Use these science-tested strategies to get to the pool, even when you might not really be feeling it
One of the main myths about motivation is that you get motivated and then you act, that a lightning bolt comes or a muse appears and you spring into action.
Fortunately and unfortunately, that’s not how it goes. As James Clear points out in his book “Atomic Habits,” “Motivation is often the result of action, not the cause of it.”
Lots of scientists have looked at what actions are particularly good at helping people stick to their workouts and maintain their motivation, which can help you maintain your motivation to keep swimming.
Here are some of the most surprising, interesting, and useful findings.
Exercise at the Same Time All the Time
Aiming to get to the pool “whenever” stands a good chance of ending up with you getting to the pool “never.”
The journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews found that people were more likely to follow through on their intentions to exercise if they were consistent about doing their workouts at the same time of day, especially if that time was morning.
If you always hit the pool at 6:30 a.m., you know which roads are clearest at that time, what to-go cup your coffee goes in, and which products and clothes you need for afterward—no recalculating or new thinking needed. The paper also points out that habits require fewer deliberate motivation and cognitive resources from you in the moment than not having habits does. In other words, a habit helps you avoid the whole rethinking/overthinking quagmire.
About that morning thing. In general, planning helps workouts happen (“Planning is an effective time management and behavior change strategy that can help individuals to exercise even when faced with time pressures and competing responsibilities,” the study says), and mornings make planning easier because fewer things like last-minute meetings generally get in the way. Also, as the day goes on, you may be less good at self-regulation and other priorities can crop up. That said, if you’re more successful with an evening workout habit, congrats. Keep it.
It would be great if the rewards of a workout itself would be enough to propel us right back to the pool when our motivation evades us. Despite the great feeling you might get from practice—whether that’s because you really reached for something, because you chilled out, because you saw friends, or because you shared some laughs—sometimes, it just doesn’t get you back in.
Know What You Like About It
Remembering why you like swimming may help you do it more.
A small Norwegian study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports in 2020 looked at what might help new exercisers continue going to a gym a year after they signed up. In general, people with “autonomous” motives—you work out because you value what you get from it or it’s an important part of your identity—tend to be more likely to exercise regularly than people whose motives are “controlled,” meaning they’re initiated due to external pressure (someone else wants you to) or internal pressure (you feel guilty). In this research, people who stuck with exercise were the ones who rated the motives “enjoyment” and “challenge” high.
It can’t hurt to make yourself a list of what you enjoy about swimming, as well as a list of what challenges you’d consider fun in the next week, month, or year.
SMARTen up Your Goals
You can’t talk about motivation without talking about goal setting; it’s the stuff of every discussion around adherence to New Year’s resolutions. They help you stay on track and keep doing your workouts. The problem with goal setting is that most people set themselves up for failure because their goals are too small, too big, or just aren’t specific enough,
You can’t just say “I want to get stronger.” You need to set SMART goals. And while the actual words behind every letter of that acronym differ a little bit depending on who you’re talking to, the American College of Sports Medicine defines them as: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Trackable (other places use “time-bound”).
Not only do you want a long-term goal, but you’ll want shorter term SMART goals that help you get there, step by step, Cleere says. “Break everything down into very specific things you can work on.” Day by day, you’ll see yourself getting there.
If you’re frustrated that you’re not seeing progress toward that goal, check in with a coach who can help you adjust the goal or to tweak your strategy for getting there.
Cool Down and Hang Out
A nice cool-down might not just benefit your body.
In one small but often-quoted study, in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, scientists from Duke University and Iowa State University had people do 15 minutes of exercise that either increased in intensity (to a level they thought of as unpleasant) or decreased in intensity throughout the workout.
Previous research suggested that people tend to rate higher intensity work as less pleasurable, but these researchers were also aware of behavioral economics research that the “slope of change” during an episode—whether it goes from pleasurable to not or vice versa—weights how someone evaluates an experience when it’s over.
After exercise researchers used validated questionnaires to basically ask the following questions: “How do you feel at this moment about the physical activity you have been doing?”; “How did the exercise session in the laboratory make you feel?”; and “If you repeated the exercise session again, how do you think it would make you feel?”
As they suspected, the study reports, “ramping intensity down … improved postexercise pleasure and enjoyment, remembered pleasure, and forecasted pleasure.” So, if you want to come back tomorrow, and do it the next week, and the week after that, it might be best to do what your coaches have been saying and avoid jumping out after the main set. That cool-down may be doing as much for your next workout as it is for this one.
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