How to Build Intensity Tolerance

-by Coach Rachel Binette

In classes on Friday, we performed “White Lightning," a workout with a target of sub 10:00. Very low skill, this workout tested our ability to push hard through the 50 burpees at the end.

This is a workout that tests what is called Intensity Tolerance. This month, your opportunities for improving this benchmark WOD are: improving your DU/rowing/burpee efficiency and building your Intensity Tolerance. 

Intensity Tolerance is the ability to keep pushing through a workout when we have reached extreme discomfort--this is not a physical skill, but a mental skill, and like all skills, it can be practiced. 

Step 1

The first step to building Intensity Tolerance is to familiarize ourselves with it. This is a simple workout that can be performed at any time, and will definitely familiarize you with intensity.

AMRAP 5 Sled Push Sprints with 75% bodyweight

The beauty of this workout is that you will not miss a sled push. You will be able to run--it will just be very uncomfortable--exactly what we are looking for. 

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Step 2

Once we’ve experienced intensity, we can begin to unravel the thought processes that are triggered by experiencing discomfort. The next step in building Intensity Tolerance is to recognize what our particular thought patterns and behaviors are when intensity occurs.

Note what movements/WOD types (AMRAP or For Time/lots of rounds/high reps/low reps) trigger what thoughts. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a sample of the most common ones I hear from mindset clients.


Thoughts: Everyone is faster/better/stronger. I’m slow/weak.
Possible emotions: Shame, embarrassment, despair.


Thoughts: If I had more space…, If the weather were cooler/warmer…, If we hadn’t squatted yesterday...
Possible emotions: Frustration, anger, resentment, resignation.

Physical Hypersensitivity

Thoughts: “My legs/arms hurt/burn," “I can’t breathe,” “I have to stop.”
Possible emotions: Fear

Not Meeting Self-Imposed Expectations

Thoughts: “I should be faster than him/her,” “I should be able to do this weight”
Possible emotions: Frustration, anger, despair.

Behaviors in relation to intensity tolerance:

-Making excuses--”well, I didn’t sleep well last night, so it’s Ok that I go easy”
-Cutting reps.
-Overpacing, slowing down.
-Overmodifying--always finishing among the first in the class.
-Cherry picking workouts.
-Making up for perceived shortcomings by training more frequently or by taking a “punishment” attitude towards training.
-Imposter syndrome.

For Step 2, take one week of workouts and write down what words/phrases/thoughts, images, emotions, and behaviors occurred.

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Step 3

The last step in building intensity tolerance is not what you may think it is.

Many of us know that thinking about uncontrollables or fearing being last in the class are ineffective thoughts. We’ve been taught to self-correct: to speak back to ourselves, to “toughen up" or "shut it down." 

If that worked, then you wouldn’t have read this far.

In reality, telling ourselves to “toughen up” is the equivalent of emotional suppression. It is brushing very real thoughts and emotions under the rug and hoping that they don’t come back--and we all know that they do come back.

Step 3 is not so simple as telling yourself the opposite of what you’re thinking. Positivity is not magical fairy dust, although it, too, is a skill worth building.

Step 3 is to understand why you are thinking that way.

An exercise to begin unteasing this is one that I call AMWAP--as many words as possible in 2:00. Begin with the thoughts or emotions that occurred during a workout, set a clock for 2:00 and don’t stop writing until the timer goes off. This is unadulterated, unfiltered inner monologue time--avoid the temptation to self-correct.

In really listening to what is going on in your subconscious, aka your mindset, you’ll be able to reveal where your behaviors stem from, and it is then and only then that you'll have the power to change the story.

Rachel Binette