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  • Writer's pictureAsh Radford

Exercise motivation in the face of discomfort

No one relishes pain and discomfort.

If you want the benefits unique to vigorous exercise though you’ve got to be prepared to hurt at times.

Getting through tough workouts clearly isn’t easy. If it was there’d be a lot more people doing hard exercise, a lot more often.

To get the significant results that come from strenuous activity you need strategies to deal with the discomfort. Here’s 5:

1. Break it down into very, very small goals

As you know this is largely a mind game.

20-30 minutes of vigorous exercise can feel eternal, insurmountable even. You’re going to need to chunk it down to give your mind a chance to cope. As the saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant?”, “One bite at a time.”

This strategy is front of mind for me after recently struggling to do multiple runs up a nasty, steep and long hill. 20 degrees steep to be specific. It’s not the steepest hill in Sydney but it’s in the top 3. They don’t build roads on hills much steeper.

Why run it? To prepare for a mountainous 6km trail run event.

I’d done weekly sessions on a hill of about 15 degrees near home, once a week, for a month. My schedule meant I was away from that regular spot, so I had to resort to the monster that is Alexander Street.

The last 30-40 seconds of such a two minute incline run isn’t fun. The heart and lungs sure do strain, pain and tighten.

For the first few efforts I broke it into about 5 mini goals dotted along the hill; a power pole, a rubbish bin, a parked car, a letterbox, a flowery bush. I find that makes the task of running a big hill manageable. Reaching each landmark gives a sense of achievement, that while small, is still enough to boost.

The last couple of efforts though become another level of challenge. Tough enough for me to need to break down the top third into more, even smaller goals, spread as little as 15 metres apart.

Managing to complete the toughest session for several months, provided a reminder of how essential it is to break difficult tasks into micro goals.

It's a simple yet effective strategy that enables mind to overcome matter.

Man running up bare mountain
Photo by Kevin Andre on Unsplash

2. Expect to hurt

Surprisingly having the attitude ‘it’s not going to hurt that much’ isn’t as helpful as expecting to cop some real pain.

In Matt Fitzgerald’s book ‘How bad do you want it? Mastering the psychology of mind over muscle’ it’s explained the more discomfort you expect, the more you can tolerate.

Accept how bad it’s going to be and commit to enduring it, and you’ll not just perform better but perceived level of effort will reduce.

Conversely, expect less pain than you actually experience and it'll have the opposite effect, it can stop you in your tracks. It can be a rude shock.

3. Think of it as an opportunity, something to be grateful for

This may seem like positive thinking in the extreme but stay with me!

If you’re actually able to exercise with vigour it means you’ve a level of freedom of movement. You have some capacity to control your body.

For many, many people that’s just a dream. Age, injury, illness and disability can severely limit what others can do. Give it some thought and I’m sure there’s particular people you know in that boat.

Moving pretty much as you wish really is something to be grateful for. It’s something an awful lot of people can only wish for.

In all likelihood you’ve been in that position yourself, when struck down by sickness or injury. It can be incredibly frustrating when unable to move as normal, something we all tend to take for granted. Typically, we don’t appreciate it till it’s gone.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Through some conscious effort you can consider those less physically fortunate than you. Or, think about those times you were debilitated yourself. It’ll put any pain from exercise in perspective.

You can give this some attention right before an intense workout or even during the tough bits. It’s amazing how much time there is to think during the shortest of hard exercise intervals. Time seems to slow right down and there’s ample chance to cast your mind to something that could help you through. This could be the type of thinking that does exactly that.

Try to think of exercise as an opportunity rather than a form of suffering.

4. Listen to music

The effect of listening to music when exercising is amazing. It’s been shown to reduce perception of effort, increase endurance, lift mood. Much of it happens without people realising it.

It’s no wonder in the days before smart phones and ear buds that music was such a contentious issue among gym members and staff.

Choosing uplifting music, that’s meaningful to you, at a speed of 120-145bpm will optimise the effects and get you through those tough workouts.

Using music to get a boost is like picking low hanging fruit- it’s an easy way of making hard effort less effortful.

5. Don't go too hard too often

It’s often assumed super fit people drive themselves hard on a daily basis.

While achieving a high level of fitness definitely takes willingness to get uncomfortable, exercising at high intensity isn’t something that elite athletes do every training session.

There’s usually a mix of low, moderate and high intensity sessions over a week or across a month. It’s an approach not purely for serious athletes, if you’re working out frequently that variety in effort helps keep mind and body fresh.

Go hard all the time and you invite injury and illness. Just as critically it takes motivation that’s hard to conjure up regularly. Unless you’ve a rare level of drive, if you try to push through real discomfort often, you’ll soon dread your workouts.

Perhaps, at least for a short period, pushing to and through discomfort isn’t the best option for you. Life circumstances and health can make it simply unrealistic. Doing some movement that’s more tolerable and repeatable often proves wiser for building habit.

When it comes to exercise habit matters most. Once it’s formed you can then push into the discomfort zone.

What can you do to get through the discomfort?

It’s not just brawn or a steely mind that overcomes physical challenge. Applying some clever strategies to your harder workouts can go a long way to helping you through the pain.

Which of the above could you use to give you a boost?

Do you have methods of your own for getting through the tough stuff?


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