Good programing, proper fueling, adequate recovery: Elite coaches agree these are all essential for athletes to meet their full potential in any given session. But there’s another key component, and it’s one you might not expect: a clear understanding of your workout’s purpose or intention.
What Does Purpose Mean?
Purpose is different from your “why,” or your deeper motivation for working out. For instance, your “why” might be staying healthy and fit for as long as you can, or feeling more energetic in your everyday life. Your fitness goals, like completing a Spartan Race, for example, serve your “why” in some way.
Your “purpose,” on the other hand, is the specific reason you’re completing a given workout or training program. For instance, you might be doing a workout with the intention to gain strength, get faster, improve endurance, or maximize recovery.
Your “why” and your “purpose” support each other, according to Leeja Carter, Ph.D., executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “Connecting to purpose helps us focus on the big picture along with keeping our goals and the incremental gains (or losses) in perspective as we work out.”
Why Is Purpose So Important? (Hint: It's Brain Chemistry)
There’s some evidence that understanding the purpose of your workout can deliver better results. “When you focus your attention on strengthening a specific muscle, you’re able to activate a higher percentage of muscle fibers in that muscle,” notes Erin Reynolds, Psy.D., a sports psychologist at Baylor Scott & White Sports Therapy & Research. This is because your brain produces a chemical called acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that stimulates your muscles to move. “The more you mentally focus on a muscle during a contraction, the more acetylcholine is produced, which then improves the quality of the rep,” says Reynolds.
Understanding the purpose behind your workouts can also help you make small tweaks that ultimately get you closer to the results you’re after. Chris Hinshaw, a top endurance coach who has worked with more than 30 CrossFit Games champions, uses this example to explain:
Imagine your workout is five 100-meter sprints, then three minutes of rest. There are two ways you could use that rest period, Hinshaw says, depending on the purpose of your workout: If your workout purpose is speed, you’ll want to rest completely during those three-minute breaks, so you can fully recover to push your pace in the next sprint. But if your workout purpose is active recovery, then you’d use the rest intervals to do a slow jog, which would help you develop endurance. So, understanding your specific goals can help you pick a workout with a purpose that lines up.
How to Use Intentional Workouts for More Effective Results
Before each workout, set an intention, which is what you hope to get out of the session (speed, power, strength, mobility, etc). Then, use self-talk to drive it home mid-session, suggests Deborah Roche, Ph.D., a sports psychologist at Hospital for Special Surgery. Actually telling yourself, “This workout will make me fast,” or “This session will make me strong,” can be helpful. “It sort of keeps your eye on the prize, because it links what you're doing to what the outcome will be.”