In late November I hit a wall. I had the hardest time getting out and riding. My bank of motivation had been emptied. I would only do long rides if there were others going out with me. Otherwise it’d be 1 hour of a couple threshold intervals and I’d call it a day.
I knew I had to get things turned around if I was going to be a great competitor come Spring. And so I looked inwards and worked on building motivation for the upcoming season and seasons to come. This post outlines the strategies I used to develop this motivation.
There are two types of motivation, intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation comes from you while extrinsic motivation is derived from external sources. My goal with this post is to delve into both of these types of motivation and to learn how to develop, purify, and increase intrinsic motivation. But first let me begin with a personal illustration.
In middle and high school, I was an avid runner. Through the course of 6 years, I competed in 50 5K’s, two marathons, and countess track events. During this time, I was convinced I was going to be a competitive runner for a long time to come. But since high school ended, I haven’t done a singe race, and after a year, I had stopped running altogether.
My story is far from unique. Many high school runners (and athletes in general) don’t compete after school, though some might continue to use their sport as a form of exercise. I think this is fundamentally the result of lacking intrinsic motivation.
You see, when you’re part of a high school sport (or any organized team sport for that matter) you have a wealth of extrinsic motivation to keep you going through the sport:
- Scheduled practices
- Desire to support the team, etc.
Even if you have very little intrinsic motivation, you will still receive significant day-to-day motivation from these external sources. It’s only in the offseason that the habits of those with high intrinsic motivation are easily distinguished from those with low intrinsic motivation.
Now, most of us left high school long ago and are not currently part of any serious organized sport, so it is paramount to develop quality intrinsic motivation to get out there and work out regularly.
Find and Refine Intrinsic Motivation
In the past month, I have spent a lot of time reading about fulfillment and effectiveness. One of the core principles I see over and over is the idea that we need to develop a set of values in order to build a base for pursuing any goal. I think this same thinking goes for exercise. You really have to have a reason for working out to do over and over again.
So your first task is to define some good reasons for exercising. For example, some reasons can be:
- To improve my lifestyle
- To be the best athlete I can be
- To be able to compete
- Because it is fun
- Because it is rewarding
And some bad reasons:
- Because I want to be better than so-and-so
- To be viewed more favorable by others
These “bad” reasons are basically extrinsic values. They depend on the actions or perception of others. A training scheme based on extrinsic values will not yield the same validation as a scheme based on intrinsic values because they are more subjective and vain.
Once you have defined positive, intrinsic reasons to train, you have laid the foundation for sustainable motivation.
From these principles, the next step is to define goals. Where values provide the foundation, goals are the building material to structure a reasonable and sustainable training approach.
Relevancy. Your goals need to be directly related to your exercise-driving values. If your fundamental motivation for training is to compete, a goal of doing a century doesn’t exactly align with that principle. Pick goals that are direct representation of your values. (Conversely, you can use your longtime goals to determine what your values are).
Specificity. Goals like “I want to get faster” or “I want to do well in some races” are best avoided. Instead, choose concrete goals like “Top 5 finishes in three races” or “Increase FTP by 10%.”
It can be difficult to set goals when you haven’t been in the sport for very long because you don’t know what to expect. Last season, I knew I wanted to make it to the top tier of collegiate racing but wasn’t sure what I was “capable of” once I got there. I looked at some race results from some of the racers in the past and saw that it wasn’t unreasonable for a new A racer to finish in the top 10, so I set one of my goals as getting at least one top 10 finish in the Collegiate A category.
Read more about goal setting:
After you set your goals, the next step in creating a sustainable motivational infrastructure is to make a plan. Not a “oh I’ll go out and train 5 days a week” plan. A “here are the workouts I’m going to do for the next [time period] in order to meet my personal goals for [time period]” plan.
Making a training plan is no overnight task. It should be a product of past experiences and future goals. It should be fluid (not set in stone) to accomodate disruptions but structured enough to create a sense of accountability week to week. After you reached (or failed to reach) one of your goals, it is imperative to look back on your training and figure out what you could have done better so that when making a plan for the next goal, you will better your chances of success.
So you’ve identified your intrinsic reasons for exercise, liberating yourself from the need for extrinsic motivation. You’ve set relevant and specific goals. Once you’ve developed a training plan and a sense of accountability you have all the tools for sustainable motivation. At least for now.
Over time, your goals will certainly change. But more importantly your reasons for competition will probably change, too. And when this happens you should revisit and revise your stated core values and then change your goals accordingly.
If you have anything to add or there’s something you feel like I’ve got wrong, please do not hesitate to let me know in the comments or via email.