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The Mental Technique You Can Use to Make Exercising Suck Less

Everything you need to know about ‘cognitive appraisal,’ or how winded runners hack their brain to keep going

We’ve told you that cursing like a sailor while working out can boost your power, but a new study suggests an opposite approach could boost your tolerance. The study, published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, found that a mental-coping technique called “cognitive appraisal,” which in this case involved calmly dissociating or detaching from the hard parts of exertion (isn’t that all of them?), helped long-distance runners better endure the slog.

The Study

Researchers conducted three trials with 24 runners, aged 18 to 33, instructing them to hit the treadmill for 90 minutes at roughly 75 to 85 percent of their heart rate. Each kept note of their emotional state and degree of exertion at 30-minute intervals. One group was instructed to try cognitive appraisal using detachment; another was told to try distraction; and the other was told to do nothing different.

The results: Those who tried keeping an emotional distance from the difficulty of exertion reported lower levels of emotional arousal and lower levels of exertion than those who did nothing. (Distraction had no impact.)

This is intriguing, because it suggests that not only does the ability to regulate emotion and perception help you endure the pain, but it also makes that pain feel less acute.

If this sounds like a fancy way of saying attitude really is everything, it is.

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So What Is Cognitive Appraisal, and How Can It Help Me Run?

The idea of cognitive appraisal is the general notion that experience has two parts: There’s what happens, and then there’s how we feel about it. One person might get a parking ticket and brush it off, but another might become exceptionally stressed: Maybe their funds are low or this is their second ticket this week. What might be lost on many people is that the second part — the perception — is more of a choice than we realize.

We automatically practice cognitive appraisal all day long, but the challenge here is understanding why we react how we do, and to what extent we can adjust this for our benefit. For long-distance runners, for instance, you’d think there’s already a strategy in place to endure the distance. Perhaps you focus on how good it will feel to be over, the confidence that comes with fitness or the pleasure of hitting a runner’s high.

Those are forms of cognitive appraisal, too. But what’s interesting is that the cognitive appraisal suggested in the study wasn’t the typical cheesy empowerment-style thinking (You got this! You can do it!) but, rather, one of distance and neutrality.

I Tried It, and I Still Feel Like Shit. What Gives?

Of course, adopting a Zen posture might not work for everyone, and it might not be the most effective way to complete a 90-minute run. The cursing strategy research found that compared with yelling neutral words, those who chose profanity while performing an intense bike exercise were better able to tolerate the pain and also measured higher grip power.

It seems intuitive that staying chill would beat muttering “fuck” in terms of mental health, but the best strategy is, really, whatever works. But if you take anything away from this research, it should be this: Understand that how you experience a situation is, to a large degree, absolutely up to you. That’s not just good advice for working out. It’s good advice for life.