Raise Your Athletic IQ

Avoid mental meltdowns by tuning into your bodyAvoid mental meltdowns by tuning into your bodyAthletes are skilled at reading their body's cues and making the necessary on-the-spot adjustments--to pace, form, or attitude--to power through their workouts and races, says Dominic Micklewright, Ph.D., a sports psychologist at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. Here's how you can raise your athletic IQ to reach your full performance potential.

Tune Into Your Body

Many people try to ignore the various twinges and aches they experience during a workout. Rather than spending the workout dismissing these sensations, "pay attention and learn what they mean," says Micklewright. Your goal is to get to the point where you know your body so well that you can distinguish between the fatigue and muscle burning that's part of pushing through or what could be the start of an injury. "It's only by listening to your body's cues that you know what they're telling you," he says. To avoid major workout mishaps, follow these 10 Laws of Injury Prevention.

[IQ Booster] Leave Your Tech Devices at Home

At least for the next few workouts, says John Raglin, Ph.D., a sports psychologist at Indiana University. You'll learn to rely less on the objective data you're receiving from your heart-rate monitor or GPS and more on the wisdom your body is providing. It also helps to do a self-check every so often, adds Cindra Kamphoff, Ph.D., a sports psychology consultant and professor at Minnesota State University. "Just take a moment to consider how your legs feel, how your heart feels," she says. "That way you're reminding yourself to take in those body cues and decide what to do with the information--push through, back off, bail." Learn how to leave your gadgets behind for a Tech-Free Boost in Workout Results.

Plan for (a Little) Pain
Working out is going to hurt--sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. If you expect and prepare for discomfort, "then you can reframe how you think of pain," says Kamphoff. This kind of preparedness also teaches you what you're capable of tolerating. "Pain you expect is easier to cope with, especially if you're confident you can handle it," Micklewright says.

[IQ Booster] Set Small Goals

Most of the top athletes Kamphoff studied talked about changing up their workouts. For example, say you set out for a four-mile elliptical workout and at mile one you're just not feeling it. Instead of giving in to the urge to turn around, tell yourself your new goal is to just make it to mile two. At mile two, reassess and challenge yourself to a new target. "Often we bail too early," she says. "Setting mid-workout goals makes it less overwhelming." (Related: Create a better fitness plan by learning how to Adapt Your Goals to Workout Success.)

Stay Positive

Sometimes, the only way to learn where your personal strengths and limits lie is to make a mistake, says Micklewright. "How do you know how far you can push yourself until you push yourself just a little too far?" he says. That kind of experience helps you find your limits and gain a better understanding of what you can do, both physically and mentally.

[IQ Booster] Do a Post-Workout Self-Evaluation
Do a self-evaluation at the end of each workout. That could be simply saying that you worked out, or it could be using your stretch time to replay the workout in your mind and list the best thing or two that happened.

Control Your Self-Image

Research shows that athletes who expect to hit "the wall" do indeed hit it, says Kamphoff. "You need to imagine yourself strong," she says. "Pay attention to the images in your mind, and be ready to adjust them if you need to talk yourself out of a tough spot."

[IQ Booster] Write a Performance Statement

This is a brief sentiment that will become your mantra, something you can say to yourself when you start to drag. It's important to draft something that's personal and that will have meaning to you, but it should address pushing through fatigue and/or discomfort. Good examples include, I am mentally and physically strong, or Push, I can do this. This statement will also double as a visual cue. "Having it down in black and white gives it more power," she says. "So I tell athletes to post their statement where they'll see it before a workout." (Related: What Workout Mantra Works for You?)

Feel Better:

Wearing compression tights during a hard workout may reduce muscle soreness by limiting swelling and increasing blood flow.

Mind Over Pain
When the hurt sets in, reboot with these strategies. Change doesn't happen in your comfort zone. "You need to push through discomfort to see performance gains," says John Raglin, Ph.D. "But if all you're thinking about are your sore feet and legs, your brain can produce a stress response that increases the ache." Try one or more of the following mind tricks to keep your head in the game.

Give Yourself a Pep Talk

Recall a time when you topped your expectations. Positive self-talk can help improve your concentration.

MORE: 10 Mental Tricks for a Better Workout

Refocus Your Thoughts

If you've tried pushing harder (see "Plan for Pain,") and still can't get your mind off your agony, try giving your brain a new task, such as naming all the states. This will keep your brain busy enough to suppress the stress response.

Find Your Rhythm
Try counting to eight over and over; concentrating on a rhythmic pattern is calming.

Look for Little Victories

Finding achievement from segments of a workout makes it easier to maintain intensity.

Use Your Imagination
While working out, picture yourself as a tiger hunting prey. Visualization reroutes your mind away from your pain.

TELL US: How do you stay focused and motivated through tough workouts?

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