Finding that Spark
We all have good days and bad days (as evidently seen in this post's picture). Sometimes we are all about charging forward, smashing that workout. Other times, we just stare at our bike standing in the dark corner, unwilling to subject ourselves to 2-3 hours of sitting on a narrow seat of a bike. And there are times, especially at the end of the season and before the new season rolls around, you just can't find that spark to ignite your motivation-fire and get you rolling into the new year.
Motivation is a funny thing. It is the driver in most of our work, in life, school or sport, helping us along to achieve our goals. It can also be fleeting at times, highly dependent on our physiological (physical) and psychological (mental) states.
Influencers of Motivation
Like I mentioned earlier your physical and mental states do influence your motivation, whether or not you recognize it. Any work or external factors (ex. stress, nutrition, training) that influence your work have an effect on your mood and motivation levels, sometimes without you realizing it.
Motivation affects our ability to learn and perform. Generally, when we want to do something and are passionate about it, we are more likely to process that information better or perform better because we are willing to. Take for example learning math in school: schools require that we have to learn different levels of math at certain points in our school lives. Some kids love learning math and learn more because of it. Others don't want to learn it and struggle learning math and progressing through the requirements.
This applies to everything. But there's another aspect to motivation: stress.
It's important to remember that's there's two types of psychological stress: Eustress and Distress. Eustress, aka "Good Stress" is the kinds of stress that is beneficial, and it can provide a boost to your work and life. Examples of eustress include training or competing in sport and learning new skills. Distress, "Bad Stress" or more commonly known as just stress, is the type that can make you tense, anxious, depressed, and tired (just to give a few mood examples).
When you're under a lot of stress, your body produces more cortisol, a stress hormone, which can affect all of your physiological systems. In cases of acute stress/threat, this is a good thing, especially when we're trying to get away from a saber-tooth tiger that magically appeared in the classroom. In cases of chronic stress, like work, school and training, the cortisol wears your system down. Psychologically, you're more likely to be anxious and depressed for longer periods of time, affecting your ability to focus on small tasks and sometimes form declarative memories, such as events and facts. (4) These are just a few of the known psychological consequences of chronic cortisol levels.
Physiological Responses to Stress
Your physiological (or physical state) also influences your motivation, sometimes more than you think it does. Depending on how you fuel, the training load, the amount of work you do, sex (and if you're female if you're taking birth control), and many, many other factors, your motivation (or lack thereof) may be an indicator of your overall physiological health.
In the short term, stimuli or stressors, such as the ones I've listed above, may be beneficial, as it allows your body to adapt to the stress for future encounters to this stimulus. This is through memory formation or muscle adaptation, to name a couple of examples. However, it's when this stress load is chronic and there's no period of recovery the negative effects begin to accumulate.
During periods of high stress load, your body's increased cortisol levels can cause decrease muscle glucose uptake and protein degradation, decreased immune function, increased body fat accumulation and higher blood pressure. This is your body's way of trying to preserve itself and survive through this chronic stress. This is normal and expected, but when you're trying to perform at your best, in work, school or as an athlete, this chronic stress will impact your ability to do your best.
It's important to remember that training is also a form stress, either good or bad. It's built on the idea accumulating stress in your body gradually, allowing the body to build and adapt to your training stress load. Training platforms, like TrainingPeaks and TrainerRoad, have metrics that measure your training stress and compare it to your fatigue levels to track your changes in fitness.
One of the crucial parts of being able to build your fitness using accumulated training stress is recovery. With your training stress in your stress bucket, it is important to facilitate proper recovery so your body learns to adapt to that physiological stress and is able to sustain the work load of your next workout. Recovery includes nutrition and fueling, sleep, and rest. Too much training with not enough recovery and fueling can lead to overtraining, illness and injury, partly because of the elevated cortisol levels.
During my time at the RedBull Training Camp in 2018, Jesse Kropelnicki talked about managing your stress like it was a bucket of water. So, take an ordinary bucket: that's your maximum volume of stress that is feasible personally. Adding in the different types of stress (training, work, school, personal, social, etc), ideally you should be below the rim of the bucket. The problem with many of us is that our bucket is overflowing with stress like the Niagara Falls and we either don't want to cut things out of our planners or we can't.
Life can get overwhelming and stressful, but there is only so much stress you can physically, mentally and emotionally process. A lot of it may seem like ordinary responsibilities, such as family, work and/or school, and training. The bucket fills up with your stressors as you proceed with your life and plans, but if you don't oversee what's going on in your daily life, that bucket can easily overflow, and you begin to experience some, many or all of the symptoms that we've discussed.
I can only recommend a few ideas for every to try, but everyone is going to be slightly different. If you are really struggling, I'd highly recommend either seeing a psychologist or a specialist to help manage your stress and anxiety, or talking with someone that you trust. To start you off, here are a few ideas:
1) Prioritize and say No to things.
