So, You Think You Are Not Like an Elite Athlete? Think Again

Most of us are not elite athletes. We do, however, have some things in common. We all struggle with motivation at times. We all have to figure out ways to accomplish our goal of living a healthy lifestyle.
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When I moved to Boulder eight years ago, everything changed. I had always considered myself somewhat athletic and fit. My definition, however, was established when I was younger and the recommendations for exercise were three times a week instead of the current five times a week. By my own definition, I could always do better, but I was not too shabby. But Boulder has a very different definition. In fact, since 2008, Gallup and Healthways have measured obesity rates across America, and every year, with the exception of 2009, Boulder has been named the fittest town in America.

My first neighbor was a sponsored triathlete. He had just given up his pro status but was still training hard. Within a couple of years he finished first in his age division in the Hawaii Ironman and finished first in a Half Ironman two weeks later in Florida. This is what I faced in my new town. Suffice it to say, in the beginning, I never accepted offers for a friendly run for fear that I would only hold others back. Although often inspiring, the surroundings were mostly daunting with regard to my own confidence as a runner. I would never live up to this ideal, nor would these people ever understand me as a human who just wanted to stay fit, with no aspirations for superhuman athleticism.

Fast-forward about two years. I was visited by some colleagues from the Midwest. One colleague, Stephanie, a woman in her 30s, asked me if I could show her a good place to run in Boulder. Another colleague warned me that it would be ambitious to run with Stephanie as she was an All-American runner at Notre Dame. Here we go again.

I would usually refuse such an offer, but this was an opportunity for me to be a "runner" with someone in my own town. Besides, I'm from the fittest town in America, I try to run several times a week, and we are at altitude! How bad could this be? I tell her that I'd gladly run with her, and we arrange a time. The next morning is cold, 35-40 degrees, foggy, rainy and ugly. It was the perfect excuse to bail. I called Stephanie, and she was still up for a run, stating that she had packed clothes for a cold run. This should have been another warning sign.

Once I put aside my own concerns and insecurities about my abilities, I noticed something in Stephanie. She was delighted to run, alone, with me, or with anyone. It was cold, ugly, wet, miserable to most of us, but to her, it was delightful. She truly loved what she was doing. I spoke with her, between gasps for air, about her motivation, and I learned something. There are many ways in which elite athletes are different than most of us, but there are some ways in which they are the same. We all struggle with motivation sometimes. The key lies in how we deal with that struggle.

I took the opportunity to interview another athlete, Bob Africa. I won't get too deep into Bob's accomplishments, but let me just tell you about his comeback from a knee injury at the precipice of turning 40. Bob rehabbed himself and came in second in the Leadman competition, a grueling series of five endurance races over the course of seven weeks in Leadville, Colorado (over 10,000 feet in elevation). The races included two mountain bike races (50 and 100 miles each) and three trail runs (a 10K, a marathon, and a 100-mile run). The following year, he came in first. Oh, and in his spare time, Bob also runs a company in Boulder called Kidrobot, which develops toys and apparel designed by famous artists around the world. I'd say his accomplishments qualify Bob as an elite athlete, although he would argue that point, modestly offering to put me in touch with a "real" pro athlete if it would help my blog.

I learned from Bob, and from Stephanie, what I outline below about how an elite athlete stays motivated. I hope these tips can help each of us who struggles to feel a little more confident about where we are in our approach to living a healthier life.

1. Take your mind out of your activity.

As Bob explains, there are always days when, if you think about it, you don't really want to get up, get ready, take the time, and exercise. His answer: Don't think about it! Nike may have had it right. Just do it. Be mechanical. Take your mind out of your activities and let your body just do what it should by taking you through the activity at its own pace.

2. Don't concentrate too much on measuring everything.

Bob doesn't measure his pace, his miles, anything, unless he is training for a competition. He just runs. Runs at the pace at which his body is comfortable. Runs as long as he feels is right for him, or as long as it takes to complete his favorite loop. In today's world of constant monitoring of health behavior, people feel that each time they exercise they must do as well or better than their last exercise. This is completely unrealistic in most life activities, and it should not be expected from exercise either. Sometimes, we should reward ourselves for just getting off the couch, and not focus too much on achieving a personal best.

3. Remind yourself of the positives after running.

We are sometimes in pain when we exercise. This is okay, but it is best to be mindful of the benefits we feel from exercise at the time when we are actually experiencing pain in order to justify our work. Remind yourself of the benefits after you exercise. This justifies your efforts.

4. Don't negotiate.

Don't negotiate with yourself by saying that you can do something bad (e.g., eat dessert) if you exercise today. This back and forth only creates the mental scenario that exercise is the evil that brings you the good -- in this case, food. You want exercise to be the good guy in your life, not the bad guy.

5. Be accountable.

Bob independently brought up a point about social support that we see often in health psychology. He stated that when you tell people what you are doing (e.g., running five times a week, going to the gym regularly, etc.) you are held more accountable by your social networks to accomplish your goals. This accountability can be enough to keep some people from negotiating their way out of exercise or from over-thinking it.

6. Run on it.

Bob refers to running as his "couch." This is where he works things out in his mind. He solves problems. Sometimes, he just relaxes. Some people give the advice to run at a conversational pace, meaning you can still talk comfortably. I interpret what Bob is saying as meaning that we might want to run at a pace where we can think or even meditate. Be present in your activities. See them as relaxing. If you make them into a chore, you will avoid them. If you create them in your mind as relaxation, you will gravitate toward them. As Bob says, "Don't make it work."

Most of us are not elite athletes. We do, however, have some things in common. We all struggle with motivation at times. We all have to figure out ways to accomplish our goal of living a healthy lifestyle. Hopefully, these tips from people who have learned methods to remove barriers to regular activity will help you with your own. For me, it is a snowy and cold day in Boulder, but it is time to run...