Build Motivation that Lasts

If you ask me, motivation, or more specifically finding motivation and staying motivated, is the biggest challenge any athletes will face. I have to battle this demon almost on a daily basis.

You see, I know my ultra running aspirations, and there are truckloads of resources out there explaining how and what I can do to achieve it. But still, for me to actually execute them consistently is another story altogether!

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.” – Zig Ziglar

Motivation is an important element of training. But staying motivated is something everyone struggles with. I know I am not alone. We have all started exercise programmes and then quickly failed to stay on course with it.

The pattern is always the same. Starting is easy. You decide you want to get in shape and you jump right in with gusto. It is exciting and energizing. You are motivated. Then after a while, reality hits. It is harder than you thought it should be. It stops being fun and your motivation weakens. Eventually you lose steam and the efforts sizzled up.

Sound familiar? Frustrating, yes? But that’s normal. It’s just part of being human. Otherwise everyone would be Olympic track stars.

To be motivated means to be moved to do something. When you are motivated, you feel energized and activated towards an end or something that you want to achieve.

Say you want to run and complete an ultramarathon successfully (success in this context can mean different thing to different people, but we won’t talk about it here). To achieve that, you will need a lot of dedicated training over a substantial period of time. Unless you are an anomaly, you will struggle to stay motivated and keep on course with the training demands.      

How then can we find the motivation and put in our best effort to stay motivated? How can we stick to our training? This is a difficult challenge and it has taken me a long time to gather my thoughts on this subject.

Know why you are doing it

According to experts, the first thing to understand about motivation is that there are two sources of it – extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation is when you are moved to do something in order to gain an external reward in return. Your goal is focused on an outcome that will result by doing that thing or task. 

On the other hand, intrinsic motivation happens when you are moved to do something because it is internally rewarding. You choose to do it because it is enjoyable and satisfying. Your goal comes from within because of the interest and curiosity in the task itself.     

If we take the example of running an ultramarathon successfully, we can quickly see whether we are extrinsically or intrinsically motivated. Are you taking part to proof something or to show someone? Or are you doing it because you are curious on your potential or how it can help you grow?  

Training for an ultramarathon is a significant undertaking. To train and stay the course successfully, you will need to know the big why you are embarking on it in the first place. Everyone will have his or her reasons to want to ‘suffer’ through not only the actual run, but the necessary months of preparation.

Got to find out the big WHY

I have posted this question to myself many times. My wife does not get it and I have since not talk much about running big ultras to her (But I always read in envy how wives support their running husbands and be there waiting for them with the kids at the finishing line. But that, again, is another story). 

I have mentioned before that running was not one of my interests growing up. And I don’t think I am very natural at it. I also would not dare claiming that I love running, even until now.

But I like what running can do for me. I guess this is the main reason why I am motivated to making training a part of my life, a daily habit just as sleeping, eating or brushing my teeth.

Running has made me fitter even as I aged. The physical discipline strengthens my body and enables me to venture into beautiful places that are sometimes only accessible on foot. I am also curious on how much my physical fitness can improve if I put in the effort consistently. I would like to see a better version of myself every day, instead of wilting and getting old.     

Running trail ultras is a channel for me to tap into the benefits of running. It is elusive and challenging to intrigue me into putting on my trail shoes. It helps that I enjoy the great outdoors and secretly love the sense of adventure. Spending hours in the forest and mountain gives me great pleasures and a feeling of freedom.  

Training for a trail ultra is by no means an easy feat. Preparing for one takes months of dedicated running and cross training (assuming you are taking it seriously). This is where I inculcate the good value of discipline, dedication and determination. Training and completing an ultramarathon is a good metaphor of anything in life. Nothing comes easy and success is satisfying and lasting if you worked hard for it.

This is also where I hope to set a good example for my growing boys. I want to show them that hard work is necessary to achieving anything worthy – acing the exams, passing piano grades, or earning that taekwondo belts. Overnight success actually requires years of dedication towards the goal.   

Make it your new identity

If I don’t tell people that I run, nobody including my family and friends would have identified me as a runner. I have a big frame and was 94kg just a few years ago. I do not look like a runner and neither am I good in running.

