We’ve all been there before – your training plan for the day calls for a tough exercise session, but you’re just too mentally exhausted to workout.
Perhaps you had a stressful day at work, a tough day with the kids or too many exhausting mental tasks to handle.
Maybe you actually do make it to your workout, but your thinking is so fuzzy and your brain is so tired that all you can do is slog away junk mileage on the treadmill or bike, or swim lazy laps in the pools.
This lack of motivation isn’t a figment of your imagination.
Studies have actually shown that the type of exhaustion that accompanies difficult mental tasks (i.e. a hard day at work) can indeed decrease exercise motivation and performance. This problem can be compounded if the neurons in your brain are sluggishly transmitting signals due to fatty acid deficiencies; your motivating neurotransmitters like dopamine and glutamate are low due to underproduction of a compound called acetylcholine; or your mind is simply not trained to handle complex tasks.
But the good news is that by using practical lifestyle tips, supplements and brain training, you can hack your mind to not only become smarter, but also to improve exercise motivation.
In this article, you’ll learn about how to get your brain to operate at peak efficiency so that you can not only get yourself out to the door to exercise, but also live your entire life at peak mental efficiency.
Pay Attention To Light
If you find yourself experiencing an afternoon drop in alertness and focus, this can often be due to excessive melatonin, which can induce sleepiness. The type of circadian rhythm interruption that would cause you to be producing excessive melatonin this early in the day, before you’re supposed to be naturally entering your sleep cycle, is typically due to a disruption in your circadian rhythm earlier in the day, or on the night before.
The solution to excessive melatonin is to advance the heaviest part of the melatonin cycle so that it occurs before you wake up in the morning. This is achieved by limiting light exposure the night before. You can do this on any day after the sun goes down by:
-using glasses with an orange tint (called “blue light blockers”)
-placing blue light blocking covers on your computer or television
-dimming the lights in your home, and turning off any unnecessary lights
-avoiding phone, computer or television exposure in your bedroom
–exposing yourself to natural sunlight as soon as possible upon waking
As you can probably imagine, stabilizing melatonin is of even greater importance the night prior to a big workout, important meeting, or race.
Moderate Caffeine Intake
100 milligrams of caffeine, which is approximately the amount you’ll get in an average cup of black coffee, has been proven to improve memory recall. The way that caffeine (and many other “psychostimulants”) achieves this effect is to block a receptor in your central nervous system that is responsible for binding a compound called adenosine. When you inhibit adenosine, you get increased activity of dopamine and glutamate, two neurotransmitters responsible for enhancing a feel-good mood, mental energy, and focus.
However, most of us are unresponsive to these brain-boosting effects of caffeine because we simply drink too much coffee. Not only can higher doses of caffeine decrease blood flow to your brain, but you can quickly build up tolerance. The solution is to limit yourself to just 8-12 ounces of strategically timed coffee during the day, and to avoid coffee on at least two days of the week (also known as “caffeine cycling”). Furthermore, you should use fresh, high-quality coffee from arabica beans, and not coffee powders or robusta coffee, since these cheaper, processed coffees are high in mycotoxins, which can actually give you “fuzzy thinking” and leave you worse than you felt prior to drinking the coffee.
If you’re doing a competitive event or a race, you can use caffeinated gels, drinks or powders, but you should implement small frequent doses throughout the event, rather than large doses that are irregularly timed, since this can cause an excessive central nervous system response that may leave you feeling jittery, light-headed or unable to focus.
Music has been proven in studies to help you exercise harder, and most of us have felt the energy boosting effects of pumping up our favorite tunes when the going gets hard during a workout. But in addition to helping you exercise harder, music has also been shown to assist with “dopaminergic neurotransmission”, which basically means it can cause a dopamine release in your brain that may make your more mentally responsive and motivated to exercise.
It sounds like a no-brainer, pun intended, but something as simple as turning on your favorite song can vastly improve your workout focus and quality. Although personal music devices are banned in most races, you can still benefit from humming, imagining, or singing your favorite song when you’re suffering in competition – and this is even easier if you listen to that song in transition prior to the race.
There are receptors for Vitamin D in your central nervous system and in the hippocampus region of the brain, which is responsible for memory and spatial recognition. In these areas, Vitamin D protects neurons, and also regulates enzymes in your brain and cerebrospinal fluid that are involved in neurotransmitter synthesis and nerve growth. Vitamin D deficiencies are directly correlated to poor performance on cognitive function and a slower ability to process information, which can directly influence your workout and race performance.
If you live in a sunny area and get adequate sunlight, you should consider getting a 25-hydroxy Vitamin D test just to double check your levels, which should ideally be in the range of 40 to 80 ng/mL. If you’re in a northern climate or get limited sun exposure, you can almost guarantee that you are deficient, and can include a few teaspoons of cod liver oil frequently in your diet, try to have more beef and butter, and take approximately 4000-6000 daily units of Vitamin D3 (check with your physician for any potential interactions if you are currently on medication)
Electrical signals used in thought, memory and processing bounce around in your brain and get transferred from one brain cell to another via a point called a synapse, where the signals cross a physical channel before moving on to the next neuron. The walls that these signals need to pass through are comprised of cell membranes made up of about 20% essential fatty acids, which you’ll find in Omega-3 fatty acid rich compounds such as fish oil.
