Over time, even the best workout routines have a way of becoming just that – routine. If you’re like most folks, when you check in at the gym, your mind checks out. Who knows where it goes – maybe back to the office to worry about your mounting workload, or home to survey the fridge for dinner options? And then there are those days when it just hangs out with you, reminding you how absolutely bored you are as you slog your way through yet another 45-minute grind on the treadmill.
Yes, you’re probably giving your heart something to do. But you’re sandbagging your progress. Why? Because you’re ignoring the strongest “muscle” in your body: your brain. Get it into the game while you swim, jog or lift, and fitness might just start to feel fun again.
Here and Now
Professional athletes love to talk about finding their focus and “getting into the zone” during competitive events. But focus is just as critical during cardio and weight-training sessions, no matter what your goals or fitness level.
“If your mind begins to wander and you get distracted, you lose your attention to detail,” says JoAnn Dahlkoetter, PhD, sports psychologist at Stanford University and author of Your Performing Edge. As a result, your performance declines. Perhaps you don’t push yourself as hard. Perhaps your form deteriorates. But one thing is for sure: Your workouts become less enjoyable. “You can’t take pleasure in an activity when you’re not fully present,” Dahlkoetter notes.
How many times have you hopped on a cardio machine and watched in agony as the seconds ticked by? Or taken a spinning class but afterward couldn’t remember much about it? No doubt your brain was busy thinking about everything but your workout. In addition to missing out on the opportunity to get into a relaxing rhythm, you likely also failed to notice whether you were keeping your heart rate at a desired level, or whether you were properly engaging specific muscles.
“An unfocused athlete can be his or her worst enemy,” says Charlie Maher, PsyD, professor of psychology at Rutgers University and team psychologist for the Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Cavaliers. “By letting your mind drift, you’re undermining your basic intention, which is being in the gym and accomplishing something.”
While one unfocused day in the gym probably won’t affect your goals or lower your level of fitness, entertaining a regular zone-out habit can seriously slow your athletic progress, and the pleasure you take in it.
Want to get your brain cells pulling in the same direction as your body? Take some tips from the athletic pros responsible for getting competitive athletes’ minds and mettle ready for the game.
A wandering mind is something athletes of all levels deal with at some point. Erin Mirabella, a California-based track cyclist who won a bronze medal in the points race at the 2004 Olympics, admits that staying mentally focused during training can be tough, especially because training can become so mundane. “There are those days when I don’t want to work,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s because of physical reasons, but most of the time it’s mental. I’m just not there, and when that happens, my workout feels off.” As a result, both her workouts and her satisfaction suffer. “Deep down, I know that I could probably have done better,” she says.
This type of self-reproach is common, according to Dahlkoetter. The mind is a natural wanderer. Unfortunately, when it does travel, it very often skews negative. “The left brain, which is the logical, analytical side, takes over, and our inner critic comes out,” Dahlkoetter says. Net result: When your mind starts roaming during a workout, you might suddenly begin to berate yourself for not being stronger or faster. Or you might glance at the clock and think there’s no way you can last another 30 minutes on the treadmill, even though you’ve only been at it for five minutes.
“Performance is 90 percent mental,” asserts Dahlkoetter. “If you work to hone that mental focus, you move from the negative – where you’re beating yourself up and perhaps not enjoying the workout – to the positive, where you get into a groove and feel good about what you’ve done.”
Honing your focus skills can benefit your professional life, too. Steven Ungerleider, PhD, research psychologist in Eugene, Ore., and a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee, interviewed 50 prominent Olympians for his book, Quest for Success. After leaving their Olympic pursuits, many of these athletes moved into successful professional careers as bankers, lawyers and even a few politicians. When Ungerleider asked them how they were able to make the transition from the sports world to the professional world, their answers surprised him. “They all said they used the same mental training techniques they’d used as athletes to get ahead in the real world,” he says. They often visualized success before walking into an important meeting or making a presentation, for example, just as they did when they were training for a competition.
