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Mental Fitness

Previous blog posts have discussed intensity and its importance to your physical fitness, but a review is appropriate in light of relatively recent developments in sports psychology that emphasize the athlete’s perception of effort – “perceived intensity” – as the critical factor in athletic performance.  Intensity is also the ‘secret’ sauce of CrossFit.  Not that there’s anything secret about it.  However, intensity is still elusive and probably the single hardest thing to attain in CrossFit.   It is also the key to getting the most out of your workout.  Achieving intensity is mostly mental.

Related: Aerobic Capacity – What Is it & Why Is It Important?

The relatively-new “psychobiological model” of endurance sports performance (“PBM”) provides actions we can take to improve our “mental fitness” – the ability to handle the discomfort that comes from intense exercise.  “Endurance” here means efforts lasting 30 seconds or more – basically anything other than weightlifting, field events or pure sprints, so it definitely can help your Fran time.  Benjamin Pageaux defines the PBM thus:

“The psychobiological model is an effort-based decision-making model based on motivational intensity theory, and postulates that the conscious regulation of pace is determined primarily by five different cognitive/motivational factors:

  1. Perception of effort

  2. Potential motivation

  3. Knowledge of the distance/time to cover

  4. Knowledge of the distance/time remaining

  5. Previous experience/memory of perception of effort during exercise of varying intensity and duration.

Sports Med DOI 10.1007/s40279=014-0198-2, May 14, 2014.

You need to experience the discomfort and, most importantly, discover what you’re capable of.

In English, that means that how hard you push yourself depends on how hard you believe you’re working, how motivated you are, how long you expect to have to keep working, and how experienced you are with pacing and effort.  These elements interrelate, and we can use each of them to help us unlock our potential:

1.  Perception of Effort: How hard you believe you’re working.  Notice it’s how hard you BELIEVE you’re working.  It is your mind’s interpretation of the signals your body sends it.  You can consciously alter your interpretation of these signals, especially through experience (see #4, below) and positive self-talk.  Positive self-talk is essentially the conscious mind ‘talking back’ to the subconscious mind.  The subconscious says “stop”, the conscious mind says “just keep going, only a few more reps”.  Usually, the positive self-talk will involve #’s 2, 3, & 4 – increasing your motivation, telling yourself there isn’t much longer to go, or comparing it with other efforts.

Related: Aerobic Capacity Training Part 2: Pacing

2.  How motivated you are.  Big race or solo workout?  Family and friends watching or quiet streets?  The more motivation you have, the easier it is to push your limits.  It works mainly by increasing the potential reward of a great effort (that boy/girl you like is watching!).  The presence of outside stimuli like an audience can also give your brain something to do besides focus on how bad the effort feels.   The less you listen to the negative self-talk, the easier it is to push yourself.

You can make your workouts more effective by imagining you’re at a race, with family or friends watching, or thinking of what your coach would say if you backed off right now.  Imagining their presence can help you find a similar boost as if they were actually present.  Or you can workout with a group of people doing the same workout, like at a CrossFit gym ;-).

Work Your Mind to Help Work Your Body

3.  How long the effort will continue.  The less time you’ll be suffering, the more suffering you’re willing to inflict upon yourself.  You can use this to improve performance by:

  1. getting experience with the effort (#4, below) and knowing how long it should or will take.  The more accurate your estimate, the easier it is for your mind to believe your positive self-talk.

  2. breaking the effort into smaller chunks – “just do the thrusters” (and ignore the pull-ups) for example, and

  3. when all else fails, lying to yourself – “just make it to the top of this hill, then you can rest.”  Then, right before the top, change it to the top of the next hill, repeat until there are no more hills.

Notice that this combines Pageaux’s 3&4 here – in your mind, there is little or no practical difference between the distance remaining and the time remaining.  The mind cares about how much time you’ll be suffering, not how much ground you cover (or reps you complete) during that time.

4.  How experienced you are with pacing and effort.  This is a big reason why it’s hard to teach intensity.  You need to experience the discomfort and, most importantly, discover what you’re capable of.  This takes lots and lots of practice, especially in CrossFit, where you’re constantly faced with new combinations of moves that can create different patterns of suffering or interfere with each in different ways than you’ve experienced before. This is where a background in sports is extremely helpful.  You can add to your background, or start to gain more experience, by signing up for local events, whether CrossFit competitions, 5k’s, 1-mile runs, or the like.  The more practice and experience you have with intensity, pacing, and judging your effort, the more you understand what a true maximum effort feels like, and the more you can try to re-create that feeling in your next workout.

–John M. Bryant

Founder & Head Trainer