Next, a substance called arachidonic acid is one of the most abundant fatty acids in the brain, and is crucial your neurological health, since it helps build the cell membranes in your hippocampus, helps protect your brain from free radical damage, and activates proteins that are responsible for growth and repair of neurons in your brain.
Alpha-Lipoic Acid (also known as “ALA”) is another fatty acid that can protect neurological decline, and enhance mental function. It can easily cross the blood-brain barrier (a wall of tiny vessels and structural cells that protect your brain), and pass into the brain to have a neuroprotective effect.
Finally, a type of fat compound called phosphatidylserine is found in abundance in neural tissue, where it serves as a structural component of cell membranes, and also as an inhibitor of acetylcholine, which allows it to increase alertness. Phosphatidylserine has been shown to improve memory and spatial recognition, and may also improve cognitive performance and memory.
You can get Omega-3 fatty acids by eating foods such as fish and walnuts regularly and taking 1-2 grams of a triglyceride-based fish oil daily; you’ll find fatty acids such as arachidonic acid in Tilapia, catfish, yellowtail and mackerel, fatty cuts of meat, duck, eggs and dairy; you can take alpha-lipoic acid as about 100-500mg per day in supplement form; and you can find phosphatidylserine in cold-water fish like herring and mackerel.
A supplement called “Huperzine”, which can increase the amount of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine rushing around in your brain, and thus enhance release of the motivating molecules dopamine and glutamate, was made incredibly popular in Western culture by Tim Ferriss’ “Four Hour Body” book. But Oriental medicine has known about Huperzine (found in club moss), and other similar focus-enhancing compounds for thousands of years, and you can get even better effects with a Chinese adaptogenic herb complex.
For example, in the afternoons prior to my key workout, I ingest on an empty stomach a high quality adaptogenic herb complex called “TianChi”, which includes fresh substances like Ashwagandha, Reishi mushroom extract, Eleuthero and Gotu Kola – and this vastly improves my focus and mental capacity prior to exercise.
These type of herb complexes are easy on the stomach and can be consumed about 30-45 minutes prior to a race to enhance mental function during the event. Just make sure you get the fresh stuff, as most herb complexes are sitting in big bins in China, getting sprayed with ethylene oxide and losing nearly all their potency before you get them.
Zen-trained meditation masters are able to regulate a specific type of brain wave called an “alpha wave” during meditation. This wavelength is associated with attention, focus and enhanced cognitive function. Alpha brain waves, which are abundant during meditation, allows one to have increased relaxation, decreased tension and anxiety, and a lowering of a fear-response – which many athletes sometimes feel prior to a race or hard workout.
But you don’t need to spend over a decade becoming a master meditator to teach yourself how to regulate production of alpha waves in your brain. You can actually achieve a similar effect via the use of a biofeedback device.
Such a device typically operates by measuring electromagnetic energy in your brain through tiny detection devices placed on your head. These energy detection devices contain a computer chip that picks up the tiny current in your brain, then replicates them in a waveform on a computer screen.
Once you see your brain waves, you begin to identify breathing patterns and thoughts that can affect alpha wave production, and choose from the biofeedback device a series of protocols that can help you consciously train your brain to achieve the ideal wavelengths.
I personally don’t use this type of biofeedback (yet), but am paying careful attention to the production of devices that could potentially be used prior to an important workout or competition to place an athlete into an ideal state of mind. Check out BioPulsar, iRelax, MindAlive’s DAVID device and brain-training.com if you want to look more into these devices for yourself, or search for a qualified biofeedback practitioner in your area by visiting aapb.org.
There is continuing research that doing brain aerobic exercises can help to “age-proof” your brain and slow the onset of symptoms of brain aging, and can also help to keep your brain functioning at peak capacity. Perhaps the most popular form of this brain training is the game like Sudoko, but there are a variety of other brain-training games you can find in places like the iTunes app store, or by simply doing a search for “brain training games” online. To qualify as a good brain aerobics exercise, an activity must have novelty, variety, and challenge, so you need to switch up the brain training exercises that you use.
Warning: you shouldn’t do brain-training prior to a workout or race, since it can negatively affect exercise function, but you can instead do it a separate time of day or on a rest day to improve your ability to handle complex mental tasks or improve focus during a workout or race.
You don’t necessarily need to implement all the mind-hacks in this article to enhance your focus during workouts and races, and you’ll notice results even if you simply choose a few. For example, you can be sure to include high-fat foods in your diet, such as fish and walnuts, drink small amounts of coffee in the morning and use adaptogenic herbs in the afternoon, pick up chess or Sodoku as a hobby, and limit your exposure to synthetic lighting in the evening. You’ll find that with just a few mind-hacking changes, your workout and race motivation and focus can vastly improve.
Questions, comments or feedback? Leave them below. And if you want to work with a Superhuman coach to help teach you how to incorporate more motivation tactics, or to create a no-guesswork training program for you, simply request a coach by clicking here.