Winning the Mind Game in CrossFit

I have always been particularly intrigued by athletes who show a unique tolerance for pain and suffering. In high school, I idolized Emil Zátopek, the Czech long distance runner who would put himself through notoriously grueling interval workouts while wearing army boots in the woods (“It’s at the borders of pain and suffering that the men are separated from the boys,” he once said.) Later, I developed a fascination with Reinhold Messner, the renowned German alpinist who was the first to solo ascend Everest without oxygen. (His books poetically describe the Grenzerfahrungen, or “experiences on the edge,” endured by extreme climbers.) While this fascination with the limits of suffering may have a genetic component – the Scottish are notoriously stoic, having spent centuries hiding from the English in peat bogs – it may also be a learned behavior, a natural outgrowth of my interest in long-distance running, weight training, and, ultimately, CrossFit.

Clearly, the right mind set is crucial for success in competitive sports. Indeed, various studies of mental toughness have demonstrated that elite athletes display psychological traits that clearly set them apart from their less accomplished counterparts. These traits include long-term persistence in pursuing goals, an ability to cope with performance pressure during competitions, and – perhaps most crucially – the psychological stamina needed to endure painful workouts. It is this final aspect of mental toughness that interests me most, as high workout intensity is the proverbial fairy dust that makes CrossFit so effective. 

Over the years, I have become fond of a few mental techniques that help me to increase my tolerance for discomfort and go deeper into the “pain cave.” Try them for yourself:

  1. Visualization: The first and most simple technique I use for improving workout performance is to imagine myself going through each of the exercises in my head prior to the workout, preferably several hours before even arriving at the box. When using this technique, you should clearly visualize yourself performing the movements while feeling strong and vigorous. On some (unknown) metaphysical level, there is certainly truth to the adage that we create the reality we envision. So don’t sabotage yourself with negative expectations; rather, harness the power of visualization to catalyze amazing workouts.
  2. Embrace the Pain: When a workout starts to get tough, remind yourself that this is what you are here for! The discomfort you are experiencing means you are stressing your body in a way that will force it to adapt and get stronger. Try to perceive the pain as a good thing, as something you like and want more of. At the very minimum, this should help you to move away from a “pain avoidance mentality,” in which you just go through the motions while avoiding discomfort. This mind set is particularly poisonous to a successful workout.
  3. Disassociation: Much like your sense of sight, your conscious perception of pain depends on an act of interpretation by the mind. When in the middle of a grueling workout, I sometimes try to “take a step back” from the pain and “disassociate” myself from it. There are different ways to do this. One strategy is to “look” at the pain as if it were an objective phenomenon rather than something impacting your directly. Thus, rather than “forget” or “distract yourself” from the pain, you acknowledge its presence, but try to “view it from a distance”, as if you were assessing it as an external viewer. One technique that is interesting in this regard is to induce an out-of-body experience of sorts: Image you are someone else in the room, observing yourself working out. This other person would have no access to the discomfort you are experiencing.
  4. Set Small Goals: Back in junior high PE class, we were required to run two miles at the beginning of each month. The “two mile” was a hellish experience as a 12 year old, and I remember being particularly impressed by a friend’s time (perhaps 13 minutes, compared to my 20), so I asked him for advice. He explained that he doesn’t ever run two miles, but rather only the distance to the corner of the field, before focusing on the next corner a few hundred yards away. The strategy of breaking workouts up into mentally digestible pieces has remained with me to this day. On a practical level, it means focusing on small chunks of work that you know you can perform. For example, try tackling 150 wall balls in sets of 15, knowing that you will get a break between each set. This strategy can make large volume workouts seem much less daunting.
  5. “Your Suffering is Nothing”: The Deer Hunter, a movie about American POWs in Vietnam, made a particularly strong impression on me in high school, and I remember running my best 5000m time while dwelling on the fact that my suffering during the race was so massively inconsequential in the face of experiences in which individuals are truly brought to the brink of psychological breakdown and/or death. I think taking a step back and realizing that you are most certainly capable of performing at a much higher level if your life depended on it is a powerful psychological tool. As the former head of SEAL Team Six, Richard Marcinko, once wrote, when you feel like you have reached the limits of your endurance, you have only exhausted about 40% of your capacity. Try to take this insight to heart and redefine your notion of what it means to have a “difficult” workout.

While this article focused on techniques for pushing beyond your pain threshold, pain does in fact have an important physiological purpose and should not be completely ignored, particularly when it could be indicative of an injury. To be sure, the body does have certain limits, and learning about these limits and how to productively operate within them is a crucial aspect of developing as an athlete.

I hope you find these tips for winning the mind game in CrossFit useful, and that they allow you to crank up the intensity of your training!

By Lucais Sewell, Escapist CrossFit

Coach Lucais

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