Friday, May 25, 2007

Finding Your Motivation

So why do we run exhausting mile after exhausting mile? After all most of us are never going to win a race or frankly even get close to winning. Many of the people out jogging or filling up the local gym are simply trying to lose a few pounds, look a little better and feel fit, and I don’t doubt that most of the burgeoning ranks of triathletes in this country are seeking the same thing – to feel better, to look better and perhaps live a little longer. But you know what? When these types of extrinsic motivators are your reason for getting moving it is unlikely that you will succeed in the long term. The reality is that most people start exercise programs all the time with great enthusiasm only to give up only a few months or even weeks later.

There is a great article by Tom McGrath in the latest issue of Men’s Health magazine that discusses this topic, and I thought I would pass on a few pieces of information that I thought were particularly useful. First off, external rewards are in the vast majority of cases simply not strong enough motivators to keep us working out. Why? Because exercise becomes drudgery or boring – namely it becomes just work. We work out day after day and it is the same thing over and over again. If working out just becomes work then there are too many activities (constructive or not) competing for our time for us to keep at it. If we want to succeed in the long term, we have to cultivate within us the intrinsic rewards of exercise. We have to enjoy the feeling of movement. We have to enjoy what we are doing, and most of all just have fun.

What will make us enjoy exercise? McGrath points to three factors: autonomy, competence and relatedness. Autonomy relate to an activity in that we choose to do it; it was not forced on us. If we are thinking that we have to do something, or are being forced then we lose our autonomy. If it seems that we are being forced and we naturally bridle against that. If we tell ourselves that we have to workout or we will gain a few pounds, that motivator is just working against us because it cuts into our sense of autonomy. The second factor, competence, relates to the skills that we build while doing the exercise. If we feel that we are doing well or at least improving we will feel good about our accomplishments and continue in our efforts. If we just go to the gym and put in our thirty minutes on the elliptical machine then this is not going to feed our desire for accomplishment. We need to always have new goals and look for progress. For long term success, probably the most important factor is the last, relatedness, which is how the activity connects you to others. Activities that bring you together with others are naturally going to be more intrinsically motivating. Plugging away on the treadmill with your iPod on is not bring you closer to anyone (well, sometimes a good Podcast can relate you to all kinds of people). Instead, find a group to train with, or even just one friend. It can really make the difference.

All of this makes complete sense to me. When I embarked on my triathlon journey it was to change my life and become a better person, but the question remains, why triathlon? Why not just go to the gym and slave away at a treadmill for a while and then call it a day? Why do I have to race, and in three separate sports no-less, and wear a funny outfit? Because it is fun. Getting up early in the morning to set up your gear in transition is exciting. Taking the first plunge into the ocean along with hundreds of others is exhilarating. Passing another cyclist as you make your way along the course makes you feel like a millions bucks, especially when the other guy is younger or has a faster bike. And there is nothing like crossing the finish line and erasing all the doubt of whether you were good enough or whether you could do it. In short it is a blast.

I knew then that starting an exercise program wasn’t enough. It had to be more, and that is probably the only reason I’m still out there, still doing it and still setting goals. Sure I have had my stumbles, but I have always come back. The only solution for continued motivation and improvement is to cultivate more intrinsic rewards in my training. I set my own schedule so that I know that I am choosing to train and no one is forcing me. I set goals and carefully measure my progress so that every time I PR or go a little farther I feel a surge of pride. I search out training locations and ways of training that I enjoy, like getting out of the musty gym and onto the mountain trails or into the ocean waves. And lastly, I find others to train with, so that every week I look forward to seeing my friends so that together we can get faster, stronger and little bit better.

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