Can a Healthy Dose of Fear Actually Improve Your Workouts?

Photo: Stocksy/Studio Firma

The Art of Fear Kristen Ulmer
Photo: HarperCollins

Extreme skier Kristen Ulmer is a big fan of the "F" word: fear. The former US National Team member says learning to embrace the emotion—instead of fight it—is one of the best ways to take yourself to the next level, both in fitness and in life.

"The key is to have [it] motivate you rather than hold you back," explains the author of the new guidebook The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won’t Work and What to Do Instead

In it, she offers advice on how to transform the feeling into a powerful motivator and use it to achieve your goals. And they don't have to be as hardcore as hers (Ulmer enjoys doing things like jumping off 50-foot cliffs for fun) for the methods to work. It could be something as everyday as joining a new gym—which the skier says, she herself found scarier than flying down a mountain face.

"I signed up once for a one-month CrossFit membership," she says. "Standing next to some girl that looks like she could rip a bumper off with her bare hands—believe me, there’s fear involved."

But that doesn't mean you bail on burpees. Instead, she says, there are a few super-simple things you can do that can help you cope—and boost your confidence.

Here are Ulmer's 3 tips for using fear to your advantage—both in your workouts and IRL.

Photo: Stocksy/Jayme Burrows

1. Stop seeing fear as a bad thing

“First understand that fear is natural, everybody feels it," Ulmer says. "Anytime you’re going to do something out of your comfort zone—whether it be start a new gym, take up a sport, give a speech, dance freely at a party, or tell your husband something that’s been bugging you—there's going to be fear involved. That can be a huge realization for people.”

2. Know it's not all in your head

“Fear is a sensation of discomfort in your body," explains the skier. "Locate [it]—it may be in your belly, your shoulders, your jaw. Allow yourself to feel it and focus on it. [Don't try] to build it up, but just be curious about it, and then feel the percolation of that energy. Ask yourself, 'How can I use this to be more powerful?'"

"Turn fear from a hold-back by avoiding it into a motivator by embracing it."

3. Face it and embrace it

"Find some sort of demon or insecurity that is fear-based, and have that motivate you to get to the gym, for starters, and then once you’re there, have the fear of messing up help you come alive, help you be more present, give it everything you’ve got. Turn fear from a hold-back by avoiding it into a motivator by embracing it.”

Now that you're ready to take more risks, maybe it's time to give the hardest move in Pilates or at the gym a try.

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