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Every athlete has a love/hate relationship with their sport. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies, and often, at some point in the season, training sessions become a drag. When we look back, we realize that the tough stuff is worth it, but when we’re in the middle of it, it can be really difficult to find the motivation to work out. Why do we hit these walls? Why does our enthusiasm fade as the season goes on? Why do we have days (or weeks) when we dread that 2,500-yard main swim set or long run?
From a broad, neuroscientific perspective, the brain actually views these long workouts as a threat to its homeostasis (natural state of balance). Think about it: The brain’s entire responsibility is to control bodily activities, such as sleep cycles, temperature, food digestion, etc. It controls these systems in an attempt to keep the body steady and balanced. When you do something like challenge the body in a tough workout, the brain has a lot of adjustments to make. It prefers for everything to be steady and normal, so it minimizes threats and classifies any sort of effort as a threat.
But growth doesn’t happen in our comfort zone. That’s why we do wild things like participate in triathlon. We start out strong, but then our motivation can fade, especially if we’re not proactive about building a burnout-proof training plan. Let’s examine motivation and the brain chemistry underlying it.
We typically think about dopamine as the pleasure molecule. It’s certainly involved in the reward pathway, but another critical role is that of the motivation molecule. It gets pumped up when we’re motivated to act in a certain way (like when we really want something that we know will help us feel pleasure and avoid pain). When dopamine is high, we feel motivated. When it’s low, we don’t. So, in the case of dreaded workouts, the key is to tackle the dopamine problem. Here are six ways to trick your brain into actually liking your workouts. (Hint: almost all of them target dopamine.)
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Tip #1: Reward raffle
This one’s fun. Write down five ways you can reward yourself for completing a workout on five different pieces of paper. For example, maybe you write down new running shoes, a massage, a new water bottle, or a pint of your favorite ice cream. Crumple up the papers and put them in a bowl with 15 blank pieces of crumpled paper. Every time you complete a workout, reach into the bowl and choose one paper. You’ll either get a reward or a blank piece of paper. The key is, you don’t know what you’ll get.
This little game will help you tick off those undesirable workouts because it taps into the brain’s obsession with uncertainty. Here’s the deal: The brain thrives off of unexpected or intermittent rewards – and this is due to dopamine. If you know to expect a particular outcome, then the brain releases a certain amount of dopamine. If you don’t know whether or not you’ll receive a reward, then your brain releases a significantly higher amount of dopamine and you feel even more motivated to accomplish the task.
Tip #2: Set micro-goals, win dopamine
Triathletes are well-versed in goal-setting.There’s always a race we want to participate in or a time we’re striving for, so we create a training plan to inch us closer to that goal. But, when we hit the wall and can’t stand the thought of getting through a brutal workout (or three), we can benefit from setting micro-goals. A micro-goal (or microstep) is the smallest possible unit of progress. Consider a 2,000-yard swim set. Looking at that workout in its entirety doesn’t always sound refreshing. Alternatively, you can set an initial goal of a 200-yard warm-up. That’s all you need to focus on. After the warm-up, you only focus on completing 100 yards of a pull buoy drill. That’s it. You focus on one small segment (or micro-goal) at a time.
Here’s where the science comes in. Each time you achieve those mini goals, your brain releases dopamine into the reward pathway. Your brain then remembers what you did to achieve that feel-good state and categorizes the work towards that mini-goal as a mental win. The more micro-goals you achieve, the greater your concentration and motivation to keep going. The key is to log those first few mini successes. Once that first day’s dreaded workout is over, your brain is better primed to get after a hill training bike workout. Eventually, you’ll get over the mental hump of not wanting to tackle those more brutal workouts.
