Have you ever finished a competition or workout and said to yourself one of the following?

“I could have given more.”

“I could have pushed harder.”

“I have more left in me.”  

The answer is undoubtedly, yes, and it was probably accompanied by feelings of guilt. The reason for this is simple. No matter what sport or exercise you partake in, at some point you will have to dig deep to extend a hard effort that causes you to hurt, to strain, or even to suffer.  Whether this is a mile race, a pre-season fitness test, or trying to max out a weight in the gym, at some point you will have to make the decision to quiet your mind that is pleading for you to stop. This is the idea of perceived effort. The closer you get to your physical limit, the more perceived effort you are putting forth and the more discomfort you feel. The farther you are from your physical limit, the less discomfort you feel and the easier the task.

For example, if I can run a mile in six minutes, then jogging at eight minute pace to my favorite country song would be pretty easy. I might perceive my effort to be about a 2 or 3. On the other hand, if someone asked me to run two miles in under 13 minutes then I might perceive my effort to be about an 8 or 9. However, if someone told me to break five minutes in the mile then I might think they are out of their mind and that I would have to be at a solid 10 effort for the entire time to ever come close to achieving this goal.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Wrong. This is where mental skills come into play. Throughout physical training you are told to train hard, so the competition feels easier. The harder you train the easier the task becomes, right? Well technically, yes, if you are only staying at one goal. But, what if you are trying to strive for more? Since athletes and exercisers are often told that training makes the competition easier, they assume going in that they should feel “strong,” “fluid,” “relaxed,” “within themself,” and my personal favorite: “listen to your body.” I know if I listened to my body during a 5k race, that somewhere around the mile mark I would stop, get a donut, and take a nap. We can’t always listen to our body or assume that competition is going to be “easy” to reach a place we never have before. Mental skills help to close the gap between our perceived effort and our physical limits. This is how you become closer to your athletic potential to lift a weight you never thought you could or finish a run faster than you imagined.

So, how do we gauge how far we can push ourselves so that we don’t have that guilty feeling at the end of a workout or competition?

Maximize your practice… While in practice, start gauging your effort. Know what your body feels like at a perceived effort of 1 all the way up to 10. Having this knowledge will empower you when you get into competition to make the correct decisions on whether to push harder or maintain effort.

Stay calm…When we start to feel pain or discomfort while exercising, we sometimes start to panic. We ask ourselves why we are hurting already or question our preparation. Instead, ask yourself what effort am I really putting forth right now? Am I really at a 10? Can I go harder? The answer will most likely be yes. If so, take a few deep breaths and maintain effort. Know that discomfort is part of the process and should be expected. But more importantly, know that afterwards you will feel amazing about yourself for pushing harder and not giving up.

Push harder…Perhaps the most pivotal part of any athletic achievement is that somebody, somewhere, decided that they were going to push harder than anyone has before. They asked themselves how bad they wanted to win and they dug deeper. Although we may not be breaking any world records, we can break our own records and come closer to our physical limits. Find just how strong or fast you really are by knowing that inevitably you can push harder than you think and you are not hurting as bad as you feel.