Fortunately, focus isn’t reserved for the elite or professional athlete. It’s a learned behavior that anybody can master, as long as you’re willing to put in the necessary time and effort. “Just like training the body, focus requires discipline,” Dahlkoetter says.
Professional athletes, of course, do have one major advantage that makes it easy for them to hone their focus during training: Along with getting paid to exercise, they always have a specific goal to motivate them. And that might be the most important take-home strategy when learning how to properly focus during your workouts. “Having goals, both short term and long term, will enhance your focus during workouts,” says Ungerleider.
Long-term goals, however, need not be tied to Herculean feats like running a marathon or competing in a triathlon. “Everyone who walks into a fitness environment, whether they express it or not, has a goal or reason for being there, and it may have nothing to do with physical performance,” says Ralph Reiff, ATC, MEd, director of the St. Vincent Sports Medicine and Sports Performance Center in Indianapolis. For instance, you might want to boost your self-image, meet more friends or simply escape everyday stressors. No matter what your reasons, Reiff recommends asking yourself why you’re in the gym in the first place. Figuring out what you want from your workouts, and setting realistic but challenging goals that serve those objectives, will give you something to keep in your sights as you work out.
While long-range goals are crucial for overall success, short-term targets may be the impetus you need to make your daily workouts more effective. Sports psychologist Maher calls these short-term goals “small wins” and says you should have at least one goal or small win per workout. “To engage in an activity with enthusiasm, have some kind of checklist that you focus on for each workout,” he suggests.
Before you get to the gym, for example, assess how you feel and prepare a mental to-do list of what you specifically want to accomplish. Are you hoping to accumulate 30 minutes on the treadmill, perhaps walking 10 minutes on steep hills? Or do you want to increase the weight of your bench press or perhaps try for an extra set of abdominal exercises? Know your goal before you get there, map out your workout accordingly in your head, and focus on just that goal during your workout.
Paul Terek, a decathlete who competed in the 2004 Olympics, often relies on short-term goals to keep himself motivated during training sessions. “Even though I’m always focused on a long-term goal, those are often months or years away,” he says. “But having more immediate goals, like keeping up with my training partner during a workout or inventing contests like seeing who can throw a tire farther, puts new energy into my workouts and brings my attention back to the training.”
In addition to setting goals, there are other strategies that can help maintain your mental edge for workouts. First, warm up your brain much like you would your muscles. Create a power mantra, perhaps a phrase like “here we go” or “pay attention” and repeat it to yourself right before you enter the gym. “That phrase is your anchor and pulls you into the setting,” Maher says.
Then begin each workout with a 30-second breathing routine. As you breathe in through your nose, say “center” to yourself. As you exhale, say “relax” and visualize any tension flowing out of your body. Repeat five times to clear your mind of distractions, suggests Dahlkoetter.
When you finish your workout, devote a few minutes to writing in a workout journal; record what you did and how you felt. “You’ll find yourself writing things about what you did, but also about what you want to accomplish,” Reiff says. “That accountability will help you stay in touch with your workouts.” Review your journal periodically, especially if you feel you’re having trouble maintaining focus. It might reveal that you’re more on target than you think.
For your actual routines, try the following suggestions for staying focused on the task at hand.
Concentrate on the process. “The mind can only be productive in one place, either past, future or present,” Maher says. “If you think about the process of exercise, you bring your mind into the present, which will help you focus.” For example, if you’re lifting weights, think about completing each repetition with energy and enthusiasm, rather than about lifting a certain amount of pounds. Or if you’re cycling, concentrate on the rhythm of your pedal strokes. If you feel your mind begin to drift, just pull it back by reminding yourself about the process of exercise.
Divide your workout into segments. “The mind works best when training is broken into chunks,” says Maher. You might spend several minutes just focusing on a particular aspect of your exercise. Can you sense specific muscle groups firing? Are you aware of a certain sensation? Spend a chunk of time zeroing in on those feelings. Then give your mind a break – read a magazine as you do cardio or step away from the weights. When you feel ready, go for another 10 minutes of concentrated focus, with your attention on a new area.