Tip #3: A picture’s worth a thousand words
Have you ever practiced imagery, or visualization, to learn a new technique, increase your confidence, or deal with an injury? It’s a commonly used mental skill among athletes and it turns out that it can boost motivation as well, in a couple different ways. The first way is to visualize in your mind. One study asked participants to recall either a positive or negative memory about exercise – or to visualize something else entirely (the control state). Those who visualized a positive exercise memory reported feeling more motivated to exercise, and ultimately exercised more, than the control group. Interestingly, the negative memory recollection also caused an increase in motivation and actual exercise minutes, although the effect was not quite as robust. Simply thinking about a workout won’t get it done for you (although it’s an excellent tool when you’re sidelined with an injury), but it can motivate you to get moving.
Another way to incorporate visualization is to physically draw on a piece of paper, or depict in some visual way, progress toward your goal. You can draw an image of a mountain with the peak being your big goal (e.g., a race). After every single workout, you fill in a step as you get closer to the peak. It seems ridiculously simple, but one study showed that when participants were asked to complete a task that requires physical exertion, they were more likely to persist if they could see a visual representation of their progress (e.g., a progress bar showing percentage completed) versus only a numerical representation.
When your motivation is low, remember this: See it first. Get after it second.
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Tip #4: Tap into your “why”
We all have a reason for participating in multisport. Heck, why else would you sacrifice Saturday mornings or pay money to do something most people would never dream of. Although you may not have articulated your reason for signing up for that race or training across three disciplines, you most definitely have an underlying motivation for doing this relatively insane thing. The key is to identify it.
Why is it important to have a “why?” Well, because you’re not always going to want to do it. Plain and simple. Your “why” serves as your anchor and the impetus for you to trudge through the muck. Studies have highlighted the benefit of having a purpose. Interestingly, people who articulate their “why” are better able to manage life’s more difficult moments, even the relatively minor, such as having to get through a tough workout or dealing with a disappointing race. In fact, the benefits of having purpose don’t only apply to negative situations; they also prevent us from getting too high from positive events (which is good for avoiding the inevitable post-high crash). Essentially, having purpose keeps us even-keel. Or, to use more physiological terms, having purpose helps us maintain homeostasis.
Your mission is to define your reason for participating in triathlon. Is it to discover how far you can push your body and your mind? Is it in honor of someone who doesn’t have the ability to move in this way? Is it to enjoy the camaraderie? Identify your “why” and write it down on a post-it. Put that post-it somewhere easily visible and refer to it when you just don’t feel like doing that intense workout.
Tip #5: Dopamine jams
Music and workouts are a pretty classic pair, and for the past 20 years, research has supported the psychological benefit of workout music. One study found that when people listened to motivational music during sprint interval training, they reported higher levels of enjoyment after the workout than people who either listened to a podcast or nothing at all. Not only is music a mood-booster, but it also increases endurance and decreases perceived effort.
Why does high-tempo music, in particular, rev us up? Dopamine, of course. One study demonstrated that the increased pleasure derived from listening to music is caused by an increase in dopamine.
So, if you’re feeling a little “bleh” about a training session, pump up the jams, let those dopamine levels rise, and get to it. Since a lot of triathlon training isn’t conducive (or safe) when accompanied by music, try listening to music before your workout. The motivational effect may work just enough to at least get you started and out the door.
Tip #6: Do it anyway
Just start! Action creates motivation; not the other way around. Since dopamine runs the show when it comes to motivation, why not figure out a way to boost dopamine first! We can essentially trick our brain into getting into a workout by increasing the very thing that gets us moving in the first place. Ironically, the best way to quickly boost dopamine is with aerobic exercise.
Prime your brain to workout by committing to only five minutes of movement to start. Make it fun. Dance around your living room, jump rope, or do a few, quick sun salutations to a really good song. That short burst of movement will rev up the levels of dopamine in your brain (especially in regions related to mood) and motivate you to seek more. Then, the transition into your actual workout will be much smoother.
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Daya Grant, Ph.D. is a certified mental performance consultant (CMPC), neuroscientist, and yoga teacher who empowers athletes to get out of their own way and tap into their greatness. She swims, bikes, and runs in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and their young son.