During exercise, it's important to pay attention to the signals that your body sends you, as they can help you determine when to push harder and when to ease up. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to properly interpret these signals, especially if you don't have much experience with engaging in regular exercise. Add to that the fact that we often just don't feel like exercising, which makes it easy for us to "detect a signal" that we should just skip our workout for the day. So how can you listen to your body well enough to accurately pace yourself during a workout? Here are some tips to help sharpen your discernment and be more in tune with your body when exercising.
Your body is hard-wired to maintain a sense of balance and equilibrium known as homeostasis. This physical phenomenon regulates the various systems of the body in a way that prompts them to compensate for any new demands placed on the body, such as when you begin exercising. During a workout, your body is constantly adapting to the increased output of energy in different ways such as raising your heart rate, increasing the pace of your breathing, sweating, etc., in order to maintain homeostasis.
The reason why this is important to understand is that when you first begin to exercise, your body will often "complain" in the form of creating lethargic or sluggish feelings. Basically, your body is not that interested in cooperating with you at this point, because it's used to being at rest, and it's trying to maintain that state of being at rest. Ignore these initial lazy signals - before you even begin, resolve to push through them so that you can get a good workout going.
Feeling the Burn
Once you've started working out, you'll eventually begin to feel a pretty intense burn in your muscles. This comes from an acid buildup in the muscles due to an increased usage of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the molecular currency that provides energy for your cells. You might feel like bowing out at this point, because it hurts, and you don't know how far you can push yourself. But the truth is, you're probably not overdoing it, and in fact, whatever form of exercise you're doing (e.g., cardio training, strength training, circuit training, etc.), you should embrace the burn, and challenge yourself to hit this level during every workout. Just watch out - if you feel a sudden sharp or stabbing pain in your muscles, it may be a sign of a strain or a slight injury.
Pacing Yourself: How to Sharpen Your Discernment
One very important thing to remember is that in terms of your physical health, not all days are created equal. In other words, your body will be more tired on some days than others, and your immune system will vary in strength and resilience based on a multitude of factors such as diet, sleep (or lack thereof) and stress. Generally speaking, when your immune system is strong, your body has more energy, and you'll feel like you have more stamina to work with during your workout. There may be other days when you feel like your entire body is made of lead, and your muscles generally seem dull and unresponsive. But may times you won't know how far you can push yourself until you've started your workout.
So take time to listen to your body as you're in the act of working out; if you feel a sudden (and seemingly unexplainable) boost in energy--often called a "second wind"--your body may be ready to take on more of a challenge that day, even if you didn't plan to do that much exercise. Be willing to go as far as that impulse will lead you. On other days, your body may feel like a stalled engine that simply won't turn over. If you planned for a high-intensity workout on one of those days, be aware that pushing yourself too hard could break down your body's defenses, and possibly cause you to miss several days of working out due to exhaustion or even sickness.
Finding the Sweet Spot
If you've ever driven a car with a manual transmission, you're familiar with what is commonly called the "sweet spot"--i.e., the point at which you can ease up on the clutch while simultaneously pressing harder on the accelerator in order to make the car move forward. If you miss the sweet spot, you'll more than likely grind the gears, and your car will immediately let you know it. Finding the right pace during your workout is very similar to finding the sweet spot when driving; it's more of an art than a science, and it requires quite a bit of trial and error. More than likely you'll over-extend yourself a few times, and then there may be other times when you finish your workout feeling like you could have gone twice as hard. It's going to take practice to become proficient at interpreting your body's signals, but once you get the hang of it, you'll learn to adjust your output based on what your body is communicating to you, and your workouts will be much more effective.