Feeling like you got the most out of your workout isn’t a matter of checking off exercises. Have you walked away from a workout where you hit every set of every exercise and wondered, ‘what did I even do?’ Feeling like you got a workout, experiencing a bump in well-being, and building skills for focus all happen via a few common threads – two of them being flow and mindfulness.
When you get to the gym there’s a limitless number of distractions. These include things from your day that just don’t sit right; how much of an idiot can a grown adult possibly be...I mean, what are they even doing with the cables; or push notifications on your phone. Over-focusing on any one of these things prevents you from having a fully immersed, focused workout. The kind of training or playing experience where you feel focused on what you’re doing in the moment and unattached to distractions (noticing them, then letting them go) is often called flow (Gardner & Moore, 2004). You might know it as being ‘in the zone.’ Having frequent flow experiences improves your well-being (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990). You get the opportunity to have more experiences like this and, for the days you can’t get in the zone, enjoy focused workouts through practicing mindfulness. An easy way to begin mindfulness practice is through simple exercises done consistently - the same way you see benefits from your workouts. In fact, mindfulness practice and a gym workout are easily integrated.
The fantastic thing about working out at a gym is it creates 100’s of opportunities for short mindfulness exercises. Every workout has a specific checklist of things you will do in a certain order from warm-up to cooldown. When you notice yourself get distracted, identify what you need to be doing in the present moment and focus on either: your current exercise, setting up the next exercise, or getting reps of the mental game while you rest. For example:
You're doing a hip lift with reach to warm up. Your mind wanders to frustrations from work. You notice you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing. You turn your attention back to feeling your hamstrings during the exercise.
You’re between sets and your attention is captured by what someone else is doing. It's probably fine and doesn’t matter too much – it's not impacting your performance. If it’s difficult to refocus for your next exercise, however, try shifting focus to feeling deep breaths in and out. Or turn your attention to feeling your shoes and the mat under them. When It's time for your next set, it should be easier to focus on what you need to do.
These basic skills help you focus and immerse yourself in what you’re doing. You get the opportunity to ‘be where your feet are’ while you train. There is a common error that everyone makes, though, and it’s expecting to be perfect at focusing when you really try at it. Literally no one is.
Even when you’re doing a mindfulness exercise, like purposefully feeling a muscle, your breath, or your shoes, you will occasionally get distracted. Recognize it’s normal, you didn’t do anything wrong, and refocus on the feeling until you’re finished. You might go through this distraction-refocus cycle a few times before you’re done. Getting well practiced at mindfulness and managing that cycle is part of learning to leg go and slip into the zone - or at least focus on the days you can't get into the zone.
Through consistently training to focus on what needs your attention in the moment – without getting upset with yourself for being distracted – you will enjoy layered benefits to performance and well-being. It’s a trainable skill and online protocols like Win Your Warm Up will teach you skills to build mental training into your workouts (offer code RSF10 takes 10% off for you and donates $10 to Operation RSF). Train, get in the zone, and enjoy! Any questions or folks on the hunt for tips - fire away in the comment and I'll be sure to get back!