We take a look at how psychological strategies can optimise physical performance. Borrowing ideas from sports and exercise psychology that are used for elite athletes, we suggest that anyone can improve their fitness by spending a bit of time thinking about it.
Sport and exercise psychology is a relatively new discipline concerned with understanding the psychological processes of people who engage in sports and exercise – their behaviour, mental processes and well-being. Professionals in this field might work in general health promotion, coach elite athletes to maximise their performance, or offer counselling to sportspeople who have been injured. Increasingly, they are also applying findings from research into motor learning and psychophysiology to advise individuals on how to optimise their fitness regimes.
The growing popularity of sport and exercise psychology reflects a general acceptance in our society that physical and mental processes are inextricably linked. Whether you're a professional athlete or an ordinary member of the public trying to live as healthy a life as possible, it's important to look after your body and your mind to achieve the best possible results.
So how can you make use of ideas from sport and exercise psychology to optimise your own workout? Here are five techniques that professionals in this field regularly employ. Although these techniques are generally taught to elite athletes, they have plenty of application for those of us lesser mortals trying to get the most out of our fitness routine.
1) Arousal regulation
The impressively-named Yerkes-Dodson law states that the relationship between arousal levels and performance (any kind of performance, mental or physical) follows an inverted U-shape. So if arousal levels are very low, performance is low. As arousal levels rise, so does performance. But beyond a certain point, increasing arousal leads to decreased performance. In other words, there's an optimum level of arousal, and you don't want to go either much higher or lower.
For elite athletes, the problem of arousal regulation is often about dealing with arousal levels that are too high. The performance anxiety that can come with, say, competing in an international event, can raise arousal levels to such a point that they impair performance. To deal with this, it is common to employ relaxation strategies such as progressive muscle relaxation, breathing techniques, or meditation (particularly mindfulness).
Apply this to the situation where you've had a very stressful day at work and can't let go of the impending deadline/recent argument with your boss/uncooperative behaviour of a colleague. It's preoccupying you to the extent that you can hardly begin to think about going to the gym, let alone actually focus on that half an hour on the treadmill. It's probably tempting to go through the motions mechanically, all the while ruminating about work, or even to give up the whole idea of a workout at all and try to deal with your work stress by having a drink or two in front of the television. In this situation, you'd do well to spend fifteen minutes quietly doing some relaxation exercises to get yourself into the right frame of mind for a workout. A (deceptively!) simple but effective technique is just to pay attention to your breathing. Feel your breath moving in and out of your body, perhaps counting seven breaths to help you stay focused and then starting again. Every time you feel your mind wandering (it always, always does, so don't beat yourself up about this!), gently bring your attention back to your breathing. Taking time to regulate your arousal in this way will help to make you feel more motivated to work out and will keep you more focused during your exercise session.
2) Goal setting
Goal setting is, quite simply, all about being clear about your goals and planning them in an organised way. It's a strategy that you can apply to pretty much any situation in life. If you really want to achieve something, you need to:
- be specific about what you want to accomplish
- be able to measure your progress
- set goals that are difficult but attainable
- have a time frame in mind for achieving your goals
- write down what you want to achieve, and
- break up your goal into short-term steps that lead to a long-term attainment.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that this sort of planning yields far better results than a general “I'll do the best I can” attitude.
So don't draw up a fitness plan with the vague idea that you want to get into shape and will have a go at going to the gym. What is it you want to achieve – weight loss? Improved cardiovascular fitness? Increased strength? How will you measure these improvements – weekly weigh-ins? Endurance tests? How heavy a weight you can lift? Go for goals that are possible but not easy and keep a journal. Remind yourself before every workout both of the short-term goals on which you are focusing that day, and of the overall long-term goal towards which these short-term goals are taking you.
Most of us probably have some sort of stereotyped idea of a coach encouraging an athlete to imagine sporting success before a big match, race or similar in order to optimise their performance. Stereotype or not, this technique works. Research indicates that really detailed imagery involving all of the senses is the most effective. So spend some time really imagining what it would feel like to attain the goals that you have so carefully and systematically set yourself. How would your body feel? What would other people's reactions be? Are there any sounds or smells you associate with attaining your goals? Don't write this off as daydreaming – it's an important way to keep your overall goal in mind and to stay focused and motivated.
4) Pre-performance routines
Most athletes have a set of mental and physical warm-ups that they will use to prepare for any sporting performance. Physical warm-ups will be specific to their sport and will usually include some way of stretching and preparing the muscles and cardiovascular system for optimum output. To warm up mentally, the three techniques outlined above are employed, so that arousal levels are optimised, goals are clearly kept in mind, and imagery is used to mentally prepare for success. The average gym goer would do well to take all this to heart, not to leap straight into a workout but to take time to prepare physically (every gym worth its fees will have staff on hand to advise you on optimal stretching and other warm-up activities) and mentally.
5) Self talk
Self talk is exactly what it says on the tin – how you talk to yourself. In the context of sport and exercise, it's about developing certain phrases that help the body and mind to focus on a specific action or goal. It's a highly personal matter – some people don't respond at all well to critical self talk whereas others are spurred on by it. Experiment and find out what works for you. It's best to stick to two or three short, memorable sentences that you can say to yourself at crucial moments. Whereas elite golfers may say “Smooth stroke” to themselves, the average gym goer can probably stick to something more general along the lines of “I can do this” “I'm getting stronger all the time” or similar.
So that's a little taster of how you can apply insights from sports and exercise psychology to your own fitness regime. It's really quite simple, and it mostly involves taking time to really think about what you're doing. And isn't that something we should all do in all areas of our lives?
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