30 November, 2016

Whether you are an elite competitor, casual gym goer, weekend warrior, recreational runner, health and fitness buff, or newcomer to sport … all of us will experience a lack of motivation from time to time. It’s all part and parcel of a regular workout routine.

What is motivation?

Motivation is an internal process or reasoning that makes you behave in a particular way, to move towards a goal. Given that your thought processes will actually influence your behaviour, it is really no surprise that cognitive effort is often needed to keep you moving in the right direction. What can you do – or how can you ‘think’ better – when your enthusiasm for exercise starts to waver?

Tips for turning on your motivation

Here are some tips to help get you through the training troughs to experience the highs again.

Overcoming the lows of motivation

Tip #1: Picture what you want rather than what you don’t want

Negative motivation inspires you to move away from something you don’t want to happen e.g., you watch the foods you eat to avoid getting fat. Positive motivation inspires you to move towards a good experience or something you do want to happen e.g., you watch the foods that you eat because you like the way you look and feel when you eat healthy food. Jeffrey Hodges, an Australian sports performance consultant, argues that positive motivation works better than negative motivation. It is important to “imagine and picture what we want rather than what we don’t want”.

Tip #2: Know why you are exercising in the first place

Know why you are doing what you do. Strong desires for your dreams and goals will motivate you to take action to achieve them. Remind yourself of what these are when you start to falter.

Your motivation might be driven by extrinsic goals – outside influences or pressures in your environment e.g., financial gain, winning trophies, gaining recognition. On the other hand, you may be motivated by intrinsic goals – your own interest or enjoyment in the activity itself.

Research shows that it is the intrinsic values or incentives that will support a long-term approach towards achieving your health and fitness goals. While it is okay to have extrinsic incentives to help you begin new behaviours that don’t necessarily feel good on their own, health promotion and wellness specialists recommend that you learn to identify and appreciate the personal benefits from health behaviours and exercise.

For example, you may be inspired to join your local running club on their training run every Sunday because during August they are offering a free breakfast after each session (extrinsic benefit). When they stop offering breakfast in September, you continue the Sunday sessions because you have come to realise that running makes you feel better (intrinsic benefit) and you want to keep running regularly even without the breakfast incentive. It is this ‘real reward’ from participation that you want to tap into and take away from your experiences.

Tip #3: Set realistic goals and keep them in perspective

According to triathlon coach and author, Ian Stokell, understanding what motivates you will help you design a realistic set of personalised goals.

It is important for you to not set your goals for exercise in isolation but rather integrate them with your other life goals, taking into account factors such as your availability to train and financial constraints.

Realise, too, that the first step in behaviour change (e.g., starting a new exercise program) is often the hardest – so, don’t be too tough on yourself if you feel like you are not meeting your expectations in training, as this in itself can generate disappointment and lower your motivation. Be prepared to adjust your training to accommodate your mood and the normal interruptions of daily life. Sometimes, it is okay to lower the bar for training and do less rather than too much. After all, as summed up by the old adage:

‘The only bad workout is the one you didn’t do.’

Tip #4: Recognise what affects your motivation and develop strategies for dealing with it

The human body is not made of steel. It is mortal flesh and bone. It is therefore perfectly normal to find yourself lacking motivation when your body is faced with physiological challenges.

The extremes of cold and hot weather will usually be strong disincentives for you to exercise. Consider training indoors, either at a public gym facility or in the comfort of your own home. Treadmills, wind trainers and home fitness ensembles are readily acquired these days. Investment in such equipment will keep you motivated to train through all weathers, and when combined with music, can actually enhance your exercise experience.

Tip #5: Discover the power of wearable technology

Fitness trackers and smart watches let you record your own personal data, and some allow you to share it with other people online to compare performance. On their own, fitness trackers provide a degree of incentive by monitoring your performance so you can track improvement.

However, if someone is watching us, it changes our behaviour. Try uploading your performance data to social platforms – studies confirm that it can actually make you feel accountable and therefore motivated to stick to your goals.

Tip #6: Harness the power of others

The sense of belonging and being affiliated with others based on a common purpose or level of achievement can provide you with a strong source of motivation. Getting social recognition for your achievements can spur you on. Visible evidence of membership in a fitness program, such as a branded T-shirt or tapping into niche online communities (e.g., people training for a 5km race), will make you feel involved with other like-minded people, and this will in turn help you to stay motivated.

Furthermore, research into behaviour change shows that “behaviour change occurs simply by providing information about what other people are doing”. Seeing what happens to others, hearing their stories, and watching scenarios of their experiences can inspire us to take action ourselves. For example, check out how some super athletes over 60 stay motivated!

Tip #7: Be flexible. Take a break or adjust your training when you feel less capable.

Sleep deprivation will significantly affect your mood and motivation. Small tasks can loom much larger and goals can feel unachievable. Recognise those periods when you are lacking sleep and understand the impact that this will have on your motivation as well as your ability to train effectively. Similarly, over-training will make you feel exhausted.

Don’t expect too much of yourself when you are feeling tired. Adjust your workout so that you are not over stretching yourself, and perhaps even take time out. It will make all the difference to your motivation and energy levels.

Stay motivated

  • Tap into what really inspires you and use this to push on with training through the tough times.
  • Recognise the things in life that dampen your motivation and develop strategies to overcome them.
  • Stay in tune with your body – learn how to read your physical and emotional states, and respond appropriately.
  • Remain flexible. Recognise that you are on a journey and be prepared to modify your exercise plans in order to sustain your goals over time.


As a personal trainer, motivation is an important component for both yourself and your clients. If you are interested in working with people to keep them motivated towards their goals, become a personal trainer by gaining a Certificate 3 in fitness and a Certificate 4 in fitness, or take our combined Personal Training Course (Cert 3 & 4).


Author: Kara Gilbert – Kara is an active sportsperson across triathlon, athletics and recreational cycling and is currently President of Glenhuntly Athletics Club. Kate is also a medical and health expert who regularly commentates on a range of sport health matters for recreational and professional athletes.

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