Work Out Harder, Faster, and Longer
What surrenders first, the brain or the body?
Feels like the body, doesn't it? When your stride gets choppy on the running trail or your form goes wobbly in the gym, you tell yourself to go a bit more, but your body won't let you. So your mind drifts to a hot shower and a cold beer. It's quittin' time.
There it is: Your mind drifts. Your body's got plenty more, and scientists have proved it. Researchers at the University of Cape Town in South Africa have pinpointed where the stop order comes from. It has to do with receptors in the brain called interleukin-6.
"Our brains turn on the pain before we actually run out of fuel," says Timothy Noakes, M.D., a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town. It's a safety measure—the brain tells the body to shut down to protect it from injury.
In short, our brains screw with us. They stop us from getting the most out of our workouts, and from losing that last 10 pounds. Guys like Lance Armstrong and Michael Phelps have figured out how to fool the brain and body into giving more. It's a bit more than "I think I can." But not much. Here's what the experts say.
Run Another Mile
Why you stop: You're running low on glycogen, the primary fuel source for your muscles. But it's not the only one. Any body fat you have is available. Your brain knows this, but it's not telling you.
Keep going: Try this trick from Jane Hahn, a senior editor at Runner's World magazine. If a runner is in sight, slowly reel him in. "Imagine there's a magnet attached to him," says Hahn, "and it's pulling you toward him." (Or her. Imagining it's Scarlett Johansson works well.)
Some practical preparation: Include long runs in your training, no matter how short your races are. "Long runs teach the body to run more efficiently and to use energy stores more effectively," says Hahn.
Bench-Press Your Last Rep
Why you quit: You need an absolute goal. If you think that anywhere from six to 12 repetitions will suffice, then 12 is unlikely. Pick eight or 10, and nail it. Good form is essential—your body uses 32 muscles to lower and lift the weight. As you tire, your form can falter.
Lift more: Start with eight to 10 reps with an empty bar to reinforce your form, says C.J. Murphy, M.F.S., owner and head strength coach of Total Performance Sports in Everett, Massachusetts. Then pull your shoulder blades together and hold your elbows slightly in, not out at 90 degrees. Squeeze your lats and push the bar as fast as you can without losing control. Then lower it under control.
Why you slow down: You've run out of gas.
Speed up: Get off the bike. Bill Foran, strength and conditioning coach for the Miami Heat, suggests simple intervals.
Fours: Run four lengths of a basketball court "as hard as you can, with the goal of finishing in under 24 seconds," says Foran. Rest 40 seconds and repeat eight to 12 times.
17s: Run sideline to sideline 17 times. The challenge is changing direction. Try to finish in about a minute. Rest 2 minutes; repeat for a total of four or five runs.
Suicides: These haven't changed since high school. They're still hard, still effective. Starting at one baseline of a basketball court, run to the near free-throw line and back, then continue back and forth to the midcourt line, the opposite free-throw line, and the opposite baseline. Try to run the whole thing in 30 to 33 seconds, then rest for a minute. Complete six to eight suicides.
Swim Another Lap
Why you sink: The burning sensation in your muscles is partly a result of an accumulation of lactic acid, says Shawn Arent, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., an exercise scientist at Rutgers University. You reach a point called your lactate threshold, when your body can't flush it out fast enough and you need to slow down. Any kind of interval training can push your threshold higher, but there's another trick.
Swim farther: "You'll send less lactic acid into your muscles if you're relaxed," says Joel Kirsch, Ph.D., a sports psychologist and director of the American Sports Institute. Removing the tension in your muscles lets your limbs fully extend and your stride—or stroke—lengthen, says Kirsch. "Check your muscles as you move and ask yourself, 'Are my legs moving freely, or am I pushing them?' "
If you're pushing, focus on easing the muscles. At your desk, practice tensing the muscles in your arms and legs, then slowly relaxing them. You'll get the hang of controlling your muscles, says Kirsch.
Do that Last Crunch
Or skip it: "I'd rather see you do 20 good reps than 30 crappy ones," says Arent. Your abs, like any other muscle, grow in response to increased stress, not continual stress.
Do them well: Three keys to the proper crunch: Focus on lifting your shoulder blades off the floor, not pulling your head up with your hands. Pause at the top of the move and lower your body slowly. Keep your abs tight throughout the exercise.