“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit,”
Here we are – 1 month into the new year. The influx of new members to the gym has already come …. and gone. Due to the short days and crap weather, clients who have race goals or fitness goals are struggling with the motivation to work out and either reach out to me for advice, or worse, fall off the radar.
Because I’m a coach, and it’s a coach’s job to motivate, I started looking through all the articles I’ve written or edited regarding motivation. I’ve been doing this for a while, so there are a lot of articles, and many of them are very good. But what is there to say about motivation that hasn’t already been said?
There are a lot of strategies to avoid boredom or inertia, but what’s the best piece of advice I could give to an athlete whose mojo account is overdrawn? While I was pondering these questions, I had an ‘aha’ moment. But before I get to that, I want to split hairs a little bit about motivation vs. inspiration.
Various dictionaries give definitions for motivation and inspiration that are very similar. Both are meant to be the driving force behind action, or the stimulus that sets an action in motion. However, I see a slight but possibly very important difference between the two.
Inspiration is always positive, isn’t it? Someone gives an inspiring performance, or you listen to an inspiring TED Talk. Sometimes the source of inspiration just makes you feel good, but often it makes you want to get up and DO SOMETHING.
Motivation is also a call to action, but it isn’t always positive. High blood pressure or bad cholesterol numbers at your latest physical might motivate you to work out or change your diet. A dwindling savings account might motivate you to ask for a raise, or find other work. Often people are motivated to make a change when the cost to not act becomes greater than the cost to act. Inspiration is a jolt of creative energy that comes from within, while motivation is often a cattle prod. Motivation is logical, inspiration is emotional. It occurs to me, that what people often mean when they are looking for motivation is in fact, inspiration – an internal call to action that makes them want to pursue their goals. Let me give you one more illustration about the power of inspiration before I get to that ‘aha’ moment….
Watching Lionel Sanders performance at the Ironman World Championship this year was nothing short of inspiring. The relative new-comer to the sport of triathlon had battled drug addiction and depression only to turn his life around through rigorous, punishing training regimens that transformed his life. So different was his life after committing to a physically demanding workout schedule that he started to see everything differently, and he believed that the only thing preventing him from WINNING the Ironman World Championship was his mind.
If you watched the live coverage you saw a man who battled through the 2.4 mile swim, endured the blistering heat and punishing winds in the lava fields of Kona and rode harder than any of the 2000 athletes in the race. He came off the bike in first place and ran the ugliest, grittiest marathon imaginable, holding off all but one athlete – even though many of the athletes in the field were more talented runners. When he was passed by Patrick Lange at mile 24 of the run, he didn’t look back to see if anyone else was coming. He kept his eyes on Lange’s back – searching for signs of weakness - to see if there was any way he could regain the lead.
You had to be lacking a pulse not to be inspired by that performance! In fact, you might have even been motivated to start or renew your training with a fresh mindset. A valiant struggle or brilliant race result is inspiring to both professionals and amateurs alike. The difference is, professionals know that along with the struggle and hard work, there are thousands of tedious workouts that are part of any lifetime of training.
So, as I was going through all the articles on motivation and inspiration, I started thinking about a question I am asked all the time: what motivates me? Since I took up running in 1997, and then triathlon in 2000, I have been ‘training’ by doing something (swimming, biking, running, skiing, yoga, lifting) at least 5 days a week. Of course, I’ve had time off to recover from big races or injuries, but as soon as I can safely train, I’m back at it again. I’ve had years where I competed a LOT and years where I haven’t competed at all. What has kept me motivated to work out for 20+ years?
Truth be told, it’s not motivation that keeps me at it. Or at least not in the inspirational sense that the question implies. While there are certainly some days that I can’t wait to lace up the shoes and go for a run, or get out on the bike, there have also been a fair number of days where I had to talk myself into doing what was on my schedule. But most days my workouts are neither inspired nor dreaded. They just are. They are as natural to me as brushing my teeth. I wouldn’t say I’m motivated to brush my teeth but I do it twice a day and I’m always glad I did. And I’m VERY glad that I’ve been in the habit of brushing my teeth my entire life. It’s the same with my training habit.
That’s not to say that I never look forward to me workouts! On the contrary. There are lots of things I look forward to. Sometimes it’s the people I’m going to see. Sometimes it’s getting outside. It can even be the playlist I put together if music is part of the workout. Often, it’s the challenge of the workout itself. I don’t mind that the workout will be hard – or at least challenging – because that’s sort of the point. But I don’t have a big debate with myself about whether I will or won’t work out and I don’t think about what else I could be doing because getting on my bike what I do at, for example, 8:30 Saturday morning. Period.
