Use brain over brawn to boost performance

There you are, powering through your workout, when you hear a voice crying for mercy. Huh? The voice, louder now, begs for it to end. Oh, yeah. That voice? It's yours! Sometimes it's your brain that's looking for the exit before your body. But new research is proving that mind games -- literally tricking your body into going longer, faster and harder -- can do wonders for your training regimen. Here are four brainy tactics that can take your game to the next level.

Mind Trick No. 1: See yourself succeed
Improves your ... Strength

Even when your quivering legs tell you otherwise, chances are you've got one more rep in you. Imagine that. Literally. Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation recently found that men and women who simply visualized exercising their biceps five days a week for 12 weeks boosted their strength by more than 13 percent. That's an impressive increase without actually moving a muscle. People who did no imaginary exercise reaped no strength gains. The reason? "When you visualize an action, your brain develops a model of how it will go in the real world. This allows you to recruit the muscles you need and perform more effectively and efficiently when you actually do it," says Sean McCann, Ph.D., a sports psychologist with the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. "It's a testimony to the power of the mind-muscle connection."

None of which means you get stronger just by sitting in your sweats watching "Real Housewives." "Of course mental training is no substitute for physical training, but athletes who do physical training can make themselves much better through additional mental training," McCann says. "It can literally mean the difference between winning and losing."

Intimidated by a difficult workout in the gym? Visualize yourself successfully lifting the weights beforehand, says McCann, and you can break down your mental -- and physical -- barriers.

Mind Trick No. 2: Swish and spit
Improves your ... Speed

We've all been there: You're at the end of a race and you hit the "wall." Your legs feel like they're moving through wet cement. Believe it or not, there's an easy way to put some power back into your step. A recent study in the U.K. found that a group of runners were able to cover 320 more meters per interval just by swishing around a carb solution in their mouths and then spitting it out -- they didn't even drink the stuff. The mere suggestion of it was enough to trip the sensors in their brains to go faster and farther. "Your brain and body are always sending signals to each other," says Kristine Eiring, Ph.D., a sports psychologist and the author of "Mindfulness, Sport Psychology and Athletes: Consider Awareness Your Most Important Mental Tool." "When you swish your mouth with something sweet, your brain thinks your body is about to get replenished, so your brain releases chemicals that say 'go for it.' " Something as simple as chewing gum or swishing Gatorade in your mouth near the end of a long run is enough to trick you brain into pushing your muscles for that final, painful 100 yards.

Mind Trick No. 3: Jog to the beat
Improves your ... Endurance

Dreading your 11-mile training run? Grab your iPod. A recent study in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology found that runners who listened to motivating music enhanced their endurance by 15 percent. Another study by the same researchers at Brunel University's School of Sport & Education in England says that athletes who cycled in time to music required 7 percent less oxygen to do the same work as those who cycled only listening to music in the background. "The implication is that synchronizing your movements to music has the potential to make you more energy-efficient -- it gives you more staying power," says lead researcher Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., the author of "Inside Sport Psychology."

Music can also distract the mind and change perception, says Karageorghis. Choosing music that really pumps you up (be it Rihanna or Zeppelin) can cut back on fatigue and make your training experience a lot more satisfying. The bottom line: Crank tunes with a strong, driving beat that brings out your inner GaGa, and chances are you'll be able to run a little bit longer.

Mind Trick No. 4: Follow Your breath
Improves your ... Flexibility

In class, yoga instructors encourage you to lengthen your spine as you inhale and sink deeper into the posture (Hamstrings. Are. Screaming.) as you exhale. But does all that breathing actually help make you more flexible? It can, if you concentrate on it. According to researchers at the Universite de Montreal, meditation can ease pain, so it's easier to relax your muscles and get the full benefit of each pose -- resulting in improved flexibility. Can't get in the zone? Try this technique: As you breathe, follow your breath with your mind; you can even say to yourself "breathe in" every time you inhale and "breathe out" every time you exhale. "This is a great starting point for meditating beginners," Eiring says. "It doesn't mean you won't have thoughts of the pain, but you'll be concentrating on following your breath instead of following the painful thoughts, so you'll be able to hold the pose for longer."

Around the Web