There was an outstanding article this month in Running Times by Eric Grossman on how to develop “intrinsic” motivation (and, by the way, this issue, November 2010, is very pro-predawn runner, with profiles on those who have no choice but to get out early to fit it all in, like Wendi Ray of New York). While the 12 tips he raises (and discusses more deeply in an ongoing series on the website) are outstanding, a key concept is buried a few paragraphs earlier, when he observes:
“In my experience, you won’t find a battlefield pitting unhealthy inclinations against what’s best. If we think of ourselves as powerful deciders who can intervene “at will,” we’re bound for a losing struggle. If we pit the voice of our conscious self against deep-seated urges, we’ll fail.”
When I read this, I immediately thought of the analogy of the US Revolutionary War, with the British forces playing the role of “unhealthy inclinations” or “urges” (no offense intended to any of my British readers) and the Continental Army (and Navy, at least what existed of it) as the “conscious self”. Were the Continental Army, consisting mostly of minimally trained militias, to have faced down the British in the organized manner the latter preferred (and considered proper), it would have been a very short war. And we’d still be drinking tea and obsessed with a different form of football. The approach of General Washington and the Continental Army to this war hold lessons for runners who are facing challenges in staring down their lack of motivation.
In essence, to change your behaviors, you have to adopt the tactics that the colonials used to ultimately defeat the British. Many of Mr. Grossman’s tips can be interpreted in this manner as well, and they fall into three general categories:
Avoid Distractions and Accept Reality
The first four points the author raises fall into this category – basically acknowledging the reality of your situation and using it to plan appropriate actions, instead of living in a world of denial that overstates your current performance and capabilities. In the case of the Revolutionary War, George Washington accepted reality by minimizing direct confrontation with the British, even when undoubtedly under great pressure from the Continental Congress and various colony-level officials to battle the British wherever they were. This would have been a distraction from the ultimate goal of winning a war of attrition. Instead, the colonials set their own story for the war by picking small skirmishes, using the advantage of terrain and surprise, to “prick” the British and keep them on the defensive despite their overwhelming firepower.
For runners, this means not committing yourself to an unrealistic goal, whether it’s to lose a certain amount of weight, meet a time at a near-term race, or commit to a fitness plan that is too large of a step from your current reality. It also means understanding and accepting your true self, and not flagellating yourself over what you find. After all, progress is often far more enjoyable than maintenance, and progress is easier with a low starting base. Finally, it means recognizing that progress comes in small bits, punctuated by the occasional breakthrough that gives the indication that your training is taking hold and that you can, ultimately, meet aggressive goals.
Watch, Learn and Plot
Points 6, 7, 11, and 12 specifically point to the idea of gaining inspiration from other sources and continually seeking to build such learnings into your plan, and being aware of your progress and its limitations. Washington had learned the arts of wilderness war while fighting in the French and Indian War, and utilized those skills in harassing the British. He also knew the value of surprise, and used it to a huge advantage during the winter of 1776, when he struck a masterful blow at Trenton and then avoided further direct confrontation, forcing the British to retreat to New York for the winter. This reversal of the previous doctrine of avoiding fighting over major cities marked a turning point in the war. Furthermore, he brought in Prussian expertise during the winter at Valley Forge to significantly upgrade the capabilities of his army, despite an alarming decline in its numbers through disease and exposure.
As a runner, there is a lot to be gained from watching others plan and execute on their training and implementing new ideas into your own approach. Static training plans only go so far, and are generally inflexible in helping you find opportunities for significant improvement; they are, by nature, incremental step-wise progression programs, and they should constantly be reevaluated in the light of new evidence. Seeing the impact that hill training, for example, can have on another runner’s performance may well inspire you to find ways to build them into your own plans, blowing away the stagnancy that sometimes sets in when an initial plan governs everything you do. A plan is a framework, and should be considered flexible to cope with setbacks and opportunities. You should always operate under the assumption that your plan can get better, and seek to make it so, especially if there are ways that can help you boost your confidence in the process.
Hold Yourself to Account, and Expect Others to Do the Same
While it is well and good to acknowledge effort, “trying” alone doesn’t help you meet your goals, as points 5, 8, 9, and 10 raise in the article. At some point, you do need to successfully execute your plan. Washington likely felt temptation to continue to keep his army on the run, and use the excuse of the overwhelming force of the British to justify doing so. It would have been hard to prove he was wrong, and easy to just give him credit for keeping hopes alive through sustaining the existence of the army. Fortunately, Washington (and certainly some in the Continental Congress) were not the types to keep such low expectations, and their high degree of motivation and accountability drove them to take intelligent risks and ultimately win the war. They gave themselves no choice by so blatantly expressing their desire for independence and obliterating any potential for a future as a collection of British colonies.
In your running, do you hedge your goals, by saying “I’d like to run a 3 hour marathon?” or something that provides a similar amount of “wiggle room”. Do you look for reasons why your training can’t succeed (weather, time commitments, etc.)? Or do you give yourself no choice by making firm and visible your commitments to friends or family, so that you cannot hide from them? Do you surround yourself with those who will hold you accountable for your results? Some of the most valuable communications I’ve received from Dailymile are the few emails that basically say “what were you thinking?”
So as you look to overcome challenges of willpower or motivation, don’t rely on trying to stare it down on a daily basis to be able to achieve your goals. Usually, you have to invest in some forms of trickery to get yourself to a point where it is harder not to do the planned workout (or beyond) than it is to skip it. I can honestly say that, no matter how much I dread a given workout (and yes, I do dread tough intervals, hill work, tempo runs, and sometimes long runs), the thought never crosses my mind to skip it, or take it easier than planned, as the pain of doing so, in the long run, is greater than the pain felt during the workout. Now I need to figure out how to build my willpower against eating too many Jelly Bellies.
And speaking of motivation, I’m going to provide a little extra incentive here to encourage you to spread the word about Predawn Runner. Thanks to a contest on Jason Fitzgerald’s excellent Strength Running blog, I was the lucky winner of a Health Designs $25 gift card. Since I’m not really a user of vitamin supplements, I’m going to re-gift the coupon in a contest here. There are five ways to enter:
- Tweet this post on Twitter, please make sure to mention @GAStroz so I can see the entry.
- Mention this post on Facebook (make sure to mention @Predawn Runner), or go to the Facebook page and “Like” it.
- Mention this post on Dailymile or any other running social site (note – you may need to leave a comment here or on Facebook that you did so, so that I can acknowledge the entry).
- Suggest the Facebook fan page to some of your friends (again, please leave me a comment letting me know that you did this).
- Become a new commenter here with this post, a new fan of the Facebook page, a new follower on Twitter, or a new friend on Dailymile, or a new subscriber to the RSS feed – in each case, please let me know via a DM, comment, or other message that you did so.
Thanks for your support, and I’ll randomly select the winner on Monday, November 8.