How to Push Through a Tough Workout

How to Push Through When You Hit the Wall

Woman exercising with music
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If you exercise regularly, there will come a time where you find yourself having to push through exercising. Because, just minutes into your workout, you'll have the horrifying thought: "I don't want to do this anymore." Your energy drains away, your heart rate shoots up and it feels like someone secretly strapped 10-pound weights to your feet. At that moment, you have a choice: You can quit or you can push through that fatigue and finish your workout anyway.

Quitting may be the right choice, but, there are also good reasons to take on that challenge. It is in pushing your boundaries that you become stronger, both physically and mentally. So, how do you keep going when your energy is waning? A little mental maneuvering can help. Here are five strategies you can use to push through a tough workout.

Remember Your Goals

I once had a client who wore a bracelet with the word "cellulite" written on it. When she felt like stopping, she looked at that bracelet for a reminder that every step brought her closer to her goal of losing weight.

If you're lacking the motivation to finish your workout, use a visual reminder, like she did, or just mentally list your own goals. They may be:

  • I want to get stronger
  • I want to lose weight
  • I want to have more energy
  • I want to feel good about myself
  • I want to look good for my wedding/high school reunion/future

You can even turn your stated goal into a mantra, repeating silently "I'm getting stronger" or "I'm losing weight" with each step forward. It may sound a little cheesy but, when you're in the moment, the right thought can be the difference between quitting and succeeding.

Visualize Your Success

Athletes often use this trick to get through their training because it can improve performance and provide the boost they need to keep moving, even when they're tired.

Picture yourself finishing your workout. Imagine how you'll feel — satisfied, proud of yourself, confident, and ready to face the rest of the day.

And don't just picture yourself finishing the workout, imagine you're gliding through it effortlessly. Visualize your body operating in perfect sync — shoulders down, breathing relaxed, and stride confident. Just the thought of your body operating like a well-oiled machine can change your posture and, perhaps, even your perception of how your body feels.

Break it Down

If you've ever been on a cardio machine, you've probably experienced that horrifying moment when you look at the clock and realize you've only been working out for only six minutes. Suddenly, another 30 or so minutes sounds like torture. Gym machines can be boring anyway, but there are those days when every minute feels like an hour. Here's how to make the time go faster:

  • One More Song: If you're listening to music, this is when your playlist can become your savior. Play one of your favorite songs and promise yourself you'll keep exercising until the end. When that song ends, pick another song and keep going, repeating until you've finished your workout.
  • One More Minute: Another way to get through those tedious workouts is to break your workout down into minutes. For each minute, go at a different speed or intensity and focus only on that minute. When you're finished, do one more minute...and, so on.
  • One More Mailbox: If you're outside and lethargy sets in, choose something (a mailbox, a telephone pole) in the distance and focus all your energy towards getting there. Once you do, choose something else and do the same thing. Focus on putting one foot in front of the other until you get home.

Back Off

We all have days when our bodies are simply tired. If you track your heart rate, you'll see signs of this in the form of a higher than usual reading. You can also pay attention to perceived exertion — if you feel that you're working unusually hard at an activity that normally feels easy, that may be a sign that you need to:

  • Take a breather. Exercisers feel guilty if they stop in the middle of a workout for a rest, but that may be just what you need. Don't stop moving completely, which can cause your heart rate to plummet but, instead, walk it off, grab some water and let your heart rate slow down a bit. Get back to your workout when you feel fully recovered.
  • Slow things down. If, after a break, you still find your heart rate is up there, try a slower pace for several minutes or, if necessary, the rest of the workout.
  • Wait for that second wind. Researchers have found that exercise can elevate your mood and that it hits starting at about 10 minutes of exercise and then reaches its peak after about 40 minutes of exercise. If you're going for a longer workout, remind yourself that a good mood is coming if you can just keep going.
  • Shift gears. Mental fatigue can be just as crippling as physical fatigue so, if you've been doing the same workouts for a while, trying a new machine or activity may provide that boost of energy you've been looking for. Don't be afraid to stop in the middle of your workout to try something else. Experiment until you find something you can finish.

Distract Yourself

It's great to be mentally present in whatever you're doing but, certain types of exercise, like running and walking, offer you an opportunity to let your mind wander as your body goes through the motions. This can be especially helpful when you're having a difficult workout. You can use your workout time to tackle problems in your life, organize your time or check in with yourself. Some tips to try:

  • Make a grocery list or to-do list for the day
  • Plan your meals for the week
  • Think about a problem at work and come up with as many solutions as you can by the end of the workout
  • Listen to an audiobook
  • Mentally list everything you're worried about and come up with at least one resolution for each item

The great thing about this approach is that you finish your workout while also solving problems that may have seemed overwhelming before you got started.

Not everything works out the way we plan. If your workout is the pits, don't give up just yet. Pushing through to the end will prove what you're really made of and lessen any doubts you may have about your commitment to exercise and health.

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