You’re at the gym—shorts on, running shoes laced up. You’re about to hit some cardio or weights when you realize that you forgot to pack your iPod, which means you’ll have no music to get you through your workout. For many, this is the point at which a major case of cranky sets in. But take a moment to remember : Your mind, not your body, is your greatest asset. Train it.
I get it. I have spent countless hours on the indoor rower or treadmill with some Jay-Z or Zeppelin as my main source of fuel. I also work in the fitness industry where music is everything and can be as important as the instructor in a class. In a Zumba dance class, not hitting the beat can be a disaster, while in an indoor cycling class, climbing to the top of a “hill” is less of a mental hurdle with the right soundtrack playing.
Outside of the gym, however, music ceases to be such a vital source of motivation. Many endurance events, especially rowing and cycling, ban the use of iPods for reasons that are obvious. I’m OK with that too. Music may provide you with a beat and motivation, but it also tunes you out of your training. It enables you to disassociate from the task at hand and distracts you from both the pain and monotony of long-distance training. While tuning out can often be a good thing, too often it separates us from the messages our body is sending and acts as a crutch that inhibits the development of mental discipline.
The next time you forget your iPod, use it as an opportunity to tune in (not out) to what your body is doing, how it’s moving through space, landing on the damp grass, or sliding back and forth in the boat. Focus your attention on how the air travels in and out of your lungs or visualize the blood rushing to supply oxygen to the specific muscles in need. Focus on your technique and on staying connected, fluid, and efficient. By bringing your focus to each step or stroke, you’ll create the awareness you need to succeed.
I’ve done grueling seven-day adventure races and local, less intensive 10ks, but I always discover that in the deepest, darkest moments of the challenge, my ability to really listen to my body allows me to push through to the other side of pain. Tuning in allows me to make that small change in my form or breathing and alerts me to take an extra shot of energy gel or Gatorade so I don’t hit the wall. Simply put, tuning in allows me to be my best.
Although some people have a deeper, more innate ability to tune in (the practice of association), honing this skill is key. Next time you hit the pavement and feel your hamstrings grabbing, tune in. Perhaps a quick stretch or a change in your gait will allow you to carry on pain-free. When you hit the weights again, pay attention to every micro movement. This will ensure max output and prevent an involuntary week off because of your overzealous attempt to lift to the beat of the latest techno tune. Tune in while struggling to hold a split on the rower. Sit up taller and allow the air to make it deeper into your lungs.
None of this means giving up your iPod for good. It will, however, help you prevent injury and find mental focus while freeing you from all the “stuff” you think you need in order to train. Often we think people become amazing athletes because of their genetic makeup, talent, and well-trained bodies. However, the mind is an athlete’s greatest asset. Train it!