One could say that because it’s my job I have no choice but to get the workouts in. To some degree that’s true. I do have a commitment not just to myself, but to others, to show up to the workout. The commitment is an important part of this, but it’s also my choice to do the workout as well. It was a choice I made – and a habit I created - long before I started doing this for a living.
One thing about motivation is that it has a pretty short half-life. Usually by the time the alarm goes off the morning after you watched that inspirational race video your enthusiasm to start training is about half the strength that it was 10 hours ago. But that’s ok! It’s still a really good idea to start training, or restart the training from which you’ve been absent.
Another thing about motivation is that it often comes after you start working out. Professional athletes will tell you that it’s quite common to arrive at the gym and go through the warm-up feeling somewhat unmotivated. Then something clicks in and you get into a groove. Most of the friction – the resistance to working out – comes at the beginning. Just get going and momentum takes over. So, you can stop feeling like you are missing something or that something is wrong with you because you aren’t always raring to go when the alarm is telling you that your transformation awaits.
So, the ‘aha’ moment here is that you don’t need motivation to achieve your goals! In fact, waiting for motivation is just another form of procrastination. This is really good news, isn’t it? What I’m saying is, you can forget everything you’ve read about motivation. You can stop waiting for the mood to strike and start living the life you’ve imagined now!
But hold on – there’s more. I’ve just told you that the key to sticking with your short and long-term goals isn’t about being motivated, but about making your training a habit. So, let’s explore the steps to creating a habit that is not only what you do, but who you are destined to be. We are talking about a lifestyle change! Exciting!
THREE STEPS TO CREATING A TRAINING HABIT
Habit formation is the process by which behaviors become automatic. If you instinctively reach for a cigarette whenever you have a cup of coffee or a drink at a bar, you have a habit. By the same token, if you lace up your running shoes and hit the streets the moment you wake up in the morning, you also have a habit. Creating a workout habit starts with ….
Step One - Deciding that this lifestyle is for you
Deciding – taking ownership for your choice - is part of any habit you are trying to create, or for that matter, habit that you are trying to break. If you are trying to quit smoking, you need to think of yourself as a non-smoker, not a smoker who is trying to quit. In this case, we are talking about training, so the identity-shift here is to start calling yourself an athlete and thinking like one. Identity helps us make otherwise difficult choices by offloading willpower. Our choices become what we do because of who we are.
Your training doesn’t have to have a race at the end of it in order for it to be meaningful. And I hope all the people who’ve found training motivation through triathlon will still continue with their training once their racing days are over. The point is, whether you race or not, if you train, you are an athlete, and if you are an athlete, you train.
By the way, I like using the word ‘train’ vs. ‘exercise’. Exercising is in the moment. Training is a process. Training encompasses exercise, recovery, sleep, and healthy eating. You are training for life, and if that life happens to have a few races sprinkled in, so be it.
Step Two - Make yourself accountable
If you are struggling to create the training habit, making yourself accountable can help. I run a weekly time trial from May-September and I’ve had every type of cyclist show up with $10 to have me record their time as they ride 2 loops for a total of 12 miles. Kids as young as 14 and adults as old as 75 show up to race. I’ve timed mountain bikers, time trialists, and triathletes. I’ve had people very new to riding and professional athletes all riding on the same course. The course is open to traffic and sometimes the roads can be in rough shape. But as one of the pro cyclists who comes to the time trial told me, “There’s nothing like having someone with a stop watch at the start and finish of your ride to make you give 100%”.
I never stop being impressed with these riders. The ride takes place Thursday evenings at 6:30 pm. Most are coming from jobs that involve a commute and I envision many of them wearing their race kit under their business suits during the day and undressing on their way to the race. But they show up without fail and for those who do, they progress is notable. Some get faster by minutes at a time. Others are so good that they are chasing seconds that are nearly completely at the mercy of the winds and the traffic. They all get fitter. And it isn’t the result as much as it’s the ritual – the habit of doing the ‘race of truth’ every Thursday from May-September that sends them out every week.
There are plenty of opportunities to make yourself accountable – and to find some training buddies. Masters swimming, indoor cycling classes, group runs. You can even do yoga classes to make sure that you get into the habit of stretching.
Step Three - Create triggers and rituals
I told you about the time trial ‘ritual’ that cyclists participate in every week. Rituals can extend beyond the actual training, and are very important to habit formation. The time trail ritual begins when the athlete straps their bike to the car before leaving for work Thursday morning. They put their workout bag in the car next to their briefcase. They aren’t waiting to be motivated to ride tonight – this is their Thursday night ritual. Those automatic rituals that are precursors to the actual race have signaled the rider’s brain that they are riding tonight. They hope that they are feeling good and that the weather is conducive to a good time, but it doesn’t matter. Either way, they are riding.
You can set the same rituals for yourself. Organized athletes have a training bag ready to go, and some have one for each type of workout. The swim bag will have a towel, swim cap, swim suit, and 2 pair of goggles. It might have additional equipment and shampoo.
