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Train Your Mind (and Body) With This Psych Hacking Workout

By hiding the finish line, the clever "whistle drill" workout forces you to push past your psychological limitations.

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Looking for a workout that will test you both mentally and physically? One of my favorites is a whistle drill.

The idea is simple. As coach (back when we could meet in large groups), I’d assemble the team and tell them that when I first blew the whistle, they were to run fast — 5K pace, or a touch faster. When I blew it again, they were to recover until I blew it again for the start of the next repeat. (To make this easier to keep track of, I’d blow the whistle twice for “fast,” once for “slow,” and three times for “workout over.”)

The key was that nobody but me knew when any given repeat would end, or how long the recovery would last. 

I like this workout for three reasons. 

It Forces You Past Your Limits

First, it helps develop racing skills, especially for road races. Races aren’t time trials. They are challenges between you, the terrain, the weather, and your rivals. Learning to hold effort, continue to hold it, and then continue even longer is a useful form of both mental and physical conditioning.

It Hides the Goalpost

But there’s another more subtle benefit involving something called the goal gradient hypothesis, says Mackenzie Havey, author of Mindful Running: How Meditative Running Can Improve Performance and Make You a Happier, More Fulfilled Person.

This, she says, describes how our minds react as we approach any given “finish line.” It stems from research by behavioral psychologist Clark L. Hull (1884-1952) who found that rats in a maze progressively speed up as they approach the treat at the end. But it has also been demonstrated with people, including those seeking such simple things as checking off purchases on a free-coffee or other consumer loyalty bonus. As you get closer to the free lunch, coffee, or airplane flight, you become increasingly motivated.

In running, that’s partly because we are saving our finishing kick until the right time. But there’s more to it than that. “As we near completion of a task, motivation to continue increases,” Havey says. “Conversely, research shows that not knowing where the line is can ramp up perceived exertion.”

Eugene, Oregon, coach Bob Williams agrees. “I remember that when I had one, maybe two, punches to get to a free car wash, it was so exciting because it was free,” he says. 

And, he says, it’s the same in a race. “There is an extra shot of adrenaline when you know you are going to run around someone and run to the tape. That anticipation from 3 laps out is so critical because you know you can make it 3 laps.”

This is also, undoubtedly, why some people hate whistle workouts. (My experience is that runners either love them or hate them; there is no middle.) These workouts are mentally tough because they remove the goal gradient effect by hiding the finish line. 

But that also makes them a good way of practicing mental toughness. “This could be effective in keeping in the moment,” Havey says.

A group of women are running a workout as a coach (blurred) watches them.
Photo: Getty Images

It Adds in the Element of Fun

This type of workout is also a game, and occasionally turning workouts into games can have huge value

Only a handful of people are able to make running a career. For the rest of us, it’s a means of self-expression. A serious one, but not so serious we can’t have fun. 

Even the pros need to find the fun. Two-time Olympian Kim Conley agrees. “For me, all workouts, long runs, and races are fun,” she says. 

But that fun can take different flavors, including ditching the standard workout trappings and doing something different. “It can be liberating to let go of preconceived ideas or expectations and just run hard,” she says. “At [the] core, it is that feeling of pushing myself that gives me the most satisfaction.”

The Rules

Like all good games, a whistle workout needs rules. When I run such workouts, I lay the rules out in advance. The workout, I tell runners, will involve about 20 minutes of speed and 12 to 15 minutes of recovery. Total time, about 32 to 35 minutes. 

I use the word “about” to take the goal gradient hypothesis out of the mix in the final repeats. If runners know exactly when the workout will end, then the final interval will have a finish time that those who are monitoring their watches can predict, and I’m trying to avoid that. At the same time, I want them to know the repeats won’t be any worse than mile repeats or maybe 1200s, so I put a cap on the longest possible interval, somewhere around their pace for one or the other of these. 

I also make sure the first repeat is long enough for everyone to get to at least 400m, so they can check their paces at 200m and 400m and make sure they aren’t going out at some ridiculous speed.

Here’s an example for a workout where I’ve promised no repeat will last more than 5 minutes. (The numbers in parentheses are recovery times.)

3 minutes (1 min)

2 min (1 min)

1 min (3 min)

60 sec (20 sec)

30 sec (15 sec)

60 sec (20 sec)

90 sec (3 min)

3 min (2 min)

60 sec (20 sec)

40 sec (15 sec)

30 sec (10 sec)

20 sec (10 sec)

60 sec (3 min)

4 min

That’s 20½ minutes, which fits with “about” 20 minutes, with about 14:50 minutes of recovery, which also fits within the designated range.

How to Do It Yourself

As a coach, designing these, I’m looking for sequences of long and short intervals, and long and short recoveries, that appear to set up a pattern… then break it — all while not running people too far on insufficient recovery. I do this partly because it really does become a game. Some runners will just run. Others will try to guess the pattern and attempt to beat the workout, so I try to fake them out.

The best way to do this is with a coach or a friend willing to sit on the sidelines and blow the whistle. But you could also run it with a training partner (or group) letting one person dictate the pattern until the first major recovery, then handing off to someone else. That way, you only know what to expect when it’s your turn to be in charge. 

Faking out your buddies might even become part of the game.