This Is How You Can Take Back Control When Your Brain Is Yelling ‘Stop’ During a Tough Workout

Photo: Getty Images/Milan Markovic
You’ve likely heard some version of this time and time again from fitness instructors: Your brain wants to give up long before your body actually needs to. But should you actually stop to take notice of what your mind is screaming, or ignore it and push through the struggle?

The answer isn’t straightforward, but it starts with better understanding the difference between physical and mental fatigue—which, sorry, isn’t always obvious—and the various narratives going on in your head. Here’s what you need to know about mental endurance so you can decide what voices deserve a mic and which need to be quieted.

Experts In This Article

Your brain on exercise

It’s true that your brain does send distress signals when it thinks your body is in some kind of danger—that’s the foundation of the fight-or-flight response, explains Chelsea Wooding, PhD, CMPC, head of the scientific program division for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Set the scene: “I’m in this workout…my body signals my sympathetic nervous system to go into flight, flight, freeze,” says Dr. Wooding. “So, I immediately have to make a decision about how I want to respond.”

Exercise pushes you past your comfort zone, points out Peloton instructor Rad Lopez, who knows a thing or two about exercise resilience having recently completed two marathons, his first races of this distance. Exercise “pushes you into a world of the unknown in which you're forced to problem-solve on the go,” he says.

"All your brain is trying to do is protect you and keep you alive." —Chelsea Wooding, PhD

And when faced with these challenging situations, you’re “not living in” your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that’s responsible for problem-solving and making logical, rational decisions, says Dr. Wooding. “That's your brain doing what it needs to do to focus on getting you away from danger. All your brain is trying to do is protect you and keep you alive,” she says. But that does make it more difficult in the moment of mental panic—or during the last few seconds of a hollow body hold—to determine if the threat really is dangerous or if there’s another perspective, she explains.

That’s all because of how information travels through your brain, says Dr. Wooding. Information goes through your limbic system, which is the part of the brain tied to emotions, before it moves to the logical prefrontal cortex. Think: When you put your hand on a hot stove you immediately take it off before even thinking about it. These gut reactions of sorts are also what makes you, say, act out of anger or drop to your knees during a plank when it gets uncomfortable.

How to control the fatigue narrative during workouts

Now that you know what happens to your brain when you work out, you can learn how to use that knowledge to build mental endurance during those extra tough training sessions. Here’s how:

1. Slow down

Everyone has both automatic and response thoughts, according to Dr. Wooding. “Automatic thoughts are the ones you didn't intend to be there—they [just] show up,” she says. For instance, I want to give up is an automatic response. “Exercise, by its nature, takes you out of homeostasis,” and sets off that fight-or-flight response, but slowing down your racing thoughts “gives you enough time to get all of your brain to the party,” she says. Take the time to ask why your instinct is to quit.

2. Decipher the discomfort

Pain vs discomfort, good vs bad pain—no matter what you call it, determining which you’re experiencing is the difference between making gains and getting an injury. “There are times your brain is telling you to stop because you’re over-training or risking burnout or injury—you need to listen to that,” says Dr. Wooding.

Ask yourself, “Am I feeling good pain?” says Dr. Wooding. “That's part of training and this is the fatigue that’s expected. Or is this bad pain where my body is telling me something is off?” Everyone’s line between discomfort and pain will be different, but accepting where your particular line is today is critical to preventing injury. If you’ve struck pain, stop.

3. Find out who’s talking

“There are also times when your brain is telling you, ‘Hey, maybe we can keep going, but I don't want to,” she says. Consider why your brain is saying it doesn’t feel like doing that extra set of push-ups. “Is this my mind telling me, ‘This is harder than I expected it to be. Maybe I can't do this’?” says Dr. Wooding. “Is it more of a lack of sleep, lack of motivation voice saying, ‘I'm really tired today’?”

Beyond that, your brain can be a bully. “Sometimes your brain can tell you, ‘Hey, keep going. You've got this. You're doing amazing!’ and sometimes your brain can say ‘You better keep going because, if you don't, what does that say about you?’,” she says. Avoid the shoulda, woulda, coulda mentality. Think about the root of the messages you’re getting, and whether they’re worth paying attention to or not.

4. Remember your purpose

You can often quiet the voice telling you to throw in the towel by returning to your why—your primary motivation for exercise, says Dr. Wooding.

Setting intentions for each workout can help keep your eye on the prize, too, adds Lopez. “Before I enter a workout, I mentally prepare myself for the duration of the workout so that I don't hit that mental wall,” he says. “For example, when I take a 30-minute strength class on the Peloton app, I will prepare myself to give it my best effort, knowing that after those 30 minutes are over, I've got nothing else to prove.” Each workout has a specific purpose—focus on doing what you need to achieve it.

5. Use the breath

Bringing your attention to your breath can be a helpful tool to get out of your head and into your body while simultaneously slowing down your sympathetic nervous system, says Dr. Wooding.

When you’re thinking about your breath, those racing thoughts telling you to quit will likely grow quieter “because you don't have the capacity to think about both things at once,” says Dr. Wooding. “So, focusing on your breath can be this beautiful anchor because it gives you something to shift your attention to."

6. Find what’s fun for you

Don’t forget that fitness should be enjoyable. “Leading up to my first marathon…I allowed myself to have fun [and] to be lifted by the sounds of the cheering crowds,” says Lopez. The best workout for you will be one that inspires you to rise to its challenges. And no matter what kind of activity you’re doing, don’t forget the motivating power of a good playlist, Lopez adds.

7. Avoid practicing bad habits

“You absolutely can train yourself to practice giving up,” says Dr. Wooding. “Is your decision [to quit] moving you toward or away where you're trying to go?” Build that awareness by debriefing on your feelings post-workout, by reflecting on your decision to give up and asking yourself if it was the right choice or whether, in hindsight, you could have pushed a little more, she suggests.

8. Have patience and stay consistent

“You don't wake up and just run a marathon,” says Dr. Wooding. “You train for weeks, months, years to do that. Your brain is the same way.” Just like with physical training to inch you closer to your fitness goals, you have to keep practicing this mind-body translation.

Put this training to use

The mental endurance you build during workouts can translate to everyday life. “These kinds of mental skills that we talk about in sport and performance psychology—those truly are life skills,” says Dr. Wooding. Think of workouts as opportunities to train your brain so that when your sympathetic nervous system kicks on during a work presentation or a first date, you can slow down, gauge what's happening, assess whether there’s a real threat, and decide how to respond.

“Knowing that we've gotten through hard workouts gives us the boost of confidence we need when faced with situations outside of our comfort zone,” says Lopez. “The ability to do hard things gives you that belief in yourself that not many other things can.”

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