How to stay motivated for distant goals

by Evan Morrison. 19 April 2011.

A friend asks:

How to stay motivated for races/events in the distant future. I’m going through a low motivation point now. Don’t really want to swim on my own, don’t want to watch what I eat, looking for excuses to pull out of [upcoming race].

The answer to this question could fill a dissertation… but here are some thoughts:

I’ll start with something obvious: If your goals or target races are too distant, set intermediate goals. If you don’t have time and/or money to travel to races, attend all the races in your area. If there are no races in your area, sign up for one or two “destination” races and supplement with local pool meets. Set a goal time for your 500 Free. If pool meets aren’t an option, do a 500 Free time trial in practice once a month. The important thing is to have something - anything - you’re aiming to achieve in the near-term.

An aside on goals: Goals can be both positive (“I want to do X”) and negative (“I want to avoid failure”). For ultra-endurance athletes, failure-avoidance can be a potent motivator. While “failure” in a pool race might mean going a slower time than you desired, the “failure” that marathon swimmers want to avoid is a DNF - literally, failing to finish. DNF’ing haunts my dreams in a way that pool swimming never did.

But goals are sort of obvious. If I could add something non-obvious, it’s this: The key to consistent training is “tricking yourself” into it. In other words, distracting yourself from the drudgery. Especially in endurance sports - because much of it is, in fact, drudgery.

When I was growing up, swimming was my social life. My teammates were my closest friends, and I loved being around them. That was what got me into the pool at 5:30 each morning (and then again after school). I had goals, of course. Some of them were even important to me. But on a day-to-day basis, I tricked myself into swimming 20 hours/week because that was where my friends were.

Masters swim teams tend to not be as close socially as age-group teams. People have their own lives and families. Still, I find swimming in a group much easier than swimming solo. About half of my workouts are solo, but less if I’m going through a low-motivation phase. Sometimes the team is the only way to “trick myself” into getting in a full workout.

Alternative to a team: Find a training partner. My best workouts this year have been with my training partner Jared. Mainly because we can do faster intervals than even the fast lane at our Masters practice. And because he’s a great guy. Thanks, Jared.

Other ways to trick oneself? Get a mesh bag and fill it with swim toys. Paddles, buoy, fins, snorkel, kickboard, tempo trainer, lap-counting watch, waterproof music player. I even have two different kinds of paddles (red Strokemakers & FINIS Freestylers) depending on my mood. Why does this help? 5×100 swim, 5×100 pull, 5×100 kick, 5×100 w/ fins is much easier (psychologically) than 20×100 straight free. Using toys makes the time go by. It just works.

Cross-train. It won’t help your swimming much if you do it instead of swimming, but it certainly helps as a supplement, and it’s better than sitting on your ass.

Another strategy I use: Aim to swim for time rather than distance. I’m not sure why this works, but for me it does. If I aim to swim 5,000 yards, I often find a way to convince myself that I’ve done enough after 4,000. But if I say, “I am going to swim for 90 minutes,” I almost always stick to it. And the distance takes care of itself.

I have an old friend whom I’ve mentioned here a couple times before. He’s training for the 2012 Olympic open-water event, and he trains enormous, unfathomable distances. And he uses almost all the tricks I’ve mentioned. Starting at 5:30am, he swims for two hours by himself. At this hour the lanelines haven’t been set up, so he swims long-course. That’s the incentive - the rest of the day the lanes are short course. Then, at 7:30am he “rewards” himself by joining the college team for their 2-hour practice. During the day he works, but fits in a run and a dryland session. In the evening, he coaches an age group team, but swims along with with them, thus fitting in another 90-minute practice. He loves pulling gear - paddles and buoy - and uses them liberally. He owns several pairs of paddles, one of which is made of fiberglass and feels like having bricks attached to your hands as you swim.

Whatever it takes!

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Posted in: training Tags: psychology