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Self –Regulation: Long-Term Motivation for Exercise Training

By Richard Winett, PhD

[This article by health psychologist Richard Winett is a slightly shortened version of a piece appearing in the April 2006 Master Trainer, his newsletter for lifetime bodybuilders and master athletes. I was so impressed with the detail and comprehensive nature that I asked for and received permission to reproduce it here. It’s a wonderful melding of Dick’s expertise as a psychologist and his lifetime of training experience. It represents a refocusing of his attention from public health, where many of the intended beneficiaries are simply not interested in helping themselves, to people who are  motivated and want to know how to stay motivated. Dick and I have been friends for more than two decades. I sometimes think he knows more about me that I do. Referring to our training, his and mine, Dick wrote the following in an email: “I think when you come down to it, we continue to train because of the way we set up our training, how it plays to our strengths, and because of the incredible flow we’ve experienced with training – it’s been reinforcing and such a far cry from what many people experience – drudgery.” The details are laid out in marvelous and thoughtful detail in his article. You are invited to read and learn.]

Introduction:  Understanding self-regulation processes and applying self-regulation techniques are keys to improving your training and certainly for maintaining long-term motivation.

Self-regulation is your systematic efforts to direct your thoughts, feelings, and actions towards attaining goals. Self-regulation is comprised of processes that work in concert with each other.

This article describes those processes: goal setting, planning, tracking and monitoring, self-incentives and self-standards, and cognitive and affective self-regulation.

Much more detail about each process is provided in the April, 2006 Master Trainer (www.ageless-athletes.com).

Self-regulation is an ongoing process with a group of strategies. Self-regulation keeps you motivated and makes a series of workouts successful. Self-regulation increases your confidence in your ability to perform successive workouts and effectively reach your potential and long-term training goals.

Goal Setting: Selecting appropriate goals and actively pursing those goals makes engagement in behaviors meaningful, challenging, and enjoyable. Without specific goals and some clear purpose, resistance training and aerobic training can devolve into a succession of hard but almost random movements.

Goals change the complexion of training by making it purposeful, rewarding, and even exciting. Goals set the stage for purposeful behavior when the goals are self-selected and meaningful, concrete and behavioral, challenging, and hard but reachable. Effective goal setting also involves many small steps and small goals.

You need to set your own goals for your training program.  Goals imposed on you by others are not likely to be as motivating. Far worse, they may not be that appropriate for you.

Effective self-selected goals are ones that fit you based on your honest analyses of your strengths and weaknesses and life circumstances. They represent what you believe you can realistically achieve within some designated time-frame.

The reality of training is that you are much more likely to achieve goals and find training rewarding when you set goals and train in ways that capitalize on what you obviously do well.

Take the time to carefully consider your strengths and develop goals around those strengths.   

Your goals may or may not have some relationship to specific standards. For example, your fitness goals may involve reaching performance levels that indicate a certain degree of fitness for your age and gender based on existing data. Given your assessment of your fitness level now, your goal may be to reach a level of fitness that places you in the top third for your age and gender.

Or, you may not be interested in some external standard. For example, your goal may be after many years of training to focus on a few resistance training movements and try over an extended time to increase your performance by 10%.

Or, more realistically, if you are older and have been training for many years, a goal could be to reach a performance level that was 90% of what you were able to do 10 years ago. The performance level is specific and meaningful to you.

An effective goal is behavioral, performance based, and concrete. ‘Improving fitness’ or ‘getting stronger’ do not have the requisite qualities. ‘Running an 8-minute mile’ or ‘bench pressing’ 180 lbs for 8 repetitions’ do have the requisite qualities. Based on your interests and analyses of your strengths and limitations, similar goals may be meaningful, challenging, and reachable goals for you.

‘Losing 12 pounds’ at first seems to be a goal that fits the requisite qualities. But, it’s not the case. It’s really only the behaviors that you can control. More appropriate goals involve the eating, physical activity, and exercise behaviors performed consistently over time that then result in weight loss.

Effective long-term goal setting and achievement involves a series of intermediate, short-term goals. Exercise training and performance are tailor-made for such a series of short-term goals. Please refer to the ‘Painless Progressions’ article on the www.ageless-athletes.com site for a good example of this process.

Goal setting is not a one-time process. A common and important saying is that ‘a goal achieved is a goal lost’.

Striving to achieve a goal creates a lot of purposeful and fulfilling behavior. There is often jubilation when a goal is achieved. The glow often, however, doesn’t last because the ‘driver’ for all that behavior is no longer operating. Some people even report feeling lost after achieving a goal.

This doesn’t mean that goal setting is bad or that somehow people become too ‘dependent’ upon goal setting. It simply means that after achieving a goal, it is time to develop another goal or goals.

Planning: Goals, much less a series of goals over many months or years, are rarely accomplished without good planning.

The first step of planning is when and where you’re training will take place. As rudimentary as this first step is, with a burst of enthusiasm novices or even experienced trainees can make plans for their training that are not realistic in the long-run.

Plans often are made without asking one simple question: ‘What do I honestly see myself wanting to do, and being able to do, over at least the next several to six months?’ 

 If the question was asked in the beginning, plans would look more realistic. People would train more effectively and be much happier because they reached their goals.

In setting up a training schedule, consider that only two to four resistance training sessions per week and only two to three cardiovascular training sessions per week are required to reach any realistic goal. If you resistance train two days per week, the sessions each may last for about 30 – 60 minutes. If you resistance train three to four days per week, the training sessions may last only 20-45 minutes. Cardiovascular training sessions each may only require 15 to 30 minutes. Resistance and cardiovascular training can be performed on the same or alternate days.

This is not a great deal of time. The key then is not finding a lot of time. The key is finding the times that are optimal for you.

Optimal times may not be the ‘best’ times. An optimal time to train is a time that is convenient and you can consistently achieve.

The second step in planning involves a detailed description of what you are going to do in each workout. What you are going to do should be closely related to your goals. It is easiest to describe a planning process that involves goals within resistance training and cardiovascular training.

In practice, a written plan for a resistance training session should include every exercise you intend to perform listed in their order of performance, the resistance and your repetition and/or time under load goal for each movement, and notes or reminders to yourself about a specific movement. The plan should be based on your prior workouts, your goals, and how you approach your training.

A very similar approach can be taken for cardiovascular training. Your plan can note the exercise piece and different workloads you plan to achieve in your workout at different levels of perceived exertion or heart rates or some other good estimate of intensity and effort.

The plan for each workout in a long series of workouts sets the small step-by-step goals that are the pathway for reaching your longer-term goals.

Depending upon your overall approach to training, you may only plan one or two sets of workouts in advance, or you may plan many more workouts in advance of the actual workouts. Either way of planning would be goal directed, e.g., to perform 175 x 8 in a given workout.

For example, a person who likes to train very hard each workout may only plan the next workout right after the present workout is completed. What is planned next is based on the current workout and the past pattern of success (if 160 x 8 was successfully performed then the next workout is planned as 162 x 8 for a given exercise). 

Another person may prefer a long training cycle where the workouts at the beginning of the cycle are not that hard and where there also may be some easier workouts within the cycle. In this case, also based on training experience