Fitness Tips

How To Push Through in That Moment You *Really* Want To Give Up on a Workout, According to Sports Psychology Experts

Photo: Getty Images/Guido Mieth
Once you’ve made it to a workout, endorphins and momentum are typically the champions that keep you moving. But what do you do in the moments when that’s just not enough? You know, the times when the prospect of completing another rep or running another mile feels akin to pulling your own teeth?

The truth is, these moments are actually full of opportunities to help you develop as an athlete, and a person.

“There's a benefit in building what we call ‘self efficacy,’ or the belief in your ability to do something if you persist in those moments,” says Jamie Shapiro, an associate professor of sports psychology at Denver University. “It helps develop resilience and also confidence.”

So it can be worth it mentally and physically to push through at times when you want to give up. That might be easier said than done. But there are strategies you can use to keep going when you’re feeling tired or otherwise low on motivation. Crucially, knowing that those moments are going to happen, and being prepared, is the best way to ensure you get the workout you want.

“You need to be proactive and prepare for difficult moments ahead of the time,” Edson Filho, an associate professor of sport, exercise, and performance psychology at Boston University, says.

Filho thinks of strategies to use in these moments like tools in a toolbox you need to collect and learn to use over time. Here are some that might work for you.

Have a conversation with yourself

Ignoring the voice that’s telling you to stop is not the answer. Instead, acknowledge it, and figure out where it’s coming from. “You can have a very productive conversation with yourself about why you want to stop,” Shapiro says.

Is what you’re feeling fatigue, or is it pain that’s trying to prevent injury? If it’s injury pain, stop. If it’s fatigue, is what you need in the moment a bit of kindness and compassion and permission to call it an early night?

“Pushing through is not always the right choice,” Filho says. “There is a fallacy of mental toughness that you hear a lot in sport. The fallacy is that you should continue exercising or playing even if you are very tired or injured. Mental toughness is also knowing when to stop.”

But it’s possible that you really do want to keep going, and just need a reminder of why you’re working out in the first place. Which brings us to our next piece of advice…

Connect with your goals

Goals power the motivation it takes to get us to the gym or the starting line in the first place. Reconnecting to them can also help you keep going when you're tempted to stop.

“Remember that motivation, your goals, can help you be persistent in those moments when you feel like giving up,” Shapiro says.

Maybe you're trying to improve your mile time, feel strong, or build enough endurance to keep up with your kids at the playground. Shapiro notes that goals differ from person to person, but that doesn't make them any less important for everyone.

Use a mantra or visualization

Tapping into a goal in an abstract way might be difficult to do in the moment. One way you can prepare is by translating your goal into a mantra or a visualization. Whether that’s affirming that you've got this, or picturing yourself running like a cheetah, go into a workout with a short phrase or mental image that encapsulates what you’re hoping to get out of it.

Put on a song you love

Filho explains that when we start exercising at a high intensity in a workout, we naturally start to pay more attention to what we’re doing and our body's sensations, which can make it harder to keep going. “We call this attentional association,” he says.

A mental trick can be to distract yourself. Putting on a song you love might give you a burst of energy and distract your brain from focusing on what your body is physically doing.

Let go of perfectionism

Maybe in some workouts, the goal doesn’t have to be finishing at your peak performance level. Sometimes, it can just be finishing. Allow yourself to give less than everything you might think you’ve got, and you’ll probably end up moving more than if you demanded perfection.

“Athletes and exercisers do not always perform at peak level,” Filho says. “Most times people perform at what we call ‘functional performance levels.’ However, most people think they always need to perform at peak level. Perfectionism creates a lot of problems.”

Take the opportunity to reflect

If you find yourself repeatedly hitting a wall in your workout, maybe you want to go beyond the self-talk involved in figuring out your motivation.

“Make sure whatever sort of exercise or physical activity you're doing fits with your lifestyle,” Shapiro says. “When you have that voice of ‘I just can't do it’ you can think, Is there another activity that would be better for me right now?”

Remember, the best form of exercise is the one you’ll do. So keep pushing, but also, keep listening.

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