Yes, I want to bike. Yes, I'll finish that project by tonight. Sure, I'll help you move boxes. Totally, I'll meet up with you tomorrow for coffee. Yup, I've got another paper due tomorrow...I think you get the picture here. We can say "yes" to a few things, but over time those commitments add up, and all of the sudden, you have so much on your plate that it becomes hard to manage them. Prioritizing allows you to put the most important items and deadlines first, allowing you to have more time later to meet with friends and help out neighbors.
2) Do the hard things first to get them out of the way
This is actually similar to #1. As daunting and unpleasant those hard things can be, it can be a sense of relief once those things are accomplished and you can move onto your next item on your to-do list.
3) Baby steps
You've prioritized, you're doing the hard things first, but it still seems like you have so much to do in so little time, and it's still overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. Break it up your tasks into smaller chunks. (This applies really nicely to workouts and races, too!) Being able to focus on small chunks allows you effectively focus on a task for a short amount of time, and then take a break once its done.
For adults, it is recommended to have a minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night for full physical and mental recovery. Your body and your brain need sleep to be able to adapt to any stresses you've experienced, process information and recover from your day. (3)
There are very few cases where people thrive on less sleep, and you might think you're one of those people. But try sleeping 7 hours or more every night for a month, and see what changes. Keep track with a reflection journal, jot down a few notes about how and what you feel.
And yes, this applies to students. Being sleep-deprived and pulling all-nighters should not be a source of pride or be worn as a badge of honor. It will affect your performance in the classroom and your general well-being, not just your performance as an athlete.
5) Quality Fueling
"You are what you eat." A commonly overused phrase, but it has some element of truth to it. The way food affects our body is constantly studied and the information out there is always changing. There will be a more detailed nutrition overview/breakdown in the coming weeks, but here's how it affects your stress.
Underfueling tells your body that you are not accessing adequate fuel sources, and your body starts to preserve its current fuel stores and breaks down proteins to conserve energy. This is detrimental to your overall health, let alone performance. And this applies to the diets that cut out entire food groups, too. Your body needs carbs, fats and proteins to maintain homeostasis (body's tendency to stay in equilibrium or "balance"). Eating too much or too little of anything, such as refined sugar, meats, or fast food (high in oil usually), can affect how your body metabolizes food, the gut flora (the bugs in your intestine that help you digest food), and how it reacts to it.
Eat your fruits and veggies, your grains and carbs, your butter and olive oil, and your meats, eggs or nuts in moderation and according to your energy output and daily load.
6) Reward yourself
You've done all of this hard work, you've tackled most of your tasks. Treat yourself with something! Watch a couple of hours of TV, eat some ice cream and/or cheesecake, hang out with friends; something that brings you joy.
The Spark that Ignites your Fire
Now that I've "talked your ear off" about how your body responds to certain stimuli and stressors, we can address motivation.
I won't be the first to admit that finding your motivation or desire is really, REALLY hard. You can be the calmest you've ever been and managing your stress in a healthy manner, yet still lack that spark. So what can you do about it?
If want to, set a goal for you to meet. (One of the first articles of this blog was about goal setting!) Having this goal can boost your motivation and enable you to dedicate your focus and energy to that goal. If it's a pretty big goal or it's far down the line, set a few process goals (or checkpoints) for your journey towards that big goal.
Have a conversation with a mentor, coach, teacher, parent, friend, therapist, or someone else. They can give you another perspective and maybe help guide you in a certain direction.
You can try to switch things up. If you swim, bike, run for months on end, it can get monotonous and grueling. Add in a mountain bike ride, a hike, or a climbing session. Take a couple of weeks (or months) off of what you're constantly doing and focus on something else, like a hobby that you've always wanted to do. If you're struggling to find motivation in school or work, watch a lecture or attend a seminar that's unrelated to what you're working on. Maybe even sit in on a class (if the professor allows it) that seems interesting to you. Taking these types of breaks from our everyday norm allows us to gain a different perspective on our daily lives. It encourages us to be curious and explore different ideas and experiences, which can help us thrive in our daily schedules.
After all, we become the best versions of ourselves when we thrive.
That's all for today folks. Happy Training!
References and Resources for more Information:
(1) McEwen, Bruce S. “Central effects of stress hormones in health and disease: Understanding the protective and damaging effects of stress and stress mediators.” European journal of pharmacology vol. 583,2-3 (2008): 174-85. doi:10.1016/j.ejphar.2007.11.071
(2) Murayama, Kou. “The Science of Motivation.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, June 2018, www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2018/06/motivation.
(3) “Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency.” National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020, www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/sleep-deprivation-and-deficiency.
(4) Thau L, Sharma S. Physiology, Cortisol. [Updated 2019 Feb 15]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/