Some days, it’s easy. The work is enjoyable, if not effortless. Lacing up my shoes, taking that first icy plunge into the pool or throwing my leg over my bike doesn’t feel like work at all. Sadly, those days are the exception. Most training brings varying degrees of distress, shades of suffering. It may be unpleasant and uncomfortable, yet it’s perversely satisfying nonetheless.
And then there are the truly miserable days. The days that hearing the chirp of a Garmin, catching a whiff of chlorine, feeling the caress of a chamois or simply glancing at my training plan triggers a wave of nausea and an overpowering urge to curl up in fetal position, double-fisting a family-sized jar of peanut butter and a jumbo bag of chocolate chips. To wave the white flag. Those days, I question why the hell I do this to myself.
It’s true. Even professional athletes have those days. How we cope with the inevitable lapses in motivation, the mental and physical fatigue and the general ennui of training is a critical factor that separates and defines successful athletes. I’ve observed that successful athletes can better decouple that ebb and flow in motivation from the consistency with which they pursue their goals.
Disengaging my level of intrinsic motivation from my execution as an athlete is a work in progress. This spring, I found myself grinding through an utterly passionless and lackadaisical training block, leading to a predictably mediocre race. The following month, as if a switch had flipped, I waltzed through the lead up to my win at Eagleman. I can accept that I won’t always be bursting with good cheer over triathlon, but my emotions don’t have to dictate my day-to-day execution and professionalism as an athlete.
Enough abstraction. So how do I actually motivate myself when I’m really not feeling it? I’ve accumulated quite an arsenal of techniques, some more sound than others. I’ll share sixteen of the proven, peculiar, questionable and downright embarrassing ways that I motivate myself when the going gets tough. We’ll start with the most legitimate approaches and go downhill from there.
Accountability to others: There is arguably nothing more motivating than knowing that others are counting on you. Having a coach/mentor looking over my shoulder, sponsors to answer to and you guys following along makes it a lot harder to half-ass anything. In the heat of the moment, I’ll even catch myself pre-writing bits of my race report or workout comments, trying them on for size. Sometimes it’s easier to suck it up than to concoct excuses or apologies.
Self-talk: Positive self-talk is a known performance booster. On the tough days, my inner dialogue can be cacophonous, with voices of encouragement hollering to drown out voices of negativity. Occasionally, I’ll even say a phrase out loud in the midst of a workout. A favourite is “you like this! (you sick f—)”, which has earned me some odd looks at the gym…
Fake it ’til you make it: Even if I’m not a happy camper, there’s power in pasting a smile on my face, going through the motions and pretending that I’m having fun, even if I’m inwardly throwing a temper tantrum. Before I know it, I’m struggling less and maybe even beginning to enjoy myself.
Visualization: I dedicate a little time almost every workout to picturing desirable outcomes, particularly when I’m struggling. I’ll mentally rehearse passing a rival, nailing a climb, or breaking the tape again and again and again. Visualization can be mentally taxing, but I find that it puts the suffering into context.
Training partners: I do nearly all my training alone. I enjoy many aspects of flying solo, but it can carry a higher psychological cost. Training with others almost miraculously lowers perceived exertion, as if you’re somehow sharing the workload. Sometimes I find solace in suffering alongside another athlete, even if we’re at different levels or doing different workouts.
One bit at a time: When I’m having trouble getting out the door, I’ll tell myself that I just have to do a fraction of the workout, then I can call it quits. Once I reach that point, I’ll almost always push on, setting my sights on the next small increment. Bit by bit, I’ll work my way through the session until it’s over. This little game has played out so often, yet I somehow still manage to deceive myself.
Tunes: Music can work magic to motivate me. A killer playlist is such a performance enhancer that I need to set some limits; I only use music for my indoor (trainer and treadmill) workouts, never outside since headphones are forbidden in races. Here are some tracks from my summer workout playlist:
- Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing – Jacob Collier
- Shy – The Magician
- Blue Jeans – Lana Del Rey (RAC Mix)
- Talk To Me – Rainer + Grimm
- Milk And Honey – Soundpusher (Dr. Who Mix)
- See Line Woman – Nina Simone (Martin Villeneuve Remix)
- Don’t Lose Your Steam – Gregory Porter (Axmod Remix)
- Sexy And I Know It – Le Boeuf × Noah Guthrie
- Monument – Röyksopp feat. Robyn
Reliving past successes: I don’t have a shrine to myself displaying trophies and medals—most get tossed. I think this helps me stay hungry. But I do like to review old race reports, coverage and training logs to rekindle my confidence and remind myself how I pulled through past hardships and that it was worth it.
Shiny new toys: Who doesn’t get amped up by new gear? Triathletes are notorious gearheads and suckers for the latest and greatest. Replacing otherwise functional gear simply to get a motivational kick can be money well spent.
Change of scenery: There’s some truth in the saying that a change is as good as a rest. Sometimes an unexplored route or a different pool, gym or track is all it takes to get me going. I’m not crazy about training camps, though many athletes find they boost focus, motivation and performance—the so-called “training camp effect”.
Caffeine: It’s tough to beat caffeine when it comes to performance and mood enhancers… at least legal ones… I avoid large doses of caffeine outside of races, drinking tea and only the occasional espresso. For me, relying on caffeine to get through training tends be a sign that I’m overreaching. I’ll allow myself a little extra caffeine for a finite period of challenging training.
Strava whoring: Do it for Strava. This thought has admittedly crept into my mind towards the end of a grueling workout. Just thinking of the comments and kudos is enough to get the dopamine flowing. Protip: This is not a smart way to train. We all have the urge to post a particularly badass workout on Facebook or Twitter. Don’t do it. Ever. Repeated violations will result in excommunication from the sporting community.
Tasty treats: We often hear that we shouldn’t reward ourselves with food, but show me an athlete who doesn’t. When the last interval is the only thing standing between me and my fridge (or a bag of Martin’s Caramel Dream Apple Chips), it’s going down.
Attention seeking behaviour: Following most pro triathletes on social media will subject you to a steady stream of posts that are ostentatious, scantily clad, self-aggrandizing, thirst trap-y and so on. The ego of an overtired and undermotivated triathlete is a fragile thing indeed. On my darkest days, I’ve resorted to such shameful ego boosting techniques, usually while procrastinating a workout. I do my best to limit this to Snapchat, leaving no lingering evidence. Don’t make me regret my honesty! #safespace
Sexy (imaginary) audience: Whenever there are people around while I’m training—other gymgoers, teams using the track infield, random bystanders, whoever—I like to pretend that they’re all super attractive and impressed by my mastery of moving quickly in a straight line. I know that I’m not alone in this one. Guys showing off is a time honoured tradition. Protip: Avoid actually checking out your admirers to preserve the illusion.
Self-flagellation: Okay, now we’re getting weird. If I’m feeling lethargic, I’ll conclude my warm-up for a hard workout with a crisp slap to the face, sometimes two… yes, my own face… I find that it sets the right tone to inflict misery upon myself and it also gets the adrenaline pumping. No judgement please, this is a safe space!
And more… I could list some even more dubious motivational techniques, but I better stop here in the interest of preserving my dignity… and my blog’s PG-13 rating… 😛