What Mind Games Do You Play on Yourself During Exercise?

What Mind Games Do You Play on Yourself During Exercise?
Illustration: chuckchee, Shutterstock

As I’m slogging through a run, I never tell myself I’m halfway. Everything I just did, I have to do it all again? Not a helpful thought. Instead, I use some more creative maths. The first kilometre of any run, after all, is just a warmup, and the last kilometre is gravy — if you only have a kilometre left, you can practically crawl home. So the hard part is everything in between, and suddenly you’re just talking yourself through a three-kilometre run instead of a five-kilometre.

Specific routes help. By the time I finish (actual) kilometre number two of that five-kilometre, the water fountain is just at the bottom of this next hill. Once I get to the water fountain, I’m practically at the corner where I turn left. The whole next kilometre after that is easy and flat; once that kilometre is over, we’re on the home stretch.

Or maybe you’re doing sets of an exercise, or interval repeats. I read an interview once with a big-name runner (wish I could remember who) who said that the hardest repeat is always the second-to-last, because on the last one you don’t have to worry about saving your energy for anything after that. Ever since then, I no longer count the repeats until I’m done; I say things like “only two more, and then the hard one, and then the easy one.”

Timed workouts are a bit harder. If you want to spend half an hour on an exercise bike, it helps to have someone keeping your attention — like a Peloton instructor pushing you to speed up during the chorus of a song, and then relax a bit on the next verse. The other day I was riding my bike indoors, and I didn’t feel like putting on a guided workout. But I was trying to hit 40 minutes, and that’s a long time, so I started watching the clock and giving myself rewards at every five-minute mark, like hopping off the bike to do pushups or jog around for 30 seconds with the timer still running.

I know I’m not the only one who plays these little mind games. Our deputy editor, Jordan Calhoun, told me he does something similar with checking his phone during rest times: “after x sets, I can check Instagram,” he tells himself, or “after x songs, I can text so-and-so back.” I also loved this twist on counting sets with physical tokens:

So now I’d like to know: what mind games do you play? How do you make a long workout seem short, and a short workout seem basically over already?

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