Keep Going: The Basics of Motivation

5 sports psychology tricks to rev up your training

Whether it’s a sense of self-doubt that creeps up in the middle of a long run or an impulse to hit the snooze button rather than wake up for a workout on a cold winter morning, it’s a rare athlete who never suffers from a lack of motivation.

Not even the pros are immune, says Stephen Walker, a Colorado sports psychologist who has worked with a host of elite athletes, including Olympic track star Kara Goucher.

The good news: The same sports-psychology tips that help the pros can work for weekend warriors, too. Walker offers a few suggestions below.

Train with a buddy.
This most basic workout tip can be a serious performance-booster for experienced athletes, Walker says.

“You want to train with someone who’s just a little bit better than you, who can kick your butt a little bit,” Walker says.

The reason: Athletes who have a strong support network of like-minded training partners are more likely to push themselves in workouts, Walker says. Finding a group that trains with a coach who offers informed training advice is even better, Walker says.

Walker says following blogs of athletes who are training for a similar event, or conversing with other athletes on online forums can help, too.

Set smarter goals.
Most athletes know it’s important to set long-term goals to motivate them to train. But they often forget to set and celebrate shorter-term milestones to help them get there. Walker suggests setting a series of goals that are strategic, measurable and achievable, and that have reinforcements built in.

“Have a purpose for every training session,” Walker says. “Be aware of what you want your body to do, and what you want to get out of it.”

Write it down.
You know that dog-eared training log where you jot down your mileage and pace? Step it up a notch by writing a detailed description of the challenges you face in each workout, plus how you overcome those challenges.

“Write it in a way that you can read it four months later and be reminded of exactly how you felt as you were battling it,” Walker says. “When you read through your accomplishments at the end of the training cycle, you’ll have the confidence of knowing that you’ve experienced and overcome everything you’ll encounter during your event.”

Get tough.
Walker defines mental toughness as the ability to keep one’s attention on the most important thing to focus on for as long as one needs to focus on it. Walker points to ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, who reportedly broke a 100-mile race into 10- or 20-mile segments, focusing on only a fraction of the race at a time, in order to finish the race with a sprained ankle. 

“If you don’t have mental toughness, you start thinking in mile one: ‘This hurts, I don’t know if I can do this,’” Walker says. “By mile 10, your brain is saying, ‘Oh, my ankle, my ankle, my ankle,’ and then your mental toughness is out the window. The ability to stay tuned in, so your emotional shifts don’t eat at you, is critical.”

Control what you can.
Walker reminds his athletes that they can control three things: preparation, effort and attitude. “If I go into something dreading it, it’s not going to be very much fun,” he says. “If I go into something open-minded, focused on the things I can control, I’m going to have a much better experience.”