Two Minutes to a Better Workout

By Will Murray | March 16, 2015, 6:04 p.m. (ET)

Taking two minutes to rehearse your workouts can help you complete harder intervals and resist the temptation to ditch your recovery ride when a pack of fast cyclists goes by or cave in when you hear yourself say, “I’m just not feeling it today.”

trackEvery workout should have a specific purpose. And to get the most out of a workout’s designed purpose, your mind needs to know what you want your body to do. Recovery rides or runs help you recover from previous workouts and get you ready for the next ones. Tempo workouts help prepare you for long-distance race pace. High-intensity workouts are aimed at raising your lactic threshold (maximum effort you can hold for 60 minutes) or maximum oxygen utilization (VO2 max). Muscular endurance workouts help build, well, muscular endurance to hold your pace on a long climb on the bike, for example. And very short, very hard sprints help improve neuromuscular abilities, getting the nervous and muscular systems to work better together. Establishing purpose is key to having your mind and body work better together.

If I handed you a sheet of paper and asked you to please file it for me, you might be puzzled. You think, “Hmmm, I don’t have a filing cabinet, or file drawer, or file hangers, or file folders or anything. What do I do with this sheet of paper?” And you would be correct. Without an understanding of the organizing theme, it’s hard to know what to do.

Your mind treats your workouts just like that sheet of paper. When you go into a workout without identifying the organizing theme, your mind wonders what on earth you are doing here and feels puzzled about how to help.

Maybe you have been at the track doing six times 800-meter, very hard intervals, and have had to fight off the voice in your mind’s ear that wants you to quit and go home or trim the number of repeats and jog the rest instead. That’s your mind saying, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t like it. This hurts. What are we doing here? Let’s get the flock out of here.” Your mind doesn’t get the underlying idea. It has no filing cabinet.

Instead, do a quick organizing system. As you are lacing up your shoes and attaching your watch, tell your mind what’s going on. “This is a high-intensity workout designed to help me with my top-end speed and raise my lactic threshold. It’s going to hurt, but that’s where the benefits come from. It will be like drilling holes in a bucket to let more lactate drain out so I can go faster for a longer duration.” Then, in your mind’s eye, you make a little video of how you envision the workout going when it goes as planned. You see yourself completing all the intervals as well as you can expect. Your mind now sees what’s coming and understands why you are doing this. You are all organized, body and mind. And when you do those hard sets, and indeed they do hurt, your mind says, “Hey, this hurts. It’s supposed to hurt. We must be right on track.”

When is your next workout? Try this technique now pointed at your very next training session and see how it works.

Step 1. Identify the purpose of your workout. Say to yourself, “This is a recovery ride (or whichever type of workout) to help me get over yesterday’s training and prepare me for tomorrow.”

Step 2. Recite the physiological benefits. This recovery workout will help me clear metabolic products, get the blood flowing and improve my vascular system.

Step 3. In your mind’s eye, picture those physiological changes taking place. See the blood flowing freely within your vascular system and picture the metabolic products moving out and away.

Step 4. In your mind’s eye, rehearse your workout. Make an imaginary video, full color, panoramic in scope and exactly as you want the workout to go. Make it perfect. If you hit any snags, back up the video, edit it, then continue. It’s your video; you can have it go just the way you want. Once you are done running the video in your mind, run it again, this time in fast motion — 10 seconds.

Step 5. Begin your training session.

This little pre-workout routine takes less than two minutes at first. Once you practice it a few times, it takes even less time. In a short time, you will be able do this in the time it takes to put on your swim cap and swish your goggles. In a few days, when you are consistent about doing this workout rehearsal routine, it will become nearly automatic. 

If you forget to do this before you start, you can always do the routine during your workout. When you hear your inner voice giving you a hard time at the pool in the middle of 10 x 150 meter sprints, stop at the wall for a few seconds and explain to your mind the purpose of doing these sets and how they will help you. Then proceed.

For especially important or somehow daunting workouts, try doing this routine the night before your training bout, just before you go to bed. You have an early morning swim workout, but it’s really cold outside tonight. Even though it’s an indoor pool, the thought of crawling out of bed, getting into the car, driving through the frozen wasteland and getting to the pool is less inviting than say a chocolate éclair. Do the routine above before you drift off to sleep, starting the video with you bouncing out of bed, making your way to the pool and then doing your swim. That way your mind is all lined up on tomorrow’s plan and you can sleep easier — and get up easier.

Your mind wants to help, and to do that it has to know what you want your body to do. Take a couple minutes to prepare it for your workout and you won’t have to battle the urge to quit on intervals or chase a group during a recovery ride, or get out of bed to do your workouts at all.

Will Murray is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach specializing in mental conditioning. He is co-author, with Craig Howie, of “The Four Pillars of Triathlon: Vital Mental Conditioning for Endurance Athletes” and a USA Triathlon All-American.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.