A race director friend told me that the average ultra-distance trail runner stays in the sport for about four years. I’m not exactly sure where that number came from, but it seems reasonable. Injury, burn out, family commitment, work, loss of interest–we’re all at risk of losing that spark that helps push us to the finish.
For me, an injury last year spawned a cascade of events that completely destroyed my motivation, not just for running, but for life in general. It was a dark time, and it took more than a year for me to crawl back out of the hole that I’d dug for myself. I lost everything in the process, including my self-respect. I was totally defeated.
Breaking from stagnation has been one of the most difficult challenges I’ve had to tackle. That experience led me to start researching the science behind motivation. There’s quite a bit of psychology at work here, but the good news is that once you understand it, you can start stacking the deck in your favor.
It’s All About the Dopamine
You’ve probably heard of dopamine and it’s role in experiencing pleasure. But dopamine is also frequently called the “motivation molecule.” There’s a growing body of research that suggests that the amount–and location–of dopamine in the brain has a strong association with productivity. University of Connecticut professor John Salamone’s research actually shows that dopamine is linked more closely to motivation than pleasure. It’s a controversial conclusion, but there are some clues here that can help you make better choices.
Exercise is one of the best ways to boost dopamine levels. Should be simple for athletes, no? When things are going well, this is self-perpetuating. Long runs feel amazing. You can’t wait to get up and hit the trail. You shred workouts at the gym. Two hours of hot yoga? Bring it. Everything seems to just fall into place.
If you’re in a slump, however, things aren’t quite so easy.
After that season-ending injury, I slid deep into depression. Some mornings I would sit at my desk and stare at the floor for hours at a time, often for the entire day. Just walking to the kitchen for a cup of coffee was physically exhausting. Running was the last thing on my mind–going just a few miles was an inconceivable feat. But it was exactly what I needed to be doing, and eventually it’s what saved me.
This is the one place where you may need some external pressure to build momentum. If you’re seriously depressed like I was, you should be talking to a therapist. If, on the other hand, you just can’t manage to drag yourself out in the cold, you might just need a friend to keep you accountable. Find a group run, go to yoga, sign up for a spin class. The social component may be the key to getting you out of bed in the morning.
Just a few workouts will have a profound impact on your motivation. Get out there. Move. Do whatever it takes.
It’s no secret that alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and most other fun-type drugs (yes, that includes weed) increase dopamine levels even at very low doses. This is part of the reason for the intense, warm rush from that first big hit of, well, whatever.
The problem is that these substances also interfere with your body’s dopamine production cycle. Chronic abuse lowers your natural levels (or your body’s ability to recycle it, or both) which encourages more chronic abuse. Before you know it, you’re an addict. Even food is a culprit here–there’s strong evidence that sugar has a similar effect on dopamine, and it brings along a whole host of other cognitive issues, like Type 3 Diabetes. That sugary pitcher of happy hour margaritas is a double whammy.
Chronic drug use, particularly alcohol, also increases cortisol levels–the body’s stress hormone–which wreaks havoc on sleep, heart-rate variability, blood pressure, and testosterone production. Elevated cortisol levels are linked to abdominal fat, particularly in men. A post-run IPA probably isn’t going to kill your motivation, but if you’re putting away a liter of vodka every night before bed, you’re asking for serious trouble.
Cut back or quit. If you think you might have a problem, ask for help.
Drinking completely wrecks my sleep. More than a beer or two and I spend all night tossing and turning. My sinuses swell and I find myself fighting to breathe all night long. Alcohol also raises my resting heart rate significantly. Both of these radically undermine my ability and motivation to train, and lower the quality of training that I do. For me, serious training means abstinence, else my recovery seriously suffers. Tracking your heart-rate-variability is a great way to monitor this, by the way.
Sleep is one of the most important factors in keeping dopamine receptors–specifically the D2 receptors–healthy. Sleep deprivation actually increases dopamine levels over time, but D2 receptors are decreased, which ultimately reduces the effectiveness of all that extra dopamine floating around in your head. Incidentally, these receptors also play an important role in learning. Get consistent, adequate sleep, and remember that sleep debt is cumulative. If you lose eight hours of sleep over two nights, you need to find a way to catch back up. Accumulate enough sleep debt, and it’s like a high-interest credit card–you’ll never be able to get out.
How? Make sure you have adequate rest built into your training plan, particularly on high-volume weeks. Daily bodywork and the occasional massage will also have a positive impact on dopamine and typically improve sleep quality. Experiment with other different recovery techniques like electrostimulation, ice, foam rolling, percussion, PEMF, and Graston to see what works best for you. Oh, and stop using your damn phone in bed.
Accept Failure as a Possible Outcome
Ah, fear, the real motivator that drives almost all human behavior. Insidious, paralytic, and necessary for survival. Fear can be a lifesaver, a la “I should probably run from that sabertooth tiger.” Context is so important here–fear of the right things is perfectly healthy. Fear as a default condition can be deadly.
I prefer to think of “fear of failure” as “fear of learning,” because, well, that’s exactly what failure is. Learning. That’s it. Sounds silly to say it that way, doesn’t it? Fear of learning? You can’t be serious. But it’s true.
Suddenly, failure becomes extremely valuable information instead of something to be avoided, especially for an athlete. Failure doesn’t have to be epic, by the way. Missing a finish goal time by a few minutes or skipping your long run because of that brutal hangover (whoops!) probably isn’t the end of the world, but they both tell you a lot about changes you might need to make.
This is particularly important if you’re new to something. Your failure rate will be high at first, and will slowly decrease as you gain experience. Entrepreneurs call this the principle “failing-fast.” Own your mistakes and learn from them as quickly as you can. In the words of serial entrepreneur and author Gary Vaynerchuck, “Failure is necessary and will happen if you are truly taking the risks required to make it.”
Evaluate Your Principles
Without genuine belief in an endeavor, it becomes unsustainable over the long term. If, for example, you fully loathe every minute on the treadmill but its your only available option, the likelihood of consistent training will eventually go to zero. The things that you do ultimately must align with your principles. Sometimes you’ll either need to change what your doing or revaluate your principles. Hate road running? Better had find some trails or a way to fit asphalt into your purview. Can’t stand picking up those weights? Try a TRX class or do some yoga. And so on.
Incidentally, you’ll need your daily habits to reflect these principles, and that may just be the hardest part. Psychologists believe it takes anywhere from 21 to 120 days to change a habit, so you have to be prepared to put some time into making change stick. The good news is that because these habits are tied your personal beliefs, summoning the willpower to get them done will be far, far easier.
Speaking of willpower…
Say No More Often
I struggle this one. My therapist says it’s because I’m trying to avoid conflict. And I can tell you from personal experience, saying “yes” too often will eventually leave you overwhelmed. Why? Largely because of the impact on willpower, the other side of the motivation coin.
Recent research has shown that willpower is actually a finite resource. You can only will yourself to do so many things in one day. It’s why high-performers in high-stress jobs tend to schedule their most important tasks early in the day. Remember that surgery your friend had? It’s not a coincidence you had to be at the hospital at four in the morning.
So what does all this have to with saying no? If you are overcommitted with things to do, particularly for others, you’ll eventually run out of willpower and you’ll be unable to effectively prioritize your todo list. Scientists call this “decision fatigue.” All the dopamine in the world won’t help you here, unfortunately. You’ll simply be unable to lace up those shoes and hit the pavement.
Learn to say no. It’s something of an art form.
How do you keep yourself motivated?
See y’all on the trails.