Whether you’re hoping to log a PR in your next 10K or want to excel in your weight-training program, you know you have to train hard. But if you want to work smarter, not harder, you also can try these five simple tricks to help you perform your best — no extra sweat required.
1. Crank the tunes early: Runners who listened to music for the first 1.5 kilometers of a 5K shaved about 30 seconds off their times, according to a study from the International Journal of Sports Medicine. Listening to music during the last 1.5K of the event made no difference. “Listening to music could draw athletes’ focus away from internal sensations of fatigue,” says Adriano E. Lima-Silva, Ph.D., study co-author from the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil. This effect is probably strongest at the start of a race or workout; by the end, even the most motivational music may not be able to overpower those feelings of fatigue.
2. See red: When fourth- through 10th-graders and undergraduate college students saw red (via a number or word) before pinching and holding a metal clasp open or squeezing a handgrip with their dominant hand, their reactions were faster and more forceful than groups that saw blue or gray. Red is actually a danger cue, say researchers in a study from the journal Emotion, which is why physical reactions improved. They caution, though, that the effect is short-lived and may be best for activities in which you need a quick burst of speed and strength such as weightlifting.
3. Give nerves the fist: Right-handed athletes were less likely to choke under pressure when they squeezed a ball in their left hand before a big competition, according to a study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology. When they squeezed with their right hand, however, they choked. Squeezing with the left hand most likely activated parts of the brain’s right side, which then led to an increased feeling of relaxation, says Juergen Beckmann, lead study author from the Technical University Munich in Germany. This technique works best for activities that rely on motor skills like soccer, karate and badminton versus performances based on strength or stamina.
4. Go bitter: If you want to push yourself harder, slugging a bitter drink before your workout or event could do the trick. A study from Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that cyclists who drank a bitter solution, in this case a quinine solution, pushed themselves significantly harder before sprinting than those who consumed either plain water, a sweet solution or no solution. One reason? Exposure to something unpleasant has been shown to improve reaction times.
5. Psych yourself up: According to a study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, runners who engaged in 30 seconds of imagery one to two minutes before an event (they were asked to visualize sprinting as fast as possible and setting a new personal best) performed better in both the 10-meter and 30-meter sprints. Benefits weren’t seen when they used imagery three or five minutes before their competition, leading researchers to conclude that imagery is best used immediately before competition, especially with activities that require speed.