, and it’s time to stop now.”
But luckily, your body has the flexibility to use multiple fuel sources at its disposal to keep you going. Meaning the “It’s time to stop” signal from the brain is only temporary during the period of transition from one energy source to another.
Briefly speeding up your intensity during this period accelerates how quickly your body shifts to using another energy source that is still available. Once it shifts, your brain also gets the fuel it needs, and the “Its time to stop” signal fades away too.
If you want an excellent resource that dives into the science and biology of how energy production and endurance work, check out this podcast episode by renowned neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman.
Tip 2. Change the Focus of Your Training
If you’ve identified a physical limiting factor for why you’ve been hitting mental roadblocks in your training, you can use it as an opportunity to bring weaknesses in your training back up to par.
For example, if you’ve been spending a lot of time in the weight room focusing on your resistance training (and neglecting your cardiovascular development). You might start feeling like you’ve been running out of steam midway through your workouts. You can use this as an opportunity to switch things up in your training program and bring your cardiovascular health back up to a level that will support your progress in resistance training.
Likewise, if you’re a runner that’s been logging tons of miles but start feeling your muscular endurance begin to give out during runs. You can shake up your current program by working in hills, speed training, and resistance training to even out your development.
In both scenarios, you’re accomplishing two things. First, you’re adding variety into your training to keep your day-to-day sessions from becoming a repetitive mental grind. And second, improving on your weaknesses will only maximize your progress for your primary objectives as an athlete. Even if you’re a runner and cardiovascular endurance is your primary objective, limitations in your strength and muscle endurance can hinder you from maximizing your potential as a runner.
Tip 3. Work In Pre-determined Rest Periods
If you head out for a run and lately you’ve been fighting the urge to stop and walk, one of the best ways to overcome this obstacle is to pre-determine rest periods beforehand.
Pre-determining rest periods breaks your workout into more manageable chunks. But at the same time, it reduces the opportunity for the mental patterns of “wanting to stop, right now” from popping into your head. It’s much easier to win the mental battle when you build the momentum of smaller victories spread out over the course of your workout.
This also gives you multiple opportunities throughout one workout to step into the ring toe-to-toe with the voice in your head telling you to walk or stop. It gives you practice and mental strategies for winning that fight in the future. Then, you can gradually extend the time between rest periods and then eliminate them altogether.
Ultimately, you’ll still cover the same distance or do the same amount of work. But over time, you’ll have built a new skillset of overcoming the mental patterns that cause you to dial it back, walk, or stop. You’ll develop both physical and psychological endurance simultaneously.
Tip 1. Get In the Right State of Mind Before Training
Why is it that it’s much more likely you’ll give in to calling it quits during a single workout than it is during a race or competition?
It all boils down to your state of mind before either event.
Before a race or competition, you feel a drastically different kind of energy than you might feel before your daily workout. The truth is, you’ve been preparing yourself both physically and mentally for this single moment for months or years. There’s not a chance you’re giving up now. The end goal is right in your sights, and you have a strong ‘will to succeed’ that goes along with it.
Before your daily workout, the end goal seems further out and less tangible. The immediacy of success becomes diluted, making the thought of giving in to giving less effort for one single workout feel like less of a failure.
While it may not be possible to simulate the energy you get on competition day in its entirely. There are a few tips and strategies you can use to help improve your state of mind before each training session.
Put Things In Perspective
The first tip is to put each training session into perspective for your ultimate goal. Really nail down a solid ‘why’ before you even start your workout. Then, create some immediacy for the training by turning it into a challenge.
“If I don’t complete this workout with as much effort as I can give, I won’t hit that PR for my 10k in three months.”
Imagine what it will feel like to cross the finish line with a PR. Then imagine what it would feel like to quit halfway through the race. Visualizing the emotional implications of race-day will help simulate the same energy in training that you get before you step up to the starting line.
Push Out Distractions
Every athlete has their ‘game-day rituals’ that help them clear their mind from distraction and focus on being successful in the upcoming event on competition day. As a result, your mental state is in high gear and ready to go when you step up to the starting line.
While it might not be practical to go through your game-day rituals before every training session. You can put simpler practices into place before your workout begins to simulate a similar effect.
A method called Box Breathing, coined by retired Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine, is one of the first lessons he gives when preparing new Navy SEAL candidates.
The breathing technique itself is very straightforward. You inhale for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, exhale for 5 seconds, then hold 5 seconds.
Just like the purpose of your game-day rituals gets you in the right mental state on competition day. Box breathing for 5-20 minutes helps push out the distractions of the day, focus your attention on the task at hand and prepare yourself mentally for the upcoming training session.
