Push Yourself: The Mind Quits Before the Body

By Stephanie Pappas

The day begins at 4:30 a.m. with a half-mile run to breakfast. Then comes three to four hours of grueling physical training: burpees, pushups, flutter kicks, all high-intensity, anaerobic exercises designed to strain the muscles and sap the breath. Interspersed are hikes and runs up the scrubby California mountains, lugging packs weighing up to 90 pounds — or carrying, fireman-style, a 200-pound buddy.

This is the Marine Corps’ Basic Reconnaissance Primer Course. It’s the first step toward a specialty in Recon, which sends Marines into enemy territory to survey the terrain and the enemy before an engagement. And morning PT is only half the story. The Marines striving to complete the course spend their afternoons in a cold pool, swimming, diving and treading water to exhaustion. These sessions were universally dreaded, says Andrew Pappas, a first lieutenant who recently completed the course. But then, that’s the point. The primer course is designed to weed out Marines who can’t hack the mental and physical challenges of being a Recon Marine.

This is not the kind of workout most of us can – or should strive toward. Only about 30 percent of those who start the primer course complete it. And even those who make it through often find themselves with temporarily wrecked immune systems and overuse injuries.

But this military-style madness does hold one lesson for those of us trying to eek the most we can out of the hour or so we do have to work out each day. As Pappas puts it: “The mind quits before the body.”

Pappas (who is, full disclosure, my brother) is the kind of guy who gets antsy if he goes a day without a 90-minute workout. But the Recon primer course put him far outside of his comfort zone.

“It’s not an enjoyable situation to be in,” he said.

Some of what kept him going is the sort of thing that’s hard to replicate in the gym. He was being paid to be there, after all, and the course instructors held his future career in their hands. But proving mental toughness is part of what Marines have to do to succeed in the course, and many of Pappas’ strategies apply to lower-key challenges, like training for a race or beating a personal best:

1. Make yourself accountable to other people

In the Recon primer course, Marines are organized into teams, and everything’s a competition. If one person screws up, everyone is punished. If a team outperforms everyone else, the reward is extra rest time — a luxury the exhausted Marines crave.

Group exercise is motivational in civilian life, too. If you don’t want to let down your running buddy, you’re less likely to hit “snooze” on your alarm clock instead of lacing up your sneakers. One 2012 study even found that a virtual partner can push people to cycle longer than they would on their own. In the study, people “met” a workout partner via video chat and were told this person would be cycling at the same time as them in another location. One group simply exercised at the same time as their virtual partner; another group was told they were working as a team and that the person who stopped exercising first would determine the team’s performance. A third group exercised alone.

The final tally showed that the participants who exercised as a team cycled twice as long as those who cycled solo (22 minutes versus 11 minutes). A little competitive pressure helped, too. The team cyclers exercised slightly longer than those who simply cycled at the same time (22 minutes versus 20 minutes). And those cyclers didn’t even have to look their workout buddy in the eye.

2. Keep it structured

Joining a group fitness class or setting a time to work out with a friend are ways to get a little structure into your routine. And structure is key.

“Obviously in this course, it was incredibly structured, structured to the minute,” Pappas says. “That was a structure that was already in place, but for somebody who is pursuing their own physical fitness, they have to create their own structure.”

One study suggests the best way to create this structure is to outsource your motivation to physical cues. Perhaps that’s an alarm that goes off a half-hour early each morning, or the sight of your workout bag sitting by your office door at the end of the day. The idea is to start moving without thinking about it too much — because if you have to think about it, you might talk yourself out of it.

3. Break it down

In the Recon primer course, each day brought the same pattern of physical punishment and exhaustion. To survive, Pappas said, he had to become hyperfocused.

“It’s like, all I have to do is get through this land PT event, all I have to do is get through this pool day. All I have to do is get through tomorrow,” he said. “If you try to worry about everything and once, it’s too overwhelming.”

The same principle applies to exercise. Showing up at the gym in January with a vague New Year’s Resolution like “get in shape,” and you may find yourself back on the couch by March. Instead, prevent burnout by making a goal and breaking it into smaller goals.

Perfectionists, in particular, may benefit from this strategy. A 2015 study in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review found that high ambitions aren’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as you can avoid beating yourself up in the event of failure. Setting achievable, step-by-step goals can help keep fear of failure at bay.

“You can’t be afraid to fail,” Pappas said. “If you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never put yourself in an uncomfortable situation.”

4. Talk to yourself

For Marines preparing for combat, harsh physical training is a way to mimic the stress and exhaustion of the battlefield. The military wants to know that its people will keep going under horrifying circumstances.

That’s why courses like the Recon primer are more about mental fitness than anything else. But disciplining the mind has benefits for everyone. Rumination, or repetitive, negative thinking, is associated with anxiety and depression. And meditation, the process of clearing the mind of chatter, is associated with both better mental and physical health.

Pappas leaned on mantras like “It’ll be over soon,” and “the mind quits before the body” to keep moving when his body ached and his lungs screamed for breath. The ability to overcome his physical instincts was crucial. In the pool, for example, some of the hardest exercises pushed participants to panic, a panic that started to spread as men began to feel like they might drown. Pappas was able to outthink his body’s urge to claw for air, instead diving down to swim farther from the chaos.

“Everyone, I think, has a little voice in their head that says, ‘Don’t do that, that makes you uncomfortable, just do what makes you comfortable, you don’t need to do all that. You can just quit and its fine,'” Pappas says. “You’ve just got to crush that little voice, and just be like, “No.” Put yourself outside of your comfort zone, be uncomfortable and don’t quit.”

About The Author

Founder & Training Director Layn Chess

Layn Chess

Founder & Training Director

Layn has spent his life immersed in the worlds of fitness and physical performance. As an athlete, he’s completed multiple endurance events such as the Texas Bandera 50k Trail Run, Austria’s Ironman 70.3, and the Alaskaman Extreme Ironman. He’s been coaching since 2008 with certifications in USA Weightlifting Level 1, CrossFit Level 1, Strong First L1, and the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

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