On the whole, we endurance athletes are a pretty self-motivating bunch of human beings. But even endurance athletes are only human and as a result we suffer from the same fluctuations in 'get up and go' as everyone else from time to time.
These dips in motivation can range from the nagging desire to skip training today to full on ‘slumps’ where you lose your workout mojo altogether for extended periods of time.
And this time of year can be particularly challenging from a 'mojo' point of view because, for the most part, the ‘A’ races for the year have disappeared into the rear view mirror but next season is still a good way off over the horizon.
There are also dark mornings and evenings and colder, wetter weather to contend with (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere at least). At this time of year it’s easier than ever to just say "F*ck this" and skip training altogether.
Don’t get me wrong, I do believe in taking a decent end of year break if you've had a long, hard season. This is crucial to mental and physical recuperation.
But, assuming that your planned downtime is coming to an end, I thought it might be a good time to offer up a few tips gleaned from more than twenty years of tricking, cajoling and persuading myself to go out and train when frankly I'd much rather have hit the snooze button or spent more time working on the Homer Simpson-esque ass-groove in my sofa instead.
Set your next goal ASAP
Over the years I've learnt that lining up the next significant goal is the best way to motivate you to train. It’s why I’ve tried to carry on doing a fairly big event each year even though I’m nowhere near as competitive as I used to be.
I simply find that without something fairly challenging in the diary in the not too distant future, I am far more likely to give in to the urge to skip a session when I just don’t feel like it. Without a significant goal on the horizon, I find that something of a downward spiral kicks in.
Missed workouts lead to a significant drop in fitness levels followed by similar drop-offs in mood, self confidence and overall productivity in life.
In contrast, when I have a decent high-level goal in place the opposite tends to happen. Aiming for the goal has a positive 'double-whammy' effect on my motivation and willingness to put the work in.
It gives me something very positive to visualise and strive towards when I'm feeling motivated and up for training anyway, acting as a kind of multiplier of effort and enjoyment on those days.
And even more importantly, it does a great job of mildly scaring and pressurising me into making that crucial first step out of the door on those days where I’m feeling less than up for it. That’s largely because I’m fearful of the consequences of not doing so; namely falling short of the goal in some way.
I’m actually going through the process of choosing a couple of goals at the moment. If you’ve not set your mind to what you want to be doing next year yet, I’d definitely recommend doing so soon. This is a decent 2 minute read on the topic of goal setting to help with that process.
Plan tomorrow, tonight
Having the discipline to spend two minutes at the end of each day thinking about what training you’re going to do the next day can be hugely beneficial.
When you’re working to a set training plan this mental checklist is nothing more than a brief chance to think through what your programme has in store; to make sure you feel like you’re up to it and to check you have everything you need ready (kit/equipment laid out or packed, alarm set for the right time, any foods and drinks prepared etc).
This reduces the chances of anything small or silly preventing you from getting the job done the next day and it allows you to adapt your plan if you feel you need to.
When you’re not working to a long-term structured plan (as can be the case at this more relaxed time of year), taking a couple of minutes to plan out what you intend to do tomorrow, and when you intend to do it, is even more important. It dramatically increases your chances of actually knuckling down and doing some productive training.
I’ve done a fair bit of reading on this subject (as well as thinking about my own tendencies) and I think this is largely because we have 3 different ‘selves’: our Past Selves, Present Selves and Future Selves. The implications of this theory go way beyond training, but here’s my extremely basic interpretation of how it applies to athletes…
Your Present Self almost always wants to do something that’s easy and rewarding right now e.g. hit snooze and stay in the warm bed, or stay parked in front of the TV.
However, what your Future Self would actually benefit from most of all is doing something harder right now (i.e. getting your kit on and going training), as this will result in your Future Self being fitter in the long run.
In other words, your Future Self needs your Present Self to take some pain now for gain later on, whereas Present Self is far more interested in avoiding the pain in the immediate term. It’s as if you're actually two different people with two different sets of goals.
So, when you sit down the night before the following day to mentally commit to what training you’ve got planned, what you’re actually doing is proactively putting your Future Self’s best interests to the fore whilst you’re not feeling the strong pull of Present Self’s desires.
When the alarm goes off the following morning, you wake up having effectively made a pact with your Past Self to get up and go to give your Future Self the best shot at hitting their goals. This makes it quite a bit harder for Present Self to take the reigns and simply turn off the alarm and roll over.
The psychology of human motivation is clearly more complicated than this simplification, but I do know from my own experience that thinking about things in this way (and pre-agreeing the following day’s training the night before with myself) is a very helpful tool for getting me up and out of the door.
Train with other people
As well as enlisting imaginary versions of yourself, getting the help of your fellow athletes is a great way to make sure you stick to your training plan.
Training with other people adds the pressure of not letting them down and this alone is a powerful motivator. Training with others can also be a lot of fun and it can help distract you a bit and give you another, more sociable reason to go training.
I’ve always found evening training to be the hardest to get motivated for. I’ve therefore taken to arranging to go training with other people on days where my work schedule dictates that I have to put sessions in after dinner rather than first thing in the morning (which I definitely prefer).
More often than not, the pressure of having to show up and not let someone else down is the deciding factor in getting me out and putting in the miles. And, somewhat unsurprisingly, I almost always find that I either enjoy the training once it’s underway or at the very least get a sense of satisfaction from it when it's done.
Success with endurance training is largely a product of the consistency with which you can grind it out over many months, so I hope that these tips help you get out of the door a little more regularly in the coming weeks and contribute to you starting a new year with the best possible chance of having a great season.