Carving out time for box breathing before each training session helps give you a ‘mini game-day ritual’ that’s simple enough to use every day. Yet effective enough to get you into a game-day state of mind for your workout.
If it works for Navy SEALs, it will work for you. And if you are looking for a deep dive into the SEAL mentality on resiliency, you can check out Mark Divine’s book ‘Unbeatable Mind’ on developing elite-level mental toughness.
Tip 2. Change Your Frame of Reference
Sometimes a workout just feels harder than usual. But the question you need to ask yourself is, “Harder than what?”
On competition day, you usually challenge yourself and put out far more effort than on any given training day. But after time goes on and the competition drifts away from recent memory, the only thing you have to compare one workout to is the previous workout. Then gradually, you find yourself in the middle of a session thinking, “Why does this feel so hard? This workout is nothing compared to what I know I’m capable of doing.”
When this starts to happen, sometimes it’s a good idea to shake things up by doing something a little bit crazy and on the boundary of your comfort zone to shift your frame of reference.
Whether it’s signing up for a half marathon Spartan Race, climbing a mountain, or taking on a David Goggins Challenge like the 4x4x48, the goal is to occasionally do something really hard to shift your perception of what hard feels like.
Then when you’re in your daily training session, and it starts to get tough, your mind is equipped to say, “Yeah, this is hard. But it’s not as hard as the time I was sleep-deprived running 48 miles over 48 hours. If I can do that, I can definitely get through this.”
Another interesting side-effect of taking on a ‘perspective-shifting challenge’ every once and a while is how it affects your threshold for stressful events outside of fitness. The traffic that used to stress you out or drama in the workplace all seems minor by comparison.
Occasionally pushing yourself to your limits (and past them) sets new boundaries for your understanding of what you’re capable of. And often, you’ll come away discovering that you’re capable of far more than you thought you were.
Tip 3. Shift Your Thoughts to Something That is Not Mentally Taxing
When you’re doing any form of exercise, we often find ourselves using that time to solve problems, plan things out for the future, or ruminate about stressful events in the past.
While most of the time, this is a feature of training we look forward to rather than a bug in the system. If you have been dealing with feeling like you’re energy just isn’t there during the middle of a workout, it can actually be the root of the problem.
We often forget that complex thought requires a ton of energy, and it’s the same energy that your muscles are competing for to keep training. Ramping down your mind is one of the best ways to improve your energy efficiency when you need it during training.
If you’re finding yourself lacking energy during a workout, one of the best first steps you can take is to shift your thoughts to something less taxing. A great place to start is by employing Tip #1 on this list’s box breathing technique before your workouts.
Tip 4. The Simplest Trick That Can Make the Biggest Difference
When things get tough during training, smile.
Yes, you read that right. Smile. It’s one of the simplest pieces of advice I’ve ever received that’s also made the most significant impact on getting through grueling workouts.
And it turns out there is quite a bit of science behind why it’s so effective too. When you smile (even if you just force yourself to smile), your brain releases neuropeptides to fight off stress. When this happens, your body responds by releasing neurotransmitters like dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin, which work together to relax your body, relieve pain, and improve your cognitive state.
Having experienced the effect forcing a smile had during my own most challenging moments in both competition and training, I once conducted an experiment on a group of soccer athletes I was coaching.
It was a hot pre-season training day, and the athletes were in the middle of a brutal hill interval session. Halfways through, all of the signs of fatigue were beginning to show up. Their paces were slowing, their heads were drooping down, and their eyes were staring blankly down at their toes between sets.
Before the next set, I gathered them all around and told them, “Here’s what I want you to do. I know that not a single one of you feels like smiling at this point in time. But I want you to force a smile right now.” Most of them started laughing between heavy breaths and fatigue. “And I want you to keep smiling while you run for the duration of the rest of your sets running this hill.”
Then the most incredible thing started to happen during the next set. The laughter continued, they started to look light on their feet, and almost acted like children chasing each other up the hill set after set. When moments ago they thought they had given all the energy they could spare, their change in attitude caused by something as simple as a forced smile pushed them through the barrier. It gave them a gear they never thought they had.
So the next time your workout gets tough. Crack a smile. Jokingly say, “Well, this sucks!” And see for yourself how quickly your state of mind can change.
If you appreciate the work we do here at Mobility Athlete, don’t forget to subscribe to the Mobility Athlete newsletter! You can get tips and tools delivered directly to your inbox and stay up to date with the latest developments here at Mobility Athlete.
Subscribe to our newsletter!