One crucial aspect of maximizing training performance is to maximize the Volume and Intensity of your workout (without compromising recovery). In plain English, you should train past your self-perceived limits and push through the moment when you think you cannot go any further. Because in fact you can. Let’s see how.
Contextual visualization versus rehearsal visualization
Visualization is routinely used to improve sports performance by using it to rehearse part or the whole of a competitive events. Bobsleigh athletes for example do not have the benefit of training on the event track much, but they use visualization to run through it mentally hundreds of times. They try to immerse themselves through all senses, imagining the sounds and smells they’ll encounter on race day. The goal is to imagine a perfect performance and practice it mentally. This helps them practice and build muscle memory and has been proven through research to enhance performance.
We can use that same technique to visualize a specific context around our training that will help us increase our motivation to reach higher volume and intensity levels. In that case, we would use visualization while training, not before. And we would imagine specific scenarios as the context of our physical efforts. The goal is to immerse ourselves in a form of story-telling, not visualize positive outcomes over and over.
Danger is the best motivator: imagine it
We’ve all seen stories of parents achieving amazing physical feats to save a kid in danger. And every single war has numerous examples of heroic behaviors that were also pushing the limits of the physically possible.
Why not use these situations as contexts to increase our motivation then?
Carrying a weigh and struggling? Imagine you’re carrying a loved one to safety from a fire or a remote location. Running and struggling for motivation? Imagine you left your kid injured to search for help, I guarantee you’re gonna have a performance boost.
This point was driven home by a French special forces student who struggled to go deep enough underwater to retrieve his weapon. He tried several times in frigid water without success, getting closer to hypothermia and exhaustion with each failed try. Then he did it. When asked how he managed to finally do it while being in a poor state physically, he explained to he increased his motivation by imagining he was retrieving his drowning daughter instead of focusing on the weapon.
Training alone? Imagine a group setting of perfect peers training together
Training in a group setting almost universally increases motivation to perform. You are motivated by the performance of your training partners pushing out their limits and you don’t want to let them down either, particularly if there are group exercises.
Assuming your partners are both supportive and competitive, then you get a lot of increased motivation simply training as a group. An excellent example of these dynamics is displayed in the first phase of the Navy Seals BUD/s course: students complete many very challenging physical exercises as a group. Each group member has to put out the maximum effort to avoid letting the others down and is inspired by the others striving to do the same.
Training as part of a challenging yet supportive group can replicate this same effect, albeit on a lesser scale than Navy Seal training of course. But training alone doesn’t mean you cannot take advantage of this dynamic. Make an effort and mentally project yourself in a similar setting. Log PT (Physical Training) is a frequent exercise at BUD/s.
I don’t carry logs and I am not at BUD/s. I do carry my 10-15 kg backpack with a chest carry most days, as it gets me working on my posture and stimulates my arms, instead of carrying it on my back. I have the goal of not letting the bag down untilI arrive at my final destination, which can take 30 mins. To help me get to that, I try to imagine myself carrying a log as part of a group of BUD/s students. Stakes are high and I cannot let the others down. The boost in actual performance is undeniable.
Leave yourself no option but to push past your limits
Materials about BUD/s training make for fascinating reading, in no small part because many seals are very intellectual. Some first-hand accounts are detailed, realistic and offer a peak inside Seals training unfiltered by biases or political correctness. It turns out many students from the handful who graduate from BUD/s were able to go through those painful and harassing 6 months because they simply had no other viable options. These enlisted sailors without degrees had already spent 6 months to a year chipping paint at sea in the underbelly of some boat. Failing BUD/s would mean going back there until the end of their enlistment period, which seems to be a minimum of 4 years, which to them was more dreadful than all the pain of going through BUD/s…
Putting in practice this technique isn’t easy but if you find a situation that applies, then seize upon it. In my case, I’m very lucky in that I run to pick up my kids at school most days. It could be a 10 mins run or a 30 mins run, from home without anything or from work with a large backpack . Except if I feel very tired, I force myself to leave at the latest possible moment where I know I can make it to school on time, but only if I really push it and go for max effort. My kids hate when I am late at school, and I hate to disappoint them. If I leave late, then I have no other option than to go with the maximal effort.