Even when I started running, I did not think of myself as a runner. I was just trying to lose weight and gain fitness through running because it is the most convenient exercise that does not require much to begin.

Then I read articles from James Clear’s blog and later, his book – Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results. James suggests that the ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes a part of your identity.

At the start of your motivation towards a goal, you will try to form new habits – waking up early to run, eating right and cutting out junks, getting sufficient sleep. You may start these habits because of motivation, but the way for you to continue with this new behaviour (of habits) is when it becomes a part of your identity. True and lasting behaviour change is a change at the identity level.

Think of it this way. Your behaviour is a reflection of your identity. What you do is an echo of the person you think you are. Therefore, the process of building a habit or creating a behaviour change, is actually a process of becoming yourself. The becoming of your new identity.

In James’ words:

What you do is usually a reflection of your identity. Your behaviour is actually guided by what you believe yourself to be unconsciously. You are likely to act in alignment to what you believe.

The thing is, the more pride you have in your identity, the more motivated you will be able to maintain the habits associated with it. This positive behaviour change will stay on as you nurture and grow your new identity.  

So today, privately, I see myself as an athlete, or more specifically an endurance athlete in the form of a trail runner.

I know the very word ‘athlete’ evokes images of an elite sportsman destined for podiums. But it does not need to be. This is an identity I adopted onto myself and I do not have to fit into the standards the world.

Because I see myself as an endurance athlete now, I tend to become one through my behaviour, which includes the habit of training consistently, eating right and sleeping sufficiently. As I adopt this identity, I start to behave like one. I feel motivated to train, eat and sleep like one.

And as my ability as a runner grew, I will identify myself more and more towards an endurance athlete. I did not start out as a runner, but I have become one through my habits and the adoption of this new behaviour. 

A real elite ultra-runner doing its thing

Get support of your social circles

One of the most effective ways to build and sustain motivation to train is by surrounding yourself with people who will support, encourage and even challenge you in your endeavours. Social motivation is one of the strongest form of extrinsic motivation. The external reward can come from many forms, but the simplest and most direct one is the approval and admiration of others.

The most important factor here is the social environment. Joining a group of friends or a community of people that shares similar goals can provide you a strong support system. Your friends and these like-minded people understand the effort you are putting into the training. They know your struggles and appreciate your victories. Everyone counts on each other.   

Training and preparing to run an ultra can be a lonely pursuit. I have spent a lot of time running alone. Even for the most methodical runner, it is tough to maintain the motivation for hour after hour and day after day of trainings.

I am fortunate in the way that I have been able to discipline myself to run on my own for the most part of my training blocks. For bigger and longer trainings however, I do rely on the power of social motivation to begin and get through the sessions.

My brother has been my training partner for big trail excursions that can last half to a full day. It is our commitment to each other that has helped us to wake up as early as 4 in the morning to set off early into the mountains and forest trails. I would not be able to pull off this kind of big chunk training in exotic trails on my own.

If you like making new friends, running together is also a great way to meet new people and add in elements of competition and motivation. When you commit to a run with a friend, you will definitely still train even when you are not feeling it, assuming that you are a responsible person.

So, go join a local social running group. Show up for training runs with them once in a while. It is a good way to keep you interested and stay motivated in the sport. Though not very active, I am a member of a few such groups and it has benefited me in terms of sharing of training ideas and even news of events and sales of gears.

As a group, we have signed-up for races, trained together and motivated each other towards the finish line. Nothing beats the laughs, high fives and words of encouragement from the people who share the same goals as you.

Trails and trainings are best shared with friends

Staying motivated is tough because we normally want to see results immediately. We expect improvements to show up in a linear fashion. But in reality, progress does not happen in a straight trajectory. The fruits of our labour are often delayed.

It will take months, if not years, for you to be able to realize the value of the training we put in. It can be discouraging when we don’t see results after putting in all the hard work.

However, we have to remember that the effort invested will not be wasted. If we keep at it consistently, the work invested is stored and compounded. We must believe that the improvements will come. To stay motivated, we must believe that we will succeed, eventually.   

First shared: 26-Aug-2021