The cycling bag will have cycling clothes appropriate to the bike training, bike shoes, towel, etc. If you are riding outside, a helmet and sunglasses will be included. The lucky runner only needs run shoes and a change of clothing. Athletes might put their sports drink in the bag, but part of the ritual could include buying the drink at the gym.
It’s important to get the workout bag ready the night before the workout takes place so that you aren’t scrambling in the morning and giving yourself the excuse to blow it off. If the bag is ready, all you have to do is stumble out of bed, brush your teeth, grab your pre-workout drink (which has been made ready the night before), and go. The rituals do 2 things: they make it easy for you to carry out the scheduled habit, and they signal the brain that the training is about to take place.
The rituals of professional athletes are legendary, and in rare cases these rituals become nearly debilitating superstitions. But for most athletes, they are calming routines that allow them to routinely do their jobs at the highest level, whether or not they feel motivated that day.
Before every game former Celtic’s basketball star Ray Allen followed the same strict pregame routine:
Nap from 11:30-1
Eat a chicken and rice meal at 2:30
Shave his head and walk out onto the court at 3:30
Begin his strict basketball warm-up for three hours before the game
Ray Allen admits that some might call this OCD, but his pregame rituals were not considered peculiar within his realm of work.
Triggers are similar to rituals in the effect that they have on our habit formation, but there are a few key differences. Rituals are acts or a series of acts regularly repeated in a similar manner. Ray Allen’s pre-game routine was a ritual. A trigger, on the other hand, refers to anything that consciously or unconsciously elicits a memory, feeling, or causes a reaction.
Earlier we talked about smokers who reach for a cigarette when they have a cup of coffee. The coffee-and-cigarette is a ritual, but the smoking is triggered by the coffee. Triggers are everywhere, and most we aren’t even aware of. Two famous triggers that are used extensively in sales and marketing are color and smell.
Business will often hire ‘color consultants’ before painting their interior walls because colors trigger emotions ranging from peacefulness to hunger to excitement to anger. Iowa State University once famously painted the locker room for the visiting sports team pink in an attempt to make the opponents feel passive!
Smell is also a powerful trigger. The smell of certain foods baking can stimulate the appetite, while others trigger creativity. Realtors often tell those trying to sell their homes to burn vanilla and cinnamon candles to trigger feelings of coziness. Once you become aware of them, you can use triggers to your advantage in the formation of rituals and habits.
Location and other people can be important triggers for habit formation, for better or worse. Because other people’s habits can be ‘contagious’ you want to be careful to surround yourself with like-minded individuals when you are creating a workout habit. If you work out with a group, this tends to happen automatically, especially if you work out with the same group on the same day. Likewise, when you choose the location where you work out, if you like the environment – lighting, cleanliness, music – you are more likely to return to that environment, and you will associate that environment with working out.
If you are trying to sleep better so that you improve your chances of sticking to your training plan, you need to break the habit of watching TV or even reading in bed. The bedroom needs to be for sleeping, so that sleep will be triggered when you get under the covers. By the way, this is why plans to work out at home often fail. Even athletes who set up a dedicated home gym struggle with staying focused on their workouts because ‘home’ is associated with family and relaxation and not with working out. (Home offices can have the same problem!) But you can overcome the struggle with doing your training at home if you combine other training triggers and stick to a fixed schedule.
Time is another important trigger for creating a workout habit. If you always swim on Tuesday and Thursday at 5:30 am, and always ride at 6:30 on Wednesday night, you have a workout habit for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. There is no internal discussion about where, what, how, because the thinking has been done for you and you can focus on working out.
It’s important to recognize that having more time to work out or having a ‘flexible’ work schedule can work to your disadvantage. I often hear people say that if they didn’t have to work so darn much they would be able to train more. But in my experience, the opposite is actually true. Athletes who have to be on the train heading to the office at 7:00 am are at their 5:30 am workout almost without fail! But those who have the whole day to get the workout in often push it to the last minute, or skip it all together and wonder how the day got away from them.
My warning to you is, once you’ve developed them, do not be capricious with your good habits! They are hugely important to your success and need to be respected. If you get tempted to reschedule your regular workout because you can, or because it would be more convenient – don’t! I’m telling you – break the habit of switching the workouts around or changing them to a different day unless there is absolutely no other way. You think you are being flexible and allowing more time for yourself and others, but you are really messing with your workout habit - and that thing we like to call motivation.
MAKING YOUR COMEBACK
Even harder than starting a workout habit is returning to a workout habit. One reason for this is because now you have expectations. When you were new to training, you faced down any fears you might have had about looking foolish and embraced the struggle. After a few months sticking to your training habit you gained a le