If you’ve been training for a while, you’ve likely heard a bunch of people tell you to listen to your body all the time.
What foods should you be eating? Listen to your body! How hard should you be pushing yourself? Listen to your body! How often should you be working out? Listen to your body!
We’re all for getting in tune with your body, noticing how different foods and activities make you feel, and modifying exercises based on your skill and strength levels. But “listening to your body” can hold you back and give you a convenient excuse not to try. “Listening to your body” is often just listening to your lizard brain—you know, the part that controls your fight or flight response and tells you to eat and fuck as much as possible.
Your body isn’t as smart as you’re giving it credit for. It thinks you’re a caveman and winter is coming. It wants you to overeat because it doesn’t know when its next meal is going to be. It doesn’t want you to exercise because you might need that energy to run from a faster, hungrier animal. It disguises its motives as convincing thoughts, and it tricks you into being lazy. It’s not exactly known for its willpower and wisdom.
Here are a few times when you should tell your body to sit down and shut up—as well as when you should hear it out.
When NOT to listen to your body
1. “I can’t do that.”
Your body is programmed to avoid excess effort and danger. It’s going to look at that monster kettlebell, steep trail, or tricky asana and say “NOPE.” But if there’s not actually any imminent risk of death or bodily harm, this is a great time to ignore what your body is telling you.
Push yourself to give it a go! If you try it and you really can’t do it, try it again, harder, and really focus on what every part of your body is doing. If you still can’t do it, scale it down in weight or speed. Doing part of the difficult thing is still infinitely better than not trying it at all.
2. “I’m done.”
If you’re doing any strenuous endurance training, your body is going to tell you it’s exhausted and it can’t go any farther.
But it lies.
Most of the time, you’re capable of a lot more than your body wants you to believe. According to ultra-badass David Goggins, the Navy SEALs use the 40% rule to overcome extreme challenges of endurance: when you feel like you’re done, you’re really only 40% done. It’s up to your higher-thinking mind to convince your body to push through the suck.
3. “I’m not feeling it today.”
Ever have a day where nothing is physically wrong with you, but you just can’t get your ass in gear? Your body feels lethargic, and your brain comes up with 800 excuses to take a day off to lie around and feel sorry for yourself.
Unless you’re actually coming down with the plague, giving in and skipping your workout is risky business. It’s too easy for one extra rest day to become two, and before you know it, skipping workouts becomes a habit.
Again, assuming you’re not sick or injured, chances are you’ll feel a ton better if you get up and get moving. You don’t always have to kick your ass into it, though. Set a mini goal for yourself, like simply making it through a warmup or running a couple of blocks. Once that’s done, you’re almost certainly going to feel a little more like finishing your workout than you did before, when you could barely bring yourself to put your gym clothes on.
4. “I need a treat.”
Food cravings are another sneaky way the body and brain conspire to wreck your fitness goals. It’s especially bad if you’ve had a stressful day and all you can think about is how much you deserve some comfort food.
This is where mindfulness can really help you avoid being controlled by your body’s whims. Before making the decision to stuff your face, stop and think about your motives. Can you change the word “need” to something less intense? How will that food make you feel? Do you still really want to eat it after you’ve examined your mindset? If it’s not going to fuck you up, and you still want it after you’ve toned the emotion down, then get in there! Otherwise, control those urges rather than being controlled by them.
Note: the goal isn’t to deprive yourself of anything—that way lies madness. It’s just to acknowledge that your “need” may be your mind and body trying to trick you, and to remain in control of your choices.
When TO listen to your body
1. “Something feels wrong.”
If you’re feeling pain beyond ordinary soreness or tiredness, then you do need to stop and pay attention. Don’t let your ego get in the way. If you’re injured and you make it worse by pushing harder, then you’re not a hero; you’re just fucking up your training goals. Don’t hesitate to go to the doctor if you’re worried something is legitimately wrong.
2. “I need some water.”
If you’re starting to feel thirsty, then you’re already on your way to dehydration. Stop what you’re doing and drink some fucking water. If that means taking a quick break from your workout, that’s 100% acceptable. Get a drink, and then remind yourself to stay hydrated preemptively so that you don’t get uncomfortably thirsty again anytime soon.
3. “I’m full.”
Many of us were raised to clean our plates—and then spent our early adulthood scarfing free or cheap meals whenever we could get our hands on them. We’ve trained ourselves to keep eating until the food is gone, ignoring how our bodies feel in the meantime.
It’s hard to unlearn that behavior, but mindful eating can be one of the most successful ways to cut unnecessary calorie consumption—and avoid feeling like shit after a meal that was supposed to be enjoyable.
It’s pretty simple: instead of shoveling the food in until your plate is empty, just check in with your body and see if you’re full yet. If so, stop fucking eating. It’s okay if that means some of your food goes to waste.
To take it a step further, don’t automatically eat when “it’s time” if you’re not hungry.
4. “I feel good after that workout.”
While most of the tips in this post have been focused on discipline, it’s important to celebrate and enjoy the good stuff, not just avoid the bad stuff.
You know that satisfaction that comes after a nice long sweat sesh with your favorite workout buddies? Or the feeling of crushing your personal records? Or the way your muscles feel when it’s finally time to cool down and stretch?
It’s SO GOOD, right?
It’s SO MUCH BETTER than sitting around and not moving your body.
Soak it up. Focus on it. Remember it. That’s your motivation for the next time you don’t really feel like working out.