Do you consider yourself an athlete? If you aren’t in the big leagues like Serena Williams or Carli Lloyd, and your college athlete days are either over or a figment of your imagination, you probably don’t. As someone who stopped playing sports partway through high school, it feels like a lifetime since I used that word to describe myself. But after hearing multiple fitness pros suggest that “thinking like an athlete” is one of the best ways to motivate yourself to push through a tough workout or reach a new fitness goal, I decided to try it out.
Kira Stokes, a celebrity trainer based in NYC and creator of the Stoked Method, calls her clients “Stoked athletes”—that includes big-name celebs, like Candace Cameron Bure, and little people trying to get their sweat on in her group fitness classes, like me. She tells me that hearing the word “athlete” conjures up certain admirable characteristics. “Athletes set goals for themselves, they’re willing to challenge themselves and their limits,” Stokes says. They connect their mind and body. They harness every possibility both physically and mentally. They don’t make excuses. Calling yourself an athlete “sets the mindset of willing to challenge yourself,” she says. “You’re no longer saying, ‘This is so hard, I can’t do this, this is the most intense workout ever.’ You’re thinking, ‘I can do this, I have what it takes.’” And when you’re pushing through an uncomfortable spot or a particularly challenging circuit, that’s the mental space you need to be in.
It also comes down to the power of positive thinking. “If you approach any task with the understanding that you’re going to succeed, you will,” Nike trainer Alex Silver-Fagan tells SELF. “You have to approach every sweat session with confidence and strength. Believe that you are strong enough, and I promise you’ll surprise yourself.”
So, this past week, I went to my regular workout class. But this time, I took a minute to put on my athlete hat and channel those champion vibes beforehand.
Working out isn’t just physical. “In order to achieve all of the benefits, you have to be in it 110 percent and that means mentally as well,” Silver-Fagan says. “If you begin a workout and are focusing on the rest of your day’s to-do list, what happened that morning, the e-mail you have to send later, or what you’re going to eat for dinner, your experience will suffer.” I took her advice, and gave myself a few minutes to focus before class. Instead of thinking about how hard it was going to be, I thought about how lucky and grateful I am to be able to move my body as I was about to (a mantra I learned from Stokes).
Throughout the workout, I reminded myself of my athletic prowess by looking in the mirror, focusing on how my muscles moved, and admiring my ability to push harder.
“Self talk means a lot more when you’re looking in mirror and talking to yourself. You believe it a lot more,” says Stokes. Taking full advantage of the mirrored wall in front of me, I looked myself dead in the eye as often as proper form would permit. I silently told myself how strong I looked, how great my thighs looked with each squat, and how kickass it was that I could make it through full circuits with weights that I’d never even be able to lift a year ago. I think I may have even winked at myself at some point.
When I got tired or felt like I needed a break, I remembered something Silver-Fagan said: “Athletes push harder when they get tired. Athletes fight for one more rep. Athletes don’t quit.” So I fought, and I felt great (like a bona fide athlete) when I made it to the end without giving up.
I also worked off the energy of the people around me and let their athleticism fuel me.
OK, so here’s the deal. I can’t lift weights on my own. I do a few reps, and then sit down on the mat and start thinking about what angle of my sneakers might make for a nice Instagram and how good some spaghetti would feel in my belly. But in a group class, I have a room full of people working hard and an instructor yelling out words of encouragement. The room is thick with enthusiasm and motivation. Like an athlete that plays a team sport, I let this surrounding energy fuel mine.
“Usually by the second and a half time through a circuit, I say, ‘Think about how good your body feels right now and how endorphinated and stoked you are, and how much better you feel than when you walked in the room,’” Stokes says. The point is that the positive reinforcement gets you to dig deeper and focus on your body and all the great things you’re doing for it in the moment. Like an athlete, you’re suddenly making each move intentional and forgetting how much you’d like to stop and rest. No one else is stopping, and as part of this team, I can’t either.
The whole thing really helped me power through, so the next day, I decided to channel the same mentality on a solo run.
7:19 is early for me. Don’t judge.
I crushed that strength training class—and not only felt good after, but proud of how I challenged myself. I’m not a morning workout kinda gal, so I decided I’d see how channeling my inner athlete to drag myself out of bed for a run might help. Michael Phelps wouldn’t just skip swim practice because it was kind of cold out and his blankets felt especially cozy. This is what I told myself. No one made it to the Super Bowl or World Cup by skipping workouts because their bed felt too nice. After checking the weather, telling myself it was a gorgeous morning and I was going to seize the day and this chance to start it sweating, I got out of bed and laced up.
“You want to leave a workout without having a single regret like you left anything on the table. Even if you don’t have your best workout ever one particular day, you just need to know you did the absolute best you possibly could,” Stokes says. Even Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have his best game every single game. But he sure as hell tries to do the best he can on that day under those circumstances. Since I am essentially a zombie for the first three hours after my alarm goes off, I told myself I just had to get out there. It didn’t have to be my best run ever. I’d just make it the best I could considering I was not at my ~prime~.
And it wasn’t my best run. I was tired, and my stomach was growling the whole time begging me for the scrambled eggs I was withholding. But I got out of bed and got out there, and tried to think of myself like a player in the offseason—not at my peak, but needing to challenge myself, push myself, and improve at my sport. When I got tired and wanted to walk, I reminded myself I was capable of doing way more than these three miles, and that I’d feel great afterward knowing I completed a personal challenge and got in a morning workout. I sprinted the last quarter mile until my cool-down. Just like an athlete.
The best part: Treating yourself like an athlete means ALL aspects of being in athlete, which includes rest.
Remember at the end of the day that athletes take time off, too. “If you’re going to train like an athlete, you need to recover like an athlete,” Stokes says. “The word athlete automatically makes you think intensity, and that’s all well and good but also remember that recovery and how you treat your body—foam rolling, stretching, taking days off, and fueling it properly—is all part of an athlete’s mindset.” Tonight, I’m resting and fueling, because I’m an athlete, and I earned it. Also because my legs are really sore.
SELF – Fitness