How to Improve your Cardio: 7 Things You Didn’t Know (Part 4- Psychology)

This is the fourth part, Cardio Psychology, of a seven part series on how to improve your cardio taken from Coach Chris Hinshaw’s Aerobic Capacity seminar.  You can find the link to the first three parts at the end of this post.


From Physiology to Psychology


We’ve been working our way through some pretty dense physiology.  Physiology is like eating your vegetables, important but ‘boring’.

Psychology also has a measurable, and immediate, impact on improving your cardio.  And hopefully it’s a little less tedious.

How can your mind improve your fitness?  4 very simple words- ‘Rate of Perceived Exertion’.



Rate of Perceived Exertion


The RPE scale is used to measure the intensity of your exercise. The RPE scale runs from 0 – 10 and the numbers rate how easy or difficult you find an activity. For example, 0 (nothing at all) would be how you feel when sitting in a chair; 10 (very, very hard) is how you feel at the end of an exercise stress test or after a VERY difficult activity.


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There’s work to be done before you start any workout.  Step one, well before warming up or getting on your gear, is evaluating the workout.  

How hard do you think it’s going to be?  At what point in the workout will things get tough?  How is the workout going to feel at its most difficult?

There’s 3 steps to the workout evaluation process and if you skip them you’re leaving performance on the table.  Guess incorrectly and it may be worse than not looking at the workout at all. This process takes practice, but once you get it down everything changes.


An Athlete’s Job Pre-Workout


Step One:  Estimate the Time-domain.


The approach to running a marathon is very different than running a 100M sprint.  Even a more subtle difference, like a 400M sprint compared to a 100M sprint, requires a completely different strategy and mindset.

That’s because knowing how long you’re going to work dictates how hard you can work.  

That’s why the first step in evaluating any workout needs to be estimating the time-domain.  Is this going to take 10 seconds, 10 minutes, or 10 hours?

Sometimes we’re told how long to work.  Maybe you’re doing interval work of a 1 min run followed by a 1 minute walk, or a tabata, or a 20 Min AMRAP (As Many Rounds as Possible in 20 minutes).  In these cases time is known- which gives us an advantage.

However, for any workout where work time is not given to us, step one is estimating how long it’s going to take so you can adjust your intensity accordingly.


Step Two: Find the Sticky Point.


Every tough workout has what I like to call the ‘Oh Shit’ moment, AKA the sticky point.  Sometimes it comes 2 minutes in, sometimes 20 minutes in, but you know it’s coming.

The sticky point is when things all of a sudden get hard.  Your breathing changes. Your face gets flush. Your muscles are burning.  And the dead give away, your self talk starts to question if you’re going to be able to hang on to your pace…or if you even want to finish the workout in the first place.

Your second job is to estimate when that moment is going to happen.

The Oh Shit moment can be caused by a few things.  Maybe it’s a movement that gives you an especially hard time.  Maybe it’s a hill you know is on your run route. Maybe it’s when your body is switching from one energy system to another. 

Knowing when that moment is coming, and being prepared for it, makes getting past it so much easier.  If it takes you by surprise you can bet your performance is going to take a hit.


Step Three: How Uncomfortable is it Going to Feel?


The third and final step of the evaluation process is one that takes a lot of practice.  You’ve got to guess where you’re going to be on the RPE scale when you’re working through the sticky point.  In other words, how bad is this going to feel at its worst? 

This is why keeping a workout log is so important.  It takes training session after training session to accurately predict how you’ll feel at a specific point in a workout.  Don’t handicap yourself even further by having to think back to last week. It always feels easier once it’s over.

Err on the side of overestimating how hard you’ll be working.  Your RPE will instantly go through the roof if you get to the sticky point and it feels worse than you anticipated.

When you get to the ‘oh shit moment’ it feels AMAZING to think ‘ok, this isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be’.  You’ll be blown away by the power of that one little thought. That one moment of positive self talk is enough to push you through the sticky point and give you a massive boost of energy to finish strong.


Master you Mind- Improve your Performance


If you can do these three things with consistency and accuracy you’ll get an overnight improvement to your cardio.  

Fail to plan ahead, or guess incorrectly, and you just made your workout much more difficult.

Your brain is a powerful tool and it’s either going to work for you or against you.  Don’t underestimate the power of your mind!


How to Improve your Cardio: 7 Things You Didn’t Know (Part 1- Rest):

How to Improve your Cardio: 7 Things You Didn’t Know (Part 2- Lactate):

How to Improve your Cardio: 7 Things You Didn’t Know (Part 3- Muscle Fibers):


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