Coach Tip Tuesday: Using All of Your Senses in Workouts

Posted On:
Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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What do you remember about the last workout you completed?

If you’re like a lot of the athletes I’ve worked with over the years, you might not remember a whole lot.  I understand this; for many athletes, workouts are multi-purpose.  In addition to helping athletes prepare for the goals that they’ve set, workouts also serve as a mental break from one’s day, an outlet for emotions, social time with friends, and more.

That being said, I think that there’s a lot of value in engaging with the experience of a workout.  So, the next time you go out for a workout, try engaging all of your senses as you do the workout.  You might actually already be doing this at a subconscious level, but I want to encourage you to do it at a conscious level.

The Five Senses

Humans have five main senses: Sight, Hearing, Smell, Taste, and Touch.  (We actually have more than these; if you need proof look no further than when you know someone is looking at you from far away or when you can sense someone in close physical proximity to you.  But these - Sight, Hearing, Smell, Taste, and Touch - are the five main senses that humans can have.)  When was the last time that you consciously engaged one of these, let alone more than one simultaneously?

Engaging all of our available senses forces presence.  Presence is something that I think that we’re sorely lacking, both in endurance sports and in our lives in general.  I know in my life it seems that I can’t go out for dinner, have a conversation with a friend, or go for a bike ride without the person I’m with checking their phone or other smart device or doing something something unrelated to what we’re doing in the middle of whatever it is that we’re doing, even if it directly interrupts what we’re doing.  And I don't think that my experience with this is unique.  We’re so, so distracted - and that’s putting it mildly.

Intentionally engaging all available senses is a form of cognitive calisthenics.  Cognitive Calisthenics can be thought of as workouts for your brain.  Activities such as reading, intentional focus, and intentional engagement with our senses all stimulate the brain in specific ways that help to strengthen and improve several functions in the brain.  Also known as neuroplasticity, these changes start at a cellular level and extend to the connections between brain cells, physically altering them and strengthening them over time.  That being said, the benefits from cognitive calisthenics extend beyond just the brain and positively impact the mind-body connection, too.

When asked what the five main senses are, we (intentionally or unintentionally) list them out in the order that most humans will leverage them.  Humans are incredibly dependent on our vision; for humans with the ability to see, up to 80% of our sensory impressions come via Sight.  Even humans with compromised vision will rely heavily on what remaining vision they do have.  As such, when we’re experiencing something, most of us will seek to see it first, then we’ll try to hear it, then we might smell it, after which we might seek to taste it, and finally, we will pay attention to how it interacts with our physical sense of feeling or touch.

Though many people don’t think about it (especially since most humans love food), Smell is actually ahead of Taste.  As many humans discovered during the COVID-19 Pandemic, if you don’t have your sense of Smell, your sense of Taste is either muted or fully compromised.  

That being said, in the absence or reduction of one or more senses, the other remaining senses get elevated as a means of compensation.  The most common example is how people who have lost their sense of Sight have a significantly elevated sense of Hearing.  Several of my friends are visually impaired and I can tell you that it is utterly remarkable how much they can hear (and how far away they can hear things)!

How The Senses Can Improve a Workout

As mentioned earlier, reengaging with our available senses forces presence.  In truth, any time we do something new it forces presence.  A reengagement with our available senses can effectively count as doing something new each time we do it since each experience with our senses is going to be new.  As such, an engagement with our senses is a means to encourage and develop self-awareness.  Anyone who has been reading or listening to me for a while knows that I feel strongly that self-awareness is a key skill for all athletes to pay attention to and develop.  Only by being attentive to and understanding what we are doing and why we’re doing it can we progress from where we are toward where we want to go.

Here’s a small slice of what I observed during a recent run I went on:

  • I saw sunlight filtering through the trees and how it made the edges of each individual leaf on the tree glow like they were on fire.
  • I heard several different species of birds calling to each other and I heard the rustling sound the leaves in the trees made as the wind passed them by.
  • I smelled the freshly tilled earth as I passed by a farm.  This scent transitioned to lilacs and wisteria.  When it started to rain, I smelled the damp asphalt beneath my feet.
  • I tasted the cool tartness of the Strawberry Lemonade Skratch Hydration from my Nathan Hydration Vest.
  • I felt the wind over my skin on my legs and arms; at the same time, I noted how I didn’t feel certain things that were also touching my skin (such as the clothing or Hydration Vest I was wearing).  Later, when it started raining, I felt the cooling effect of the water on my skin.

Going through each of my available senses one-by-one and then seeing how that sense could impact my experience of the workout was enlightening, to say the least.  There were several times during the run where I felt a deep sense of awe.  At other times during the run, I felt an immense amount of gratitude for so many things - for the fact that I do have all five main senses available to me, that I could pick up on little details of the world around me, and for the fact that I’m able to move my body through the world in this way via running.  I ended the run with a very high Joyful Factor, which lasted long beyond the run itself.

How to Use All of Your Senses in a Workout

If this sounds like an experience you might like to have, you can!  The next time you go out for a workout, seek to engage all of your available senses:

  • If you can see, look around you.  What do you see?  Pay attention to small details, like the variance in the shape of leaves on the trees or which types of flowers are currently blooming.
  • If you can hear, listen to the sounds around you.  Are you unconsciously ignoring some of them (such as vehicle traffic or birdsong) because they’ve been normalized to you?  Seek out all of the sounds around you.
  • If you can smell, what smells can you detect?  How do they change over the course of your workout?  Are some more pleasant than others?  Which ones are more mild, and which ones are more strong?
  • If you can taste, what do you taste?  (And yes, you should be at least hydrating every workout.  And any workout over 90 minutes should also be fueled.)
  • If you can feel, pay attention to the sensory receptors all over your body.  What do you feel?  What sensations against your skin are you not feeling because you’re subconsciously ignoring them or dismissing them as unremarkable?

If your experience is anything like mine, engaging with each of your available senses will give you a newfound appreciation for an experience that may seem routine at this point to you (doing a workout, especially on a familiar route or in a location well-known to you).  All too often, we miss out on details when we’re surrounded by the familiar.  There’s an evolutionary aspect to this; when we feel safe and comfortable, we let our guard down and we are not as vigilant or detail-oriented.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we intentionally place ourselves in situations that are unsafe.  But I am suggesting that we disrupt the pattern of numbness and unawareness that an abundance of comfort may have caused us to unconsciously adopt in our lives and in our everyday activities.  Experience the world around you.  Truly experience it, with all of the tools (senses) you have available at your disposal.  You will likely observe far more things than you ever realized were actually happening around you.

The Bottom Line

Intentionally leveraging all of our available senses is increasingly rare.  We’re so caught up in what we have to do, what The Next Big Thing is, and getting things checked off of our list that we forget to actually experience our lives.  I don’t think most of us want to get through our lives; I do think that most of us want to experience and actually enjoy them.  Try engaging all of your available senses during your next workout and see if it doesn’t help you elevate your overall workout and training experience.


Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at

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