Mental Training: Get in the Zone!

I recently completed a continuing training for my Spinning certification on mental training. I found the content to be really interesting – and fitting not only for indoor cyclists, but for athletes (or wannabe athletes) of any sport or activity. Essentially a means of finding your “zone” or “zen,” focusing on mental training can help you to work harder with less effort, accomplish feats which you may not have believed you were capable, and experience the elusive “runners high” (which is, despite its name, not exclusive to runners).

So, what can you do to take your training to another level? Here are a few tips and tricks to maximize the mental element of your workout:

  • Focus on form and flow. Relaxation and even, controlled motions are key to proper form – and by focusing on these elements, you will also reduce your risk of injury. Visualize your muscles working and the motion of your body staying consistent. Once you have mastered your form, it is easier to get lost in the flow of the motion – bringing you closer to that “zone” in which you can allow your mind to take over, and your body to follow.
  • Pay attention to your breath. Fun fact: we typically only use 20% of our lung capacity when we “chest breathe” – taking short, shallow breaths from the chest, rather than deep diaphragmatic breaths. As both a Pilates instructor and a former singer, I am a huge proponent of diaphragmatic breathing. Not only does it allow you greater breath control, but it also makes your exercise feel easier. Think about expanding your lungs, and feel your ribs push out as you take a deep inhale. To exhale, think about slowly releasing the breath, feeling the ribs pull back and the abdominals engage as you completely empty the lungs.
  • Be in the now. We live in a busy, go-go-go world. It can be difficult to focus on what we are doing at the present moment, versus what we need to do later, or the challenges we face in our lives. Let go. Be present. Allow your mind to wander, and it will eventually lead you to a clear mind, which helps you to enjoy the now, rather than worrying about the past or future.
  • Set a goal. Pay attention to the intricacies of your workouts, and how they contribute to your overall, larger goals. Celebrate the small successes along the way, and in time, you will find yourself achieving more than you ever thought possible.

The biggest key to mental training is really just finding the right mindset, allowing your body to relax, and letting your breath fuel your motions. By focusing on the mental aspect of your workout, you will find that your accomplishments will add up – and your workouts will become more fulfilling. I’ve said it more times than I can count: the mind is stronger than the body. And the stronger the mind becomes, the stronger the will to achieve becomes, leading to increased physical strength, endurance, and power, all of which play a huge part in our overall conditioning process.

A Few Tips for Getting Started

For most people, the hardest part of getting in shape is getting started. I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into the first time I joined my college roommate for a jog one evening my junior year at Clemson – but to this day, I credit it as the beginning of my fitness journey. Everyone has to start somewhere. I remember being amazed that I’d made it a whole two miles – two miles! – and I hadn’t died in the process (clearly an improvement upon those nightmarish high school gym class jogs around the track). At the same time, I discovered two things – I didn’t hate it, and I could do it.

These are two of the most important aspects of not only beginning, but also maintaining, a successful fitness routine. There are also several other factors to consider as you get started:

  • Make a commitment. Make a standing date with yourself. Put it on your calendar if you need to, and consider it a non-negotiable meeting. My gym time is my “me time” – and it is almost always the best part of my day.
  • Do what you love. Otherwise you won’t do it. Try different things, and give them a chance, because what you end up liking may surprise you. When I first started running, I hated it. With a passion. But the better I got at it, the more I started to love what it did to my body and how it made me feel. Eventually, running snowballed into strength training. Then into Pilates and yoga. Then into Spinning. Just remember that if it’s going to work, it has to work for YOU.
  • Find a partner in crime. A gym (or walking, or yoga, or cycling) buddy will hold you accountable. You don’t want to let your friend down – and it adds a social aspect to your workout. If you become a regular in a class, the other regulars will notice when you’re missing (and so will your instructor)!
  • It’s more mental than you know. Often times, our brains talk our bodies out of reaching our true potential. I like to play the goal #1 vs. goal #2 game. It goes something like this: I tell myself I’ll run until I hit 3 miles, or 27 minutes, whichever comes last. By the time you hit that second goal, more often than not, you’ll find yourself making a second bet with yourself … and tacking on a few (or sometimes a lot) more minutes in the process.

Most of all, take it one step at a time. Start slow, and build up gradually – people often get so excited that they burn themselves out, or worse yet, end up injured, because they take on too much, too soon. Never be afraid to hire a trainer, or ask your instructor questions. We want to help you succeed!