There are moments in every athlete’s training when they believe they can’t push themselves any further. Marathon runners call it hitting the wall. At Spartan, we call it your breaking point: when you are completely mentally and physically tapped and you think you can’t do one more rep, or take one more step, or attempt one more obstacle.
Whether you’re training for your races this year or just putting one foot in front of the other, everyone hits that point when they feel they can’t go any further. Sometimes that point is dictated by injury or dangerous pain - and that voice in your head that says stop should be listened to. But in many cases, it’s all in your mind: A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology indicated that what matters most is the fight between your subjective sense of effort and your increasing desire to quit.
"We have to dissect myth from reality," says Dr. Jeff Spencer, a sports psychologist for elite athletes such as Tiger Woods, author of How Not To Blow It Before You Win, and an Olympic cyclist himself. "A lot of the things we hear are mythology that can set us up to fail, to talk ourselves out of things prematurely." Spencer has decades of experience helping athletes access what he calls their 'champion's nature', something he insists is inside all of us.
We asked Dr. Spencer and other sports psychologists to tap into Spartans' champion's nature - and tell us how to overcome those mental hurdles to help you push past your breaking point to achieve new fitness feats now and in 2021 (pick a date and commit now!)
Always Assess Your Physical Ability First Before Pushing
A big part of being a Spartan is pushing yourself to your physical limits. And there's serious pride in that. But according to Dr. Spencer the very first step in pushing past your breaking point is assessing whether your body is equipped to take on the task: "If someone shows up for a workout or race and they're not appropriately recovered, they're going to perform at a sub par level," he says. "You also risk getting injured if you push through when your body isn't ready."
Ariane Machin, a sports psychologist at North Carolina State University, agrees: “We want to be mindful of setting realistic expectations when engaging in physical activity,” she says. “You may need to adjust your goals on the fly depending on if you are experiencing hardship.” The takeaway: be flexible, and always assess whether your body is physically ready to take on the task first.
Focus on the Next Step (or Obstacle) in Front of You
If you were to try to tackle every obstacle on a Beast course all at the same time, do you think you would succeed? Of course not. So don’t think about think about how impossible it seems to finish the whole thing. Instead, says Dr. Spencer, focus on whatever is directly in front of you: the next step, the next rope to climb. “You can only direct your attention to one thing at a time, so concentrate on the action in front of you and you’ll get to the finish line,” he says. Research in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise supports this approach to seemingly unreachable fitness goals: it found that your brain can underestimate how much you have left in the tank, asking your muscles for less effort even though they haven’t been maxed out yet. The trick is to train, train, train: the more your muscles get used to the burn, the less they will ask your brain to stop.
Do a Mental Dry Run of Whatever Race You Want to Finish
Maybe you’ve heard about how crucial visualization is for professional athletes: Olympian downhill skiiers, for example, will mentally simulate every turn on their way down the mountain. Dr. Spencer calls this “rehearsed readiness” and it’s something Spartans can seriously benefit from: “You should know what you’re physically going to experience so you can predict when you might expect to feel tired,” he explains. “So when these challenges show up, you’ll know how to address them, and you won’t be taken by surprise.”
Whether you’re training for a Sprint or a Trifecta, map out every obstacle on the course ahead of time. “How are you going to feel ten minutes before the event starts? You’ll be nervous so make sure you don’t listen to your brain saying it’s a bad sign,” advises Spencer. “Once you get started, people may bump elbows with you, so make a mental note to hold your place and keep moving.” Machin supports this approach to training and racing: “Identify what triggers may present that will hinder your mindset or reduce your motivation,” she says. “Because when you know when you’re most vulnerable, you can problem-solve prior to being in the situation.”
Related: Spartan Race FAQ: Everything You Need to Know
Talk to Yourself Like You Would Talk to a Friend
“I can’t climb that rope.” “I’ll never make it to the finish line.” “I don’t know how to do a Hercules Hoist.” Who is behind that negative voice in your head? What evidence do you have that’s true? “Check the facts,” advises Dr. Spencer. “Ask yourself where that belief came from.” Then re-write the script in your head - and make it positive. “Positive self-instruction can help guide you through a difficult situation,” says Machin. “If you’re in the middle of a race and you’re feeling fatigued, use positive self-talk to keep you going.” Imagine what you might say to a friend in that situation: ‘I know you can do this’ or ‘I believe you can climb that wall.’ Keep training and you know what? You will.