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How I talk to myself during a workout


While I was running on the treadmill one day, I realized that I have certain phrases that I say to myself while I exercise and memories that motivate me. I've been exercising for so long – I started running with my dad when I was 12 – that my inner monologue while I workout is second nature to me. But it made me curious about what's going on in everyone else's heads next to me on the treadmill. So I thought I'd share what's going on in my mind during a workout and I'd love to hear from you as well.

First of all, a little exercise background. Like I mentioned, I started running with my dad when I was 12, the summer after 6th grade. I remember that I  wanted to go out for the track team in 7th grade and so I wanted to start running to be competitive. My dad is still a runner today and he went for a run most days during my childhood. I don't remember how often I ran with my dad, maybe once or twice a week until I started running track.

Then, two years later, I learned to row and joined the local Austin juniors rowing team. Rowing was my sport for the next eight years, all the way through college. The experience was incredibly formative for me and one I'm so thankful to have. Rowing is a sport that requires physical and mental endurance. A typical practice row could be continuously rowing for an hour or more and during that time you can't stop or talk. So there's ample time to work on mental endurance and quiet the thoughts of "When will we get a break?" and "Why is the boat leaning starboard; who is leaning??" During my senior year of college I distinctly remember being able to zone out during some of our long morning rows and think through my graduate school application essay!

Nowadays my workouts consist of Orange Theory and High Fitness. Orange Theory is a high intensity interval training group fitness class during which we run on the treadmill, lift weights, and often row as well. I've been doing Orange Theory for nine years now! High Fitness is a choreographed cardio dance-type of class that is incredibly fun and a very good workout. I discovered High Fitness in 2018 and am so thankful to have found it.

Even though I rarely say anything out loud during my workouts – maybe a quick "good job!" to the person next to me – I'm saying quite a bit internally. Perhaps more so during my Orange Theory classes because I'm working through runs and weight lifting reps. During High Fitness we're moving to the music so I'm mostly trying to stay on beat. But sometimes I need an extra mental push.

So, let me invite you into my head during a workout. Something I realized is that during my workout mental chatter I sometimes see myself as having two parts: my mental self and physical self, the brains and the brawn so to speak. It's kind of like having a coach and an athlete inside my head but they are both me – if that makes any sense! So you'll see that reflected in some of the ways I talk to myself. In addition to talking to myself, I have certain memories or scenes that I sometimes recall that also motivate me.

These are some of the things I say to myself or picture during a workout:

+ "You'll feel better when you get warmed up." Even being very fit, I don't start to really feel like working out until I'm warmed up. Knowing this, I always start off running on the treadmill right away, never walking, to get my heart rate up faster. As I'm working through my sluggishness I remind myself, "You'll feeling better when you get warmed up," and it's always true!

+ "Why did you wake up?" I wake up at 4:05 a.m. for my early Wednesday workouts at 5:05 a.m on Saturday. I'm used to it but it takes effort. To make that early alarm worth it I want to bring my best effort to my workouts. My goal is to increase my fitness, not stay stagnant. To do that I have to push myself past my comfort zone and get uncomfortable during a workout (in a good way). By the time I'm at Orange Theory I'm already awake and at the gym, there's no going back. So it's up to me to make the trip worthwhile by putting in the work. "Why did you wake up?" always gives me a little oomph.

+ "Meet me there." If we have a sprint block on the treadmill I sometimes picture myself telling a running buddy to meet me at the finish line or tell myself "meet me there," meaning I'm expecting you to keep this pace or faster the whole time. I sort of picture my coach self at the finish line with a stop watch. She knows I can keep the pace and is expecting me to meet here there, right on time.

+ "Settle..." This is a phrase from my rowing days. When we'd take off from the starting line of a sprint race we would be in a barely controlled frenzy. Once we were 20 strokes or so into the race the cox, our teammate in the bow steering and giving commands, would tell us to "Settle!" which meant find our race pace and settle in for the long haul. Sometimes I'll remind myself to "settle" after I take off in a longer push or sprint on the treadmill. I might be mentally pushing back saying, "I can't keep up this pace! I'm tired already!" So I think, "Settle..." reminding me to quiet negativity and settle into the workout.

+ "This is what being strong feels like." When I'm feeling fatigued and need to keep pushing through I tell myself, "This is what being strong feels like." On the flip side I could think to myself that feeling tired is a sign of weakness which would deflate me. Instead, I remind myself that strength is not when a workout always feels easy. It's continuing to push through even when a workout is hard. This phrase reminds me that I'm strong and what I'm doing in this moment is what being strong feels like.

+ "This is the workout right here." I use this phrase when I'm flagging a bit or don't love a particular exercise we are doing. When I tell myself this I'm telling myself that whatever I'm doing right now is the most critical part of the work out, so bring your best! This phrase gets me to hyper-focus on the specific rep, move, or running block that I'm in. Whatever I'm doing I'll check my form and tighten it up. I intend the phrase to mean that nothing else matters in the workout as much as what is happening right now. But this is a case of the brains outsmarting the brawn because I'll definitely use it more than once during a workout if needed.

Other mental approaches to a workout:

+ Breaking down running and rowing blocks. During Orange Theory treadmill blocks we run at certain paces for short blocks of time. On the rower we usually row for 600 meters or less. My mental game during these is almost always to break every block down, at least by half if not by thirds or quarters. As I run or row I'll tell myself, "Okay, first quarter is down..." And I pay special attention to the middle of any block which always feels the longest. That's always what feels the longest so I work to get through that and then feel that I'm on the downhill on the other side. Even within a block I’ve already broken down I might keep breaking things down until I get to a chunk of time or distance that doesn’t feel intimidating. Sometimes that’s just 15 seconds at a time. Whatever it takes to keep me focused and not complaining. I know this is a skill I started during rowing. We would have different paces and strategies for different sections of races so breaking a workout down into chunks has stuck with me.

+ Picturing scenes from rowing races or workouts. This can help me find that sweet spot between focus and zoning out where I'm in the flow of the workout. Although I'm glad my rowing days are behind me, they often still motivate me during a workout. Rowing in sync with seven other women, all pushing as hard as you can, is an incredible experience. You feel your own strength at the same time that it's magnified by the other women in the boat with you, all moving in rhythm together.

A cross training rowing workout we did during high school that I will sometimes recall was to sprint up the long ramps of the UT-Austin college football stadium. Not the stadium steps but the long and wide concrete ramps where fans would enter and walk up into the stadium. It looked almost like parking garage ramps. It's been so long now but I believe we would sprint to level six, walk down, and then do it again and again for 30 minutes. Then we'd take a break by doing one-minute wall sits, and then do another block of sprints. Picturing rowing scenes and workouts not only motivates me but reminds me how happy I am to be running on a treadmill and not up stadium ramps!

+ Picturing giving birth. I'm not sure if this sounds weird but my three non-medicated birth experiences were so powerful and empowering to me that during a workout they can remind me of what my body is capable of. "If I can birth babies without pain medicine, surely I can do ___." And absolutely I can.

+ Thinking of my friend Allyson! Allyson and I rowed together in high school, are still dear friends, and she also does Orange Theory! We love to talk about exercise and motivation and when the other one needs encouragement for anything will send a text that says "Power 20!" – a phrase that's used during a rowing sprint. So sometimes during a workout I might picture working out next to Allyson and that always puts a zip in my step or row.


I hope you enjoyed visiting the inside of my head during a workout! It was an interesting experience to reflect on all that goes on for me mentally during a workout. I would be so curious to hear what your mental dialogue and imagery is like when you exercise!


P.S. Health and fitness habits at 34