Maintaining Motivation and Keeping Consistent

Let's Hustle Russell - Ironman New Zealand Motivation

Motivation and consistency are two of the most important ingredients to endurance racing success. Sure you actually have to do some training and maybe a little genetic talent helps at the top, but if you’ve got the drive, patience and do the work results follow. Over an entire season it can be hard to keep the motivation flowing and when that goes consistency typically follows.

With the European Ironman season coming to an end and every weekend seeing major races go by this may seem like an odd topic to pick up. Many athletes have completed their A races and are either enjoying some R&R or if they’re a bit more obsessive planning some end of season events. Motivation, commitment, consistency may well be the last things on their mind coffee and cake could be far more appealing. If you fall in that category this is probably one to file away to look back on.

There’s a couple of months before my season climaxes in Hawaii putting me smack in my mid-season the perfect time for the blues to strike. Last week they did. Following weeks of hard training and pushing the motivation suddenly vanished. I was torn between an obsession with the numbers and performance and an outright desire to lay around! As I discussed next year’s racing plans with some of the athletes I coach I considered just how important keeping motivated throughout the season is.

I routinely emphasise the importance of consistency. The ability to train day after day and make gradual progress to a goal as I’ve said is key. Consistency doesn’t mean that the training is slow or easy, it means it’s happening. I am happier seeing a string of decent sessions over the course of the week than a stellar day followed by underperformance as the body tries to recover. The net benefit lies with the first approach even if those sessions don’t make you feel like a rock star.

You can see this approach in the training programs I build both for myself and others. For those who doubt it I do include intensity, but I’m measured in its usage. The backbone is a lot of steady work, aerobic conditioning to develop the underlying energy systems and strengthen muscle and tendons. If an athlete has less free time then intensity will make up more of their weekly schedule, but where possible I’m cautious.

Areas of weakness are always approached slowly opting for short, but frequent sessions of steady-state training. I start to move towards harder and more structured sessions only when I’m convinced the risk of injury is minimised. It’s frustrating watching other athletes cycle through phases of injury, recovery, hard training and back to injury. Sometimes I want to tell them to step back, take their time and eliminate the cause of the injury.

Whilst being injury free and healthy is obviously essential to maintaining consistency motivation is the other factor. What happened when my motivation disappeared last week? I fell into the exact pattern I’ve been describing. One day training myself hard the next being lucky to get a 10km run done. Up and down day after day with those hard days lacking any quality as well. You’ve seen the result in my weekly summary yesterday.

It’s not only the inconsistency in the training schedule, but the details that hold it all together start to go. Sleep became less of a priority for me. I was tired and now sleeping even less which did nothing to promote positive recovery. It’s very easy to lose control of your diet and make poor food choices in this situation. I managed to hold out pretty well there, at least till my rest day.

Given its importance how can we maintain motivation over a season that can stretch for months. I’m already considering my plans for Ironman Austria in 2011 that’s twelve months of training away. It would take a remarkable individual to sustain their focus over that entire period. For most of us we need to be able to break that time down into more manageable chunks.

Smaller goals on route to the major races are one of the best approaches in this regard. Never plan a season with just one race in as aside from the motivational benefits it’s a real test of your progress. My year of Ironman racing was fantastic for motivation as one race finished I only had a matter of weeks till the next there wasn’t time to be demotivated! Not that I recommend stacking so many major races. Generally I prefer shorter, more intense racing along the way to a major event.

Training camps are another excellent way to boost morale. They provide an opportunity to stretch your limits and work harder than normal and often they give you a change of environment. On a budget the simple way to do a camp is from home. Setting bigger training goals, taking the time off work to support it and just get out there and do it. You’ll be on the same routes as normal which can be a little boring, but it does the job. Getting away somewhere sunny and warm is even better though. My recent trip to Lanzarote let my top 43 hours over eight days something I’d not achieve at home.

The best motivator for me is the training group. Whether it’s an organised club or simply a bunch of mates having people to train with gets me training. If I’ve arranged a five hour ride with someone I’m going to turn up to ride five hours even if my bed looks more appealing. Better still the motivation of other athletes improves performance that day. I love doing bike threshold sessions with others as there’s enough competition to make me push a fraction harder.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with these techniques to help keep the mind interested over the longer term. The other question we need to ask is what causes lost motivation? When we set ourselves these goals we’re clearly keen to complete them to the best of our abilities. Whilst we’re initially excited over our plans the mind quickly prioritises the present. July 2011 is a long way away, but the next few day’s work needs dealing with now. If you’re not careful though you’ll be reminding yourself there’s still time a few weeks before your event.

Fatigue is a big de-motivator in my life. It might be the morning sessions on a given day leave me with little energy to do the work in the afternoon. A decent swim and run and suddenly going out on the bike is much less appealing. Typically the chronic training load and slow accumulation of fatigue has a big impact. Over time tiredness subtly builds up and to the observant a drop in performance becomes obvious.

Last week is a case in point worn out from a big block of training my expectations to keep going couldn’t be met. Were I more sensible and less optimistic when drawing up my plans I’d have factored in extra rest around this period. It’s easy to imagine you can keep on piling on training, but at some point there needs to be some give. Even when physically you can withstand it an easier week can be of great benefit mentally. Sometimes that mental break is as important as the physical one.

Over a season’s training you should expect and factor in these breaks. Not just easier weeks, but proper downtime for a long season. Take a less important race and plan to have a week off after it. A total break will do a lot of good for the mental side of the sport allowing you to relax and put things in perspective. Maybe exercise a little, but avoid doing training. Move to keep the body going not to make it fitter. Indulge a little and enjoy a ‘normal’ life!

I’m pleased to say my motivation has returned thanks to a proper day’s break and a bit of indulgence (Sticky Toffee Pudding!) Performance is returning through a big focus on getting the sleep my body needs, but I’m keeping that in balance. With a big race at the end of the week I need to be measured in the work I do. I want this week to be challenging, but I don’t want it to break me!

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