Swim, bike, run, write.

How to find motivation to train when the finish line keeps moving

It feels like it’s only been about 5 minutes since I sat down to write this blog post for Stolen Goat, on finding a form of ordinary during lockdown number 1 and the power of routine. And yet, here we are. Almost 8 months later and we find ourselves in the middle of lockdown 2.0 - or as I like to call it, ‘Lockdown: the shitty sequel’. So first of all, I hope that you’re safe and well, and treating yourself with the kindness and compassion that I just know you’ll be extending to others (because the few lovely people that happen to read my ramblings are just that - lovely). 

I think, for a lot of us, over the spring and summer training was an outlet - a space of normalcy amid the madness and a little bit of an escape. But I’ve noticed quite a few people struggling to find their get up and go, their oomph and their motivation this time around. And I’d like to start by saying if that’s you, whether it’s exercise-related, work-related, just general life-related - you are 100% not alone and what you’re feeling is not only normal, but completely justified. I think we’re all just tired, jaded and struggling to see a tangible end point to cling on to for that little shine of hope. This whole thing has gone on far longer than any of us could have anticipated back in March. I can’t fix it, but I can say that if you need a friendly ear, or just someone to join you in yelling some swear words out into the abyss - I’m here.

Anyway, on to the reason I sat down at my laptop (wearing my fanciest loungewear jumpsuit, of course). With all of this madness going on, how are we supposed to find the motivation to keep training through the winter? Especially when what would usually be a concrete race date looming in the diary is very much up in the air. I’m no expert, but one thing I’ve learned about myself this year is that I actually don’t need a race per se to stay motivated. Turns out I’m just a bit of a weirdo who loves the process and has a nice back-up generator of intrinsic motivation that I had no idea was there until 2020 went all 2020 on us. Here’s my two, disinfected, pennies on finding your motivation:

Before we start. Ask yourself the question: ‘Do I actually need to be training?’
The first thing to do is differentiate between training and exercising. The former involves a solid structure, the odd slightly gruesome session and dragging your arse out of bed to get the work done, even on the days when you really can’t be arsed. The latter is about staying active and taking care of your overall wellbeing by getting your body moving in a way that brings you joy on that particular day. It might be a run, it might be chasing your sausage dog around the kitchen table, it might be a living room disco with borderline vulgar butt shaking dance moves. It’s just whatever you feel like doing, without a plan or pressure. If the former - structured training - isn’t bringing you joy, and you don’t actually need to be doing it (i.e. you haven’t got a race, or a goal quite yet) then maybe give yourself a break, show yourself some kindness and just focus on the latter? You can be fit and healthy, without having to grind yourself into the ground with the hardcore training. And I promise, when you’re ready to get going again with gusto, your body will remember what to do.

“Yeah okay that’s nice and all but actually, I want to train, I want  to feel motivated - I’m just struggling to find it right now.” No problem, I got you - keep reading!

1) Give yourself a moment to “grieve” for the 2020 goals that just weren’t meant to be.
I know in the grand scheme of things, for us age-groupers, if not being able to race is the worst thing that’s happened this year, we are truly privileged (I know I am!) - but that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to be disappointed. We all had big plans, we all allowed ourselves to dream. We put ourselves out there, trained hard through the early stages of the year, only to have it snatched away by something entirely out of our control. That’s frustrating, and if you’re like me and a big part of your sense of self is tied up in triathlon - it’s kind of disorientating. You know when Joey from Friends asks “if you don’t have a TV what do you point your furniture at?” - I was kind of like that. If I haven’t got racing, what do I point my fire, my grit and my determination at? Let yourself have a moment to be a little bit sad about the cool stuff you didn’t get to do - it’ll help you to let it go, reset and refocus.

