Pushing through the pain barrier and dealing with fatigue during exercise.
Pushing through pain and discomfort and dealing with fatigue when exercising can be a difficult and daunting process. This article aims to try and address what makes this difficult, what stops us, what strategies we can use to help get better at this and what kind of thoughts can both help and hinder our ability to do this.
We spend the majority of our time focussing on the physicality of exercise and we don’t often assess or explore the mental side of it and how it can affect our performance.
This article will be broken down into 4 sections, following the same format of discussion that was used within the classes we ran on the same topic.
Section 1 – General overview and introduction
Let’s start with some questions.
In this scenario, let’s say ‘X’ = 100 Burpees and ‘x’ = 3 or 4 minutes dependant on fitness level.
- Can you do ‘X’
- Can you do ‘X’ in ‘x’ time
- If you didn’t reach ‘X’ in ‘x’ time would you stop?
- If you did reach ‘X’ in ‘x’ time would you stop?
What we’re aiming to do is see how you think about each one.
- Firstly, do you think ‘X’ is achievable?
- Is it achievable in the amount of time stated?
- If you didn’t achieve ‘X’ in the time stated would you be bound by the time constraint and stop, or would you be bound by the reps and continue to you complete ‘X’?
- Does the way the task is phrased lead you to be bound by one factor more than the other?
- If you did reach ‘X’ within the time limit would you stop, or continue until the time had finished?
- Does the factor that is achieved/reached first become the one you are bound by? Causing you to stop?
What we’re also attempting to look at is what you think you can achieve vs what you actually can achieve, the language you use when making these decisions in your head and your other automatic thought process or pre-conceptions when confronted with a challenge or difficult task.
Some of your thoughts on your own ability and whether a task is achievable will come down to past experiences you have of completing the same or similar exercises, some of it will be down to your preconceived ideas of your own ability, your confidence in yourself and your confidence in your fitness or strength levels. Some of it will be based on assumption, fear or perceived difficulty.
All of these thoughts happen before and/or during exercise but often they also start before you even get to the gym. It is important that we believe in ourselves, not necessarily that we will do ‘X’ but that we are capable of it. Our expectation of pain or effort required needs to be realistic without scaring us too much.
- Where possible, break the task into smaller manageable chunks.
- 1 more rep at a time, only 10 seconds at a time, X reps in X time
- Where possible compartmentalize the task ahead. This is good for larger circuits, try and only deal with what’s directly in front of you, don’t get caught up worrying about a later set or exercise or trying to conserve energy for what may come.
- Be willing to try.
- Use visualization – admit what scares you or seems impossible and then visualize yourself completing that task.
- Link positive thoughts to difficult periods of a workout.
- Use mantras (avoid words with negative connotations – I can’t stop, won’t stop – can’t and won’t are negative although the overall mantra is positive).
- Accept the discomfort and pain, embrace it and know that it can’t stop you, it's momentary.
- Only compete against yourself. There will always be someone better or worse than you. Kickboxing is a solitary sport. In a fight, it is a competition against another and your aim is to be better but for the purposes of training the only person you are aiming to be better than is yourself. Don’t worry, think, look at anyone else, zone out, take yourself away somewhere where you can focus on the task in front of you. If you can always be better than yourself, you will always improve.
- Think steady effort. We cannot maintain a certain level of power or speed, as we fatigue it is natural for our output to decrease but we can maintain a steady level of effort.
It is important to remember that the brain sends signals to our muscles telling them that they’re fatigued or experiencing pain, this is an inbuilt protective measure which encourages us to reserve energy for emergencies. We are capable of much more than our brain tells us we are.
Section 2 – Decision Making
Decision making is crucial to being able to perform at our best and push through fatigue and any pain we experience during exercise. It often starts long before we set foot in the gym, let alone the moment we need to make a decision to “push” or not.
It starts with the decision to come to the gym, whether we feel tired, what class/classes we will do, our preconceived ideas of how hard we believe the class/classes will be, how hard we will work in the class/classes, whether we push into discomfort and whether we push through it once we are there. Each time we approach the cusp of difficulty we have a decision to make, do we tackle this head on, do we dive into it and do our best to overcome or do we stop and return to where we are comfortable. This decision is ours alone.
