Mental Strategy

Now that we’re nearing the start of the 2014 CrossFit Open, I’ve noticed that the workouts are not only more physically demanding, but they also require a lot more mental strength-at least for me they do.
To quote Arnold Schwarzenegger, “The mind always fails first, not the body. The secret is to make your mind work for you and not against you”. In addition to improving my conditioning this season, I’m also working on consistently applying mental toughness and strategy to my workouts. I wanted to share the one mental strategy that always worked for me when I was rowing; but more importantly, how this same strategy can work for CrossFit.

The gold standard test for rowers is the beloved (and detested) 2000 meter race. The 2k. It’s definitely a physiological test of fitness, but it also requires as much mental preparation as it does physical. During the race, I couldn’t think at all about the last 500 meters. Getting anxious about the hardest part is no way to prepare. Instead, I broke the race up into 500 meter, 250 meter, or even 100 meter segments. I followed the same plan for every erg test or race and found that the ritual really helped me push through.
Here’s how I approached the 2k test:
  • 2000m: Take a fast 10 strokes as hard as you can. Take another 10 strokes to lengthen out and find the base pace. Breathe and stay relaxed.
  • 1500m: Am I feeling strong? Tired? Doesn’t matter-stay on the goal pace and keep breathing.
  • 1250m: This is where you probably question whether or not you can hold the split. My mental strategy usually kicked in here: I started counting strokes. I would set a goal to reach, in this case it’s just the 1000 meter mark. Not the finish line, but halfway. My internal dialogue would go like this: Count to 30. 30 more strokes then you’re at the 1000. 1-2-3…
  • 1000m: Just get to 750. 30 more strokes and you’re at the 750. 1-2-3…The 750 meter mark was my favorite point. I knew that if I reached that point, I could hold on and finish strong.
  • Sometimes I don’t know how that worked, but it did. If you say it enough times, you nearly convince yourself that the end goal is 750 meters. Definitely makes the test seem easier.
  • 750m: But once I got to here, I was obviously not done yet, so the internal dialogue went as follows: Get excited, but focus. Don’t let up on that split. Time to make a new goal. 500 meters. 500 meters is less than two minutes. You can do anything for just two minutes.
  • 600m: I probably didn’t make it all the way to 500 meters without needing to count strokes again. At this point in the race I usually counted in sets of 10. Lets face it- the legs are burning at this point and 30 strokes seems too daunting. So I just tell myself that I only have 10 strokes and I’m back at 500 meters.
  • 300m: This is when you flip the switch and start the sprint. Lots of counting strokes here. I literally counted in sets of 10 until the end of the race, so probably 4-5 times. Each set of 10 I would try to make faster than the last.
  • 100m: No counting here J I would just take the stroke rate up and bring it home.

So clearly I counted quite compulsively during those tests. But I found that it relaxed me, helped me stay focused, and also separated the 2k into smaller, more manageable parts. I do this in WODS too, and it works just as well.

30 Wallballs? If it’s a heavy ball, there’s no way that I’m counting all the way to 30. If my goal is to get them unbroken, I’ll usually count to 15 in my head, then without stopping I’ll immediately count to 10, then finally 5. I’ll also mentally chunk out any workout with the rep scheme of 21-15-9. Even if my goal is 21 unbroken squat cleans (Elizabeth, right?), I’ll still count only to 11, then 5, then 3 and 2. Twenty-one unbroken rings dips? Maybe one day, but I can’t do that quite yet. So even if I know I’ll be taking a short break, I’ll still count just to 11, shake my arms out, count to 5, maybe rest again, then finish off the last 5.

I encourage everyone to try this out next time you’re faced with a big set. Make shorter goals in your head, and maybe even compulsively count reps like I do. Reach the goal, set a new one, and keep moving. Use your mind to your advantage and you might find that you go a little farther than you once thought possible.