2) Go back to the very beginning and find your initial why: a shift to intrinsic motivation
Think back to the very first time that pesky little voice in your head said “hey, do you know what seems like a good idea? Pouring myself into lycra and swim-bike-running at an ungodly hour on a Sunday morning!” What made you think that? The race is a symptom, not a cause. We train because we have a race to prepare for - but why (why oh why!) did we enter in the first place? Because it’s that, whatever it was, that’s your true and intrinsic “why”. For me it started off with proving to myself that “yes, I bloody well can.” It was about the challenge, finding confidence and finding the bravery to put myself out there. And then, after I’d done it once and of course got completely hooked it was, “Okay, so what can my body do? How far can I push it? What am I capable of?” And, spoiler alert, I don’t need a race to be able to find the answer to those questions - to answer that why. I just need to get up every day and give my body - that so graciously puts up with my bullshit - the chance to show me what it can do. 

What made you want to train for a triathlon in the first place? What is it about triathlon that gives you that pit of the stomach, back of the throat feeling that made you want to face the fear, step into the unknown and give it your best shot? Answer those questions honestly, and I’d bet a slice of the dark chocolate sea salt tart I just made that it’ll help you to remember your why, find your intrinsic motivation, and feel a little bit more positive about training again. Go back to what made you love triathlon in the first place. The challenge, the process, the community. That's all still there, race day or no race day.

3) What you can, when you can: set non-race related stepping stone goals that are completely yours, and that can’t be taken away.
Usually when I sit down at the end of race season and set my goals for the following year, it’s all about the race. The conversation revolves around what race and when. How I can improve to be fitter, faster, stronger in time for that race. But take the race out of the equation - and I can still set goals for that “fitter, faster, stronger” element. It might just be that I have to do things a little differently to find out.
Think about some goals you can set that don’t rely on a particular race, happening on a particular day. I really hope we can all get back out there next season - but at this stage, the only thing that’s certain is uncertainty. 

There are two ways to do this. First of all it can be process goals: it might be to set a new FTP on the bike, improve your flexibility, or to hit a new threshold run pace. These stepping stones give you something to aim for now, that’s within your control, and they’ll help to make you stronger once racing is firmly back on the agenda.

The other thing to do is to create your own mini races. You can set outcome or performance goals, that you can work towards and measure without having to do a big organised race. I did my own little solo 70.3 back in the summer, and my husband (pre-lockdown #2) did a marathon “race” that just involved him and friend showing up at a particular location on a set day, and running as fast as they could for 26.2 miles. Set yourself a goal and then put a date on it and work towards it as if it was a race. It might not be quite the same, but hey - you still get to work through a process and see what the outcome is. And you still get to have post-“race” beers. Not only does it give you something to focus on and work towards, it’s also golden material for your mental filing cabinet. If you can go out and test your limits without the excitement and the crowds of a proper race, imagine how much deeper you’ll be able to dig when that big juicy race day carrot is back.

4) It can’t rain forever 
At some point, this shit storm will pass, and doing what you can, when you can now will put you in a good place to hit the ground swim-bike-running when the time comes. That might be treating this like the world’s longest off-season, going back to your old pal Zone 2 and building up a base of endurance that’s sturdier than ever before. It might be giving yourself the freedom to completely disregard the usual calendar of racing and the associated structure it requires, to set some wildly different goals that keep you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed now. It might be finally getting that bike fit sorted or practicing your transitions. Or it might just be giving yourself permission to step off the treadmill - both literally and metaphorically - and making the most of the space for some extra rest and recovery, so you’re in a good place when the time is right.

5) Cut yourself some slack
We're in the middle of a global pandemic, with no clear end in sight. Everything is relentlessly weird and uncertain. You will have days where you feel like shit, where everything seems pointless. Accept these days, and let yourself feel how you need to feel. I speak from experience when I say that trying to fight against these feelings, forcing yourself to just keep spinning the plates will only lead to a bigger crash. Take a day, take a week. Do what you need to do. Regardless of what Instagram might have you believing, you don't have to spend lockdown being relentlessly productive - baking banana bread while standing on your head, learning ancient scriptures by heart and crocheting your own underpants. Cut yourself some slack (and maybe a slice of cake while you're at it).


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