Compete against yourself. What could you do this week that would push your mental limits and stretch your comfort zone? Perhaps it’s trying a new activity, working out at a different time, exercising at a higher intensity or for a longer duration. Choose something and then challenge yourself to do it. For instance, if you normally exercise after work, get to the gym at 5:45 a.m. Don’t worry about meeting any other workout goals that week. Just get to the gym early five days in a row.
Be swayed by sound. When cyclist Erin Mirabella requires extra focus during training, she sweats to a soundtrack of inspirational songs. Whenever she uses it, she thinks positively, visualizing success. “Listen to music that inspires you, energizes you and makes you visualize your own success, whether that’s slimming down, getting stronger or just feeling better about yourself,” she says.
Buddy up. Workout buddies can help you stick with exercise. As it turns out, they can also keep you focused. “Most pro athletes have one or two key individuals they train with,” Maher says. Adopt the same strategy and recruit someone to prevent you from zoning out.
Give yourself internal pep talks. To counter that negative inner critic, say positive affirmations in your head several times in your workout, Dahlkoetter says. Base the affirmation in the present tense to help you lock into the moment. For example, tell yourself that you’re growing more focused every minute. Repeat that two or three times in a row. A few minutes later, give yourself another affirmation like “I’m growing stronger and healthier every minute.”
Visualize a competitor. “If you make yourself believe someone’s behind you, you’ll draw your attention back to your workout, and you’ll work a little harder,” says Mirabella.
Keep your workouts fresh. Varying your workout program is crucial for avoiding injury, but it can also help you escape mental doldrums. “Don’t put yourself through the same tedious routine every day,” Ungerleider advises. If you’re a runner, for instance, chart different routes or change your terrain, perhaps doing hills or opting for dirt trails versus concrete. “Regularly adjusting your program not only takes stress off your body and develops other muscle groups,” notes Ungerleider, “it also keeps your mind stimulated and mentally helps open other doors.”
Don’t beat yourself up. If you catch your focus drifting, acknowledge that and then let it go, Maher says. Next, ask yourself three questions: First, how’s your breathing? Make it deep and rhythmic. Second, are you tense? If so, shake it off and relax. Finally, where’s your mind? Pull it away from the office, to-do list or wherever else it might be. Give your mind a task, reconnect it with your body, and you just may take your fitness to a whole new level.
When psychologists talk about focus, they commonly use two terms: association and disassociation.
Association means being connected to the present – you’re living in the here and now, and you’re tuned in to what your body’s doing at this moment.
Disassociation, on the other hand, removes you from the task at hand so that you can place your attention elsewhere. Maybe you’re reading a magazine while on the stair climber, or just letting yourself daydream.
While you might experience more performance-oriented benefits from association (because you’re more alert to your body’s happenings), disassociation has its own charms. It can be particularly useful in bolstering your enjoyment of exercise – if you know how to do it right.
You might, for instance, reward yourself by taking a series of brief mental vacations when you do longer cardio sessions. After you’ve warmed up and established a steady pace, let your mind escape for a moment to a fantasy, or relive a pleasant memory. The benefits of this are twofold: “You’re reducing your stress levels,” Dahlkoetter says. “But you’re also associating your workout with something enjoyable, and that might be especially beneficial if you’re someone who dreads doing cardio or resists paying attention to your workouts.”
Ungerleider, too, rejects the notion that one must pay constant, undivided attention to reap fitness benefits. “You can use positive distractions like pleasure reading, listening to music or paying attention to nature, to help make your workouts more relaxing and pleasurable,” he says.
Ungerleider offers this important caveat, however: Resist distractions that add stress to your workouts. If you’ve got professional journals or papers to weed through, for example, don’t lug them to the stationary bike hoping to knock out two major tasks at once.
“You’re not going to get a good workout when you don’t let the mind unwind,” Ungerleider says. “You’ve got to clear your head when you get to the gym, particularly of anything connected to stress.
“Keeping your mind free, open and relaxed gets the positive neurons firing,” he notes, “and that allows endorphins and other relaxation chemicals to do their work.”
This article has been updated and originally appeared as “Find Your Focus” in the May 2005 issue of Experience Life.