How to stay motivated during a physical challenge

Whether you're climbing a mountain, tackling a triathlon or trekking across a desert, at some point during an endurance event you'll probably feel like giving up. We asked ultra athletes, explorers and a sports psychologist for their advice on developing mental resilience.

Whether you're climbing a mountain, tackling a triathlon or trekking across a desert, at some point during an endurance event you'll probably feel like giving up.  We asked ultra athletes, explorers and a sports psychologist for their advice on developing mental resilience.  

Jason Lewis - author, adventurer and first person to circumnavigate the Earth without motors or sails:
"When tackling seemingly insurmountable obstacles, I try to remind myself that focusing on the end result of action is not as important as the way in which we act. In times of adversity, obsessing on the outward appearance of circumstances can be distracting and disheartening, leading to a downward spiral in morale that ultimately ends in failure.

"Better to narrow one’s attention around the present, without thought of outcome. For it is when we are wholly absorbed in the moment, without our heads getting in the way, that we can think more clearly, make quicker and more seamless decisions, and generally perform at a higher level - ironically raising our chances of a successful resolution in the process.

"This is the great paradox of resilience: let go of the future and the present will take care of itself. Time and again during my human-powered circumnavigation of the planet, I employed this tactic. Pedalling on the spot for two and a half weeks mid-Pacific, for example, it was releasing expectations that allowed me to keep pedalling and eventually punch through the countercurrent to reach the Southern Hemisphere."

Scott Wolfe - mountain athlete
"I use a couple of tools to stay motivated. One is taking a big task like a long race or ride and breaking it down into a simple goal. Case in point being a 100 mile trail race from Squaw Valley, California to Auburn, California. Rather than focus on the distance, I started by telling myself that I am going to "run from Squaw Valley to Auburn" rather than "I'm going to run 100 miles". Keeping that in mind, it's easier to face the day.

"If things get tough, I break down the goals into smaller sections. At times, it might be as simple as "I'm going to run from this tree to that tree", but usually I can focus on going from one aid station or checkpoint to another. It gives you the opportunity to reset your focus with every short term goal accomplished and I find I build strength and momentum with each mini-success.

"Endurance events truly are a mind game. I once heard the quote about 100 mile trail races that the "the first 50 miles are run with your legs and the last 50 are run with your head".

"I never had an appreciation for that until I started being successful at them. There are some basic physiological considerations to consider, sure, but nothing can unravel a successful finish more than ego, expectations and a feeling of being overwhelmed.

"It helped me to understand that hundreds, now thousands of people run 100 mile races each year, so what I'm doing isn't like Shackleton heading to the South Pole.  However, I certainly remain very respectful of the distance and emotional, physical and spiritual journey it takes to complete it."

Roland Primus - pilot, champion snowboarder and trainer to Swiss snowboard team
"It’s never a matter of trying to win a competition - you have to want to win. Train hard and judge yourself honestly (or ask for the opinion of someone you respect) on whether you’re ready to meet the challenge. When you are ready, there’s no backing out. Stay focused, visualise yourself succeeding. This will sustain you in the journey ahead."

Dr Andrew Murray - sports doctor and endurance athlete
"Break the journey into smaller chunks. A kilometre or the next stop seems more achievable than the whole journey when things are hard.

"Recognise tough times are normal - and that any great challenge has tough times before success comes. It is always darkest before dawn.

"Have a few treats with you that can brighten your mood. Small things can make a big difference."

Anna Frost - professional ultrarunner, winner of the 2014 Transvulcania Ultramarathon
"Remind yourself of all the time and effort and passion you’ve put in to get to where you are. Everyone goes through bad patches. We have to think of the good things - like the sense of achievement or how proud we and all our supporters will feel - to get us through."

Dr. Rhonda Cohen - Extreme Sport Psychologist, Middlesex University
"Be in the moment, as this will reduce your distraction from interfering thoughts. Enjoy  the beauty and spirituality of being in this environment where you are one with nature.

"Set your next small goal, e.g. distance or time increments. This will help you feel clear where you are going. It will also feed you continuous gifts of self achievement and accomplishment which will be motivating.

"If you need a quick dissociative escape, visualise and feel the elation of what it is like when you finish an endurance race  and how rewarding that feels.

"Have a sense of self belief that you can do this - you've trained, you are in control of your movements and the effort is your own.

"Be proud of yourself and your accomplishment so far. There is nothing better for the mind than to take pride in what you are doing and to enjoy it. Positive feelings will help you through."

Chantelle Robitaille - ultrarunner
"Instead of thinking about how far away the finish line is, I visualise goalposts (such as the next checkpoint)  and concentrate on reaching those. I also count my breath, making sure I’m breathing out fully, as well as in. It gives me something positive to focus on, rather than dwelling on negative things such as hunger or a niggling pain."

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