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The secret to pushing past your fitness breaking point


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The Champion Mindset
Photo: St. Martins

Everyone’s been there: Gasping for air during a hot-weather run. Legs shaking in barre class, praying for the pulses to end. Or powering through at spin class, with your heart racing faster than the beat of the song.

But when you feel like you want to collapse, there is a way to push past your fitness breaking point, and according to an Ironman pro, it’s not physical—it’s mental. (And that goes for everyone, whether you’re lacing up sneakers for the first time or training for your 10th marathon.)

Joanna Zeiger, who was the 2008 Ironman 70.3 World Champion and the first triathlete to race the Olympics and the Ironman World Championships in the same year, has had plenty of experience hitting the wall—and pushing past it. In her new book, The Champion Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness, she shares what she’s learned about transcending your limits to reach new levels of fitness (and badass-ery).  

Scroll down to see Zeiger’s key tips for developing mental strength along with core power and cardio stamina.

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1. Make mindfulness a part of your training

There’s a reason why fitness wearables are now tracking more than just your heart rate.“Mental toughness means learning how to focus,” Zeiger says. A daily practice helps you hone in on being more in the moment, which helps shake any pre-competition jitters and protects the body from injuries. (If you need help getting started, here’s how to develop the balanced state known as “wise mind.“)

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2. Create a mental happy place you can go to

Visualization has been helping athletes achieve their goals for, well, ever—and even Beyonce is into it. “People need to find scenarios that they are most comfortable for them,” Zeiger says of the technique, which can be anything from picturing a calming beach to a quiet snowfall.

The point is to mentally prepare you to face unexpected challenges on your big day: “You can’t train specifically for every adversity, but you can come up with scenarios in your head,” Zeiger says. And when faced with that hurdle, go back to your place of calm to keep your mind—and heart—from racing.

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3. Focus on mini-goals to keep going

Now that you have a little trick up your sweat-wicking sleeve for keeping calm when facing a fitness hurdle, Zeiger has another tip for going beyond your breaking point: Just focus on doing a little bit more, like spinning hard for 30 more seconds or finishing the next quarter-mile. “The whole notion of very short-term goals is to help fulfill that need for instant gratification,” Zeiger says.

Long-term, of course, the objective is crossing the finish line, whether for that day or for a competition (or personal milestone) that you’ve set your sights on. “Training is a lot of hard work, and each athlete has his or her own intentions,” Zeiger says. “But if it’s done with enthusiasm and enjoyment, that’s what truly matters.” And you have to admit, breaking through that wall is pretty damn enjoyable.

More fitness intel! If you’re planning a training regimen, here’s what you need to know to prep for your first half-marathon and marathon.