Winning at Fitness or Competing for Fun? How Motivation Is the Most Important Part of the Fitness Puzzle.

There are two kinds of people in this world:  those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.  Despite the first part of that statement, I am the latter.  I don’t believe that we all are either all in or all out on most things we so, our spectrum of choices just tilts us in one direction or the other. In the context of this article, I think there are those who enjoy exercise and those who need motivation to exercise.  That motivation can take on a number of faces, however, this article is about using competition to motivate ourselves to better ourselves physically.

Motivation to exercise is a topic interests me a great deal because I am not the most motivated person in the world when it comes to fitness.  When I was younger I liked playing sports, I liked playing outside and riding my bike, and I would occasionally go on a several week exercise binge when I realized that my metabolism was not keeping up with me.  However, for the most part, I didn’t really enjoy exercising or dieting.  When my babies were small, I went to the gym because it was the YMCA and they have childcare.  That means my kids were watched by responsible adults (that were not me) for two hours while I got some exercise, and more importantly, a shower.  If you have three kids under the age of four, a shower by yourself is probably the only thing you deeply care about other than sleep.

But, I digress.  As I got older, I realized that I needed to exercise.  All the time.  And for the rest of my life.  Because when you don’t have or maintain that base of fitness, things start to fall apart rather rapidly.  When done correctly, well planned exercise is what keeps you feeling good and keeps the pain at bay.  (You young folks won’t understand this until your mid-thirties.)

I do like to learn and so I found that one of my prime motivators to keep going to the gym was to learn new things, new exercise routines, new training methods, new equipment, etc.  I did all the gym classes, I did CrossFit, I did powerlifting, weightlifting, all that stuff and when I finally had enough equipment to quit my gym membership and work out at home, I was so very excited.

And then I stopped working out.

I actually trained clients for 3-4 months in my home basement gym without doing anything myself.   I was tired, bored, and lonely.  And I had lost all motivation.  I started to wonder if I actually ever liked working out at all or if I just craved the camaraderie, attention, and social aspect of it all.  This is extrinsic motivation, the motivation based on the expectation of others, and not the best one for a lifetime commitment to fitness.

But then I read about this crazy race called the Warrior Dash.  It seemed kind of impossible to me at the time since it requires that one not only run three miles, but climb over and crawl through a whole bunch of obstacles including mud and fire.  I wasn’t running at all at that time, but I got excited about coming up with a plan to rebuild that running base as well as the other demands of the race.

Also, you get a furry viking helmet for signing up for the Warrior Dash.

 The beauty of a goal and a plan is that there is a date on the calendar and a lot of work to do.  You don’t have to WIN the daily workout through blood, sweat, pain, or beating the timer, you just do the work and find out how well you worked on race day.  There is much less immediate gratification with this kind of training, but if you know what you’re doing, there are plenty of markers along the way that let you know you are progressing.

As a scientist, periodization (otherwise known as training with a plan) fascinates me.  Basically you start with a goal (Warrior Dash), figure out what qualities you need to complete the goal (running 3+ miles and climbing/crawling strength), figure out what qualities you have and don’t have, and from there you build your plan.

I am of the mind that world domination is not necessarily the goal of every individual who walks into my gym, but if you have a goal and the time it will take to train for it, I can come up with a plan to get you there.  Whether it be weightlifting, powerlifting, highland games, obstacle course races, or flat out endurance, the process is relatively simple:

  1. Set a goal
  2. Determine the necessary qualities
  3. Assess the individual
  4. Design a plan that develops those qualities as efficiently as possible in the time given in a sequential manner.  

(This last part is the most difficult part and does require some experience and insight, but overall, it is a simple process.)

So, to make a long story short, I have found my motivation to work out by competing.  After I completed my first Warrior Dash with a group of friends, I branched out with a number of long term goals; some with friends, some with my kids, and some just by myself.  I’ve trained for obstacle course races, powerlifting competitions, highland games, a highlander (strongman/highland games hybrid), and now I’m going to be training for a half marathon.  For some of these events, my only goal was to complete it and not hurt myself, however, after you get one or two under your belt, in order to keep improving, you really need to raise the bar.  In that respect, I competed in the Masters World Scottish Games last Fall and I trained for nine months to put in one of the best performances in my life.  I didn’t win (placing second didn’t suck), but it was, by far, the most successful competition I’ve ever had in terms of my own numbers.

Getting strong enough to pick up and throw this thing is good motivation for me.

Right now, I am still in the peak of my highland games season which means lots of strength work and throwing practice.  But, I’ve recognized a deficiency in my fitness that I know needs fixing and so I have signed up for a half marathon this Fall.  Personally, I really don’t like running, but I know when I have a good endurance base, I train better and I have way more endurance on the field and in the weight room.  The last time I built a good base was four years ago when I trained for the Tough Mudder (12 miles) and it enabled me to work much harder and longer in both the weight room and on the field.  And so, I signed up for the City of Oaks half marathon this November.  To make this challenging for myself, I’m not looking to just finish it, I’m going to try and finish it in under two hours.  This goal is based on my running times from my Tough Mudder training and although it will be challenging, it is within my reach.  I’ve started with the slow and low work and will begin my 14 week peaking at the end of July.

So, in conclusion, reasonable goals + time + good planning = a lifetime of enjoyable fitness.  Maybe you love your gym family, maybe you’re on a recreational sports league, maybe you just like walking in the woods.  Whatever motivates you, keep at it, but if you’re having a hard time finding your motivation, give competition a try.  Even if you’re only competing with yourself.

My ultimate goal is to be one of those badass old ladies who is still competing in her eighties at one thing or another.  Maybe I’ll pull a world record deadlift the same year I complete some ultra distance trail run,  And if anyone asks me how on earth I ever managed such a feat, I’ll nonchalantly say, “Well son, I’ve been working on this for over fifty years.”  

I want to be like them.

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