Whilst we can be encouraged, assisted or almost forced, these external pressures may be enough to push us, but they may not. We can still stop, we can decide not to; the decision is ours. It is for this reason, I feel it is so important that we learn to push ourselves, to embrace the idea of pain, difficulty or fatigue and learn to overcome it.
In a class setting, with an instructor and a pre-planned workout, with help, guidance, encouragement, and insistence it is easier to push through the pain barrier. You’re in a comfortable environment, you know largely what to expect and you consciously or subconsciously had time to prepare and accept that the class was going to be tough but what if you had to do this alone? What if you had to think of the exercises, the circuits, the time and reps? You had to work hard enough and long enough to reach the pain barrier and then push through it. You have to do it alone, there’s no one to guide, insist or encourage. Would you still feel confident in your ability to get to and push through the pain barrier?
How do we do this?
It comes down to the decision we make as we approach our threshold limit, the last point where we can stop. How do we ensure that we make this decision? That we are mentally tough enough and prepared enough to force ourselves into and through discomfort.
Practice is one way, the more we do it, the easier it will become, but that’s easy to say.
For me, I believe we need to find our reason why?
- Why do you exercise in the first place?
- What do you automatically think of when it gets hard or you're tired or you’re lacking motivation?
- How do you push yourself? What thoughts, ideas, concepts, strategies? We all have a process.
- How do you psyche yourself up?
- What effect does exercise have on your mood?
Take a moment to look at these questions and try to answer them honestly.
Section 3 – Body Awareness & purposeful mind to muscle (body) connection
It is crucial to maintain correct form and body position when working with strength-based exercises, especially as we fatigue. As strength exercises get difficult, it is important we set our mind to focus on our body positioning. We must be aware of what our body is doing, not just the muscles that are working; we must be aware of how the rest of your body supports and facilitates the movements. When we feel we cannot jump, push or pull, we need to focus on trying to connect our minds to the muscle; imagine recruiting all the muscle fibers, actively telling them to work, to move as one. Plant your feet and/or hands and drive/pull with everything you have.
Being able to create a connection between your mind and your body/muscles is very important for being able to push through strength-based exercises. We’re not just talking about how they feel, whether there is pain in them or if they’re fatigued, these sensations are hard to miss. We’re trying to zero in on how they move, they’re positioning, whether we are recruiting the whole muscle properly and evenly or to its full extent, whether the rest of our body is braced correctly to support us.
This concept translates into martial arts training very well. To be at our most effective and efficient we must be aware of our bodies/muscles. For example: tensing at the end of strikes, rotation through the body, weight distribution, transitioning between punches and kicks, tensing when receiving shots in sparring, spatial awareness, footwork, distancing, etc.
Section 4 – Confidence and self-belief
So far, we have talked about mental strategies and methods to cope with difficult periods within our training, we also talked about decision making and making purposeful mental connections between our minds and our muscles/bodies with an aim to become more aware of how we move and making sure we make attempts to engage the correct muscles when working.
All of these are important factors, and each plays its part in helping us successfully get more from ourselves and push through pain and fatigue.
However, I believe self-confidence and mental toughness are the most important factors. Not only because they are intrinsically linked; the more self-confidence you have, the more mentally resilient you are to negative thoughts, mistakes, failures and poor performances but because the mind is a powerful tool and if we can understand how to control it and train it to our advantage we will have much more success. Our confidence in our abilities is integral to our successes.
Now some may argue that this doesn’t necessarily apply to recreational athletes and casual exercisers and that this sort of concept only really applies to competition level athletes or professionals. I would argue that you’d be wrong. We all have our own goals, regardless of what they are or why we exercise and we all want to improve whether the improvement is a primary or secondary goal. Confidence in our ability to achieve our goals is crucial to actually achieving them. Our confidence in our ability to perform or achieve other aspects of exercise is also important because our goals are ultimately achieved by success in more than just one thing.
Dealing with Negativity.
Self-confidence can be adversely affected by many different factors: physiological failure when attempting a skill, negative thoughts, fear of the outcome, lack of correct training and pressured situations. This can lead to frustration adding more pressure to the situation, which can emphasize bad habits and behaviors.
It is important we do our best to re-frame failures and/or negative experiences. Re-framing failures is important because it prevents us from focusing on the negative aspects of our performance which can be detrimental to self-belief. The real test of our confidence is how we respond when things aren’t going our way. If we stay confident and continue to work hard rather than give up, our performance will reach a turning point.
We're all human and at times it can be easy to get stuck in a negative cycle of thoughts and self-talk when confronted with our own failure or poor performance. So how do we overcome this?
A common misconception that many people have is that confidence is something that we are born with, that if you don’t have it at an early age, you will never have confidence. In reality, confidence is a skill, much like technical skills it can be learned and trained. Just like with any type of skill, confidence is developed through focus, effort, and repetition.
Below is a list of strategies we can use to make positive steps to increase our confidence in ourselves.
- Analyse your situation and try to find the root cause of why you are lacking confidence. Often, we encounter doubt when there is no sound reason to think that way. A Change in perspective can help us identify this and our patterns of thinking.
- Improve physical fitness. There is no substitute for hard work. You’ve probably all heard the quote that says, “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”. If we condition our bodies correctly we will be more confident during our workouts/performances. (eg: gradings) it’s hard to perform to our best when we are fatigued.
- Practice, Practice, Practice. Lack of self-confidence is a product of poor preparation. Practice the basics, strategies, sport-specific skills. The more comfortable we are with these skills, the better our skill level will be, the better we perform in the real thing.
- Visualisation, imagine yourself succeeding, completing, finishing.
- Mantras. A positive phrase or word. It can help dispel negative thoughts as they start to creep in.
- Training partner and/or coach. Someone to remind you of your abilities and accomplishments. Someone to support you and guide you.
- Remind yourself of all you have done to prepare. Remember how well you have trained for this situation, you’ve paid your dues and done everything possible to be ready. If you believe you have worked hard you will feel ready. (applicable to gradings, competitive situations).
- Don’t compare yourself to others. Comparison is a losing game, as I’ve mentioned before, sooner or later, there will always be some better or worse than you. Also remember, the best do not always win, if you have prepared well and keep control of your emotions, channel them and maintain confidence you stand every chance of winning.
- Only focus on what you can control. If you focus on things you cannot control such as your opponent, the referee, weather, environmental conditions, the past, possible outcomes, people’s expectations etc it will sabotage your confidence. Your focus should stay solely on you and what you can control and your game plan.
- Be a good coach to yourself. Be forgiving and positive with yourself. When you make mistakes, learn from them, don’t dwell on them, move on.
- It can be useful to take ownership of your training and learn the meaning behind the training you do to help develop your confidence. Achieving something on your own, pushing yourself through something by choice and understanding why you are doing something can all help increase confidence in your abilities and boost mental toughness.
I am by no means an expert on this topic and the classes were a product of my own personal interest in the subject. This article contains my own thoughts based on research and my own experiences. I think it’s important to tackle the mental side of things if we are to get the most out of ourselves. (Whether in exercise or not).
Often in today’s society we are offered quick fixes, short solutions and magical answers, all of which never fulfil but it can lead us to sometimes search endlessly for a “magical formula” for success and improvement. Ultimately, I believe to achieve this there is no substitute for putting the time in, there is no way around it. We have to put the work in and the more we put into it, the better the outcome will be, the easier it will get and the quicker we will master it.
There is no shortcut to success and improvement, we have to apply 100% effort, no matter what we are doing; whether its pad work, skipping, circuits, skill-based drills and regardless of which method we are looking at, which strategy or coping mechanism we are utilising, we need to spend time on it, we need to practice it, hone it, and get comfortable with it.
If we do it right and we do it with 100% effort, we will get better.
To put it simply: It’s not just what we do but how we do it. (and I’d add, how often we do it).
"If we aspire only to be better than ourselves and we apply this through action, we cannot fail to improve."
- Luke Brenner-Roach
We'd love to hear your thoughts on the topic?
Did you take part in any of the classes?
The Springhealth Team
These thoughts are my own and do not reflect the thoughts of Springhealth Kickboxing.