3 Ways to Trick Yourself Into a Better Workout


Everybody — literally, everybody — has days when working out is … ugh. You just don’t want to. Maybe you’re tired. Maybe you’re sore. Maybe you’ve got a crazy busy day and the idea of squeezing in a workout is stressing you out.

I have no problem with skipping a workout here and there, but if you’re making excuses a little more often than you’d like — like I found myself doing recently — I came up with some sneaky ways to get out of that funky rut.

But, before you get all stealthy ninja on yourself, take a minute to think about the reasons you’re skipping workouts, and whether there’s something you can do to fix that. Are you not in love with running right now, or does your regular Pilates class bore you? Try cycling, or take a new group ex class. Are you running out of time due to work and other commitments? Set your alarm 30 minutes early (yay, morning workouts!) and get in a short workout, or physically schedule your workout into your calendar.

If none of those suggestions seem to be making a difference, though, check out this sly trickery.

1. Give Yourself an Opt-Out

This might sound counter-intuitive, but hear me out. Often, the hardest part of a workout is just getting started, so on days when I’m just dragging and can’t imagine where I’ll find the energy for the long, hard, workout I have scheduled, I tell myself to just do a little and see how I feel. If I get 10 or 15 minutes in and still feel the same way, I will give myself permission to quit — no beating myself up about it, no guilt. Some days, your body is trying to tell you to take a break, you know?

But, let me just say that I’ve used this trick hundreds of times, and I can remember only one (ONE!) occasion when I took myself up on it. (And it turned out I was coming down with the flu, so, listening to my body? Super smart choice, if I do say so myself.)

This one is especially helpful on days when I’m freaking out about fitting exercise into a jam-packed day. I can basically always find 15 minutes, and once I carve out that 15 minutes, it tends to feel so good that it’s no problem to add another 30 on. I mean, I’m already there and sweaty, right? Might as well make it count!

2. Come Up With a Flexible Time or Distance Goal

If time isn’t the issue, but you’re having a tough time wrapping your head around some aspect of your workout (like how long or far or intense), find a different way to look at it, and give yourself permission to stop when you reach your goal, regardless of which one you reach first.

For example, if you’re supposed to run for 50 minutes, and you don’t really want to put in that much time, come up with a distance that makes sense for that time — like, 5 miles, if a 10-minute pace is easy for you. If you reach 5 miles first, even if that shaves off a few minutes, you’re done, and if you hit the time goal but fall short of that distance, you probably needed to go a little easy today. Or, if the goal is 6 miles but you don’t feel like your legs are going to want to push the intensity today, give yourself a generous time goal — like, 65 minutes — and run for that amount of time. If you reach 6 miles within that time, super! If you don’t, you’re still all done, and you haven’t lost any face.

But, if you’re anything like me, you’ll likely end up pushing through to your original goal. Sometimes you just need to see that same workout in a different way.

3. Look at a Long Workout as a Short One, Several Times Over

Intimidated by the workout you have planned? Break it up (in your mind)!  Maybe a 20-mile bike ride sounds scary as hell, but how does a 2-miler sound? Easy-peasy, right? So do your two miles, and then realize you just have to do that nine more times. Planning to do two full hours of yoga? Think about how you feel 10 minutes in (which, hopefully, is awesome), and know that you’re just doing that same thing 11 more times.

Of course, this trick works best when the first few minutes of whatever you’re doing feels good and fairly easy and like you could keep doing it forever. If you’re doing, say, a short and intense Tabata workout, this is just going to be a mindf*** of royal proportions.

Do you ever talk yourself into — or out of — workouts? What tricks do you have for getting a workout in when every fiber of your being wants to sit on the couch and snack on sugar snap peas? —Kristen

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  1. Brilliant. I especially love the opt-out trick. “This is going to take foreeeeeeverrrrr” is my usual mental complaint–smart way to beat it! Will give it a try the next time an hour of running sounds like too much work 🙂

  2. Jess says:

    This post is AWESOME! It was just what I needed to read since the thought of trying to find time to fit in a 6 miler today is stressing me out. I think I’ll just get out there and try the “see how I feel” approach! Thanks for the tips!

  3. Manda says:

    I love the opt-out trick. On days when I really just don’t want to do my cardio day, I go for my minimum trainer-set calorie deficiency. My trainer helps motivate me, even on days I don’t see him, because I know he’ll ask me about how cardio day went on my own the next time I see him. lol. If I meet it and feel like I can go on, then I go on to the next time-milestone (45 minutes, for example). If I can get to the 45 minute mark, I’m usually good for the rest of my hour + 5 min cool down. Or sometimes if I’m really struggling, then I usually play the “just one more song” game and see how I feel after the next song on my playlist. Great ideas!

  4. Jay Scott says:

    I so agree with you on all of these, but number 1 sticks out the most. I always say the first 3 minutes are the toughest to get through, and your mind trick of giving yourself an opt out really helps with that. Seems that once you get the mind past that “sticking point” it’s all downhill from there. Great article!

    Jay Scott

  5. I truly believe sticking with exercise is more mental than physical. Playing mind games essentially works almost every time. I love the idea of giving a workout 10 min (those are really the hardest min. anyway) and then deciding if you want to continue. As a trainer, I see people with less than enthusiastic outlooks when they begin a workout, but once they are warmed up and in motion their outlook begins to morph into a fitness go getter!

  6. Viv says:

    Superb tips, absolutely true. Like many other people leaving comments, the first one about the opt out is just so brilliant. I have been looking for something to get me focused on those dreadful days when skipping any form of workout is just too easy. It sounds so real to tell yourself lets do it and have an opt out if it really isn’t working for me and I so agree with you Kirsten that I can imagine the amount of time I will opt out will be minimal. Happy training all.

  7. Dianna says:

    The opt-out option is genius. I know from my personal experience that as soon as I start my workout I’m good to go. As soon as I skip one workout, I know I’m going to come up with an excuse again. Thanks for this post.

  8. Nadia R says:

    Great Pic!! I was just there on that lovely little road. it is one of my favorite views of san francisco and the golden gate. this is a wonderful post with very helpful hints. my way of tricking the brain is to think of it as an ‘opt-in’ . we all have those days when everything happens at once and we seem t o run out of day before lunch, right? but a daily exercise routine is my way to ‘opt-in’ to something good for myself. do i get tired? sure. do i get in a crappy mood? you bet. but i won’t let that stop me anymore. get up and go!!

  9. I used to do a 45minute run once a week. It was getting a little boring so now I do two 25 minute runs and tell myself they are shorter and easier (which they are, but I’m now doing 50 minutes altogether per week and it feels easier).