Mindfulness and Motivation: the Paradoxical Connection between Setting Goals and Being in the Moment
Every time you train you have the opportunity to achieve. Whether it it something extraordinary or merely something good depends largely upon you and your practice: how you perceive your training and yourself. As an athlete, I find motivation the easy part. I love training, I love running and I love the way I feel during and after a run. Just by tuning into this ‘feel’ I believe is the reason I continue to enjoy it. After all this time, I still love the feeling of my feet hitting the ground, and the fluid feeling of moving through space.
There were times, during the most intense parts of my career, where motivation got drowned by anxiety, worry and endless thinking about what is most easily called the ‘what if’ thoughts. What if I don’t run fast enough? What if I feel terrible? What if so and so beats me? What if I don’t make the Olympics? What if I am really not very good at all? You can see where this is going and it’s called the ‘human condition’. Working through the doubts is not just replacing them with positive thinking, but tuning into the only thing you can control, which is your mind and how you are thinking. I learned early that worry was exhausting, and anxiety took me away from my intrinsic motivation in sport: that running fast created more joy.
Using this philosophy, I maintained a commitment to training and racing that endured for over 20 years. Because I identified what it is about running, training and racing that I find so satisfying, it is hard for me not to be motivated. As long as I remain interested in the goals I have for myself, and passionate about reaching them, training is never an ordeal and always an accomplishment. My goals have changed and varied over the years, from intense focus on Olympic qualifying standards, to completing the training necessary to compete in an Ironman triathlon, to remaining strong and fit during and after two pregnancies The one overriding factor that keeps me motivated to get out the door is that I understand my objectives for that particular time of my life. Matching my goals to my life priorities makes the path more relaxing, more fun, and more rewarding, especially as I have moved from a single minded athletic focus to balancing a professional sport and coaching career with family.
Training is not always easy. In my early days as an athlete, training was intense. I worked so incredibly hard at becoming a better runner, it was really an obsessive love. And I know that the blatant truth is that to develop as a young athlete you just need to work hard. There are no short cuts. You need to be smart, but there is no substitute for sheer hours spent training or honing that laser focus on what you want. This repetitive training regime shapes who you are as an athlete—both physically and mentally.
You just don’t step out the door and run effortlessly every time you go. There are days when your energy is low, or your body just feels fatigued. Coming back from the birth of a child, or a long injury can be a twelve month process. How do you stay motivated when the going gets tough? Make sure you can answer these three questions:
These three questions are related to, but different from having goals, setting a training plan and working from day to day. These are TRUTH questions and knowing what it is you want from your run training is the best way to ensure continued motivation and joy. What are you trying to achieve? Having some type of a goal is one of the easiest methods I know that supports motivation and keeps interest high, but unless you can answer the ‘WHY?” the goals may be untruthful for you. There are different types of goals out there and it helps to be familiar with the various types in order to set goals that are realistic for you. People run for their own personal reasons. Some want to improve their lifestyle, be more active and feel better about themselves. Some people are satisfying a competitive urge by training for races and trying to win awards and lower personal best times. Not just for Olympians and National Team members, being goal oriented is what fires a lot of people up and keeps them loving the training. Keep in mind that some people are more outcome oriented (extrinsically motivated by winning, personal best times, weight loss) and some people are more process oriented (running for an intrinsic sense of well-being, to connect with others, to be happy about their fitness, to feel more efficient as a runner). Knowing what style of athlete you are, and what balance of each, will help you to set realistic goals for you.
As most athletes know, there are several things that are inevitable in any training program, and lack of motivation and fatigue are two that will crop up for just about everybody. While there is no magic pill to ensure a perfect training program, there are things that runners can do to make the path to success and fitness smooth and as energized as possible. It’s good to understand that being tired is also a way to measure training intensity and to be able to differentiate training fatigue from exhaustion, sleep deprivation and stress. Training fatigue is specific and necessary in order to improve. Being exhausted and drained is your body telling you that you are overdoing it and are on the path to breakdown. You need to learn the difference. Training through some fatigue is a part of the game, and if you have goals pulling your forward, focusing on the positive aspects of training takes precedence over dwelling on your fatigue.
Most importantly though, is the understanding the underlying psyche behind the language of the lack of motivation. Setting your goals high to be challenged is one thing, and you should plan and expect to feel great every single day of training. Being motivated when things are going well is not difficult; cultivating motivation on the tough days is a practice of mindfulness. You might be tired, but NOT training is NOT an option so you might as well go through the motions mindfully—that is paying attention to process and not the negative chatter--and get on with it. In about 50% of these situations, athletes pull themselves out of the rut halfway through the training session, and while it may not be the best performance ever, the training sessions is completed successfully and the positive mindful mindset is reinforced for future tough days. Waiting for motivation is not an option. It’s like a writer waiting for inspiration before they pick up the pen.
And remember, nobody ever said it was going to be breeze.
Writing the Running Life
For 30 years I pursued a high performance career and traveled the world. This blog melds this experience with my coaching and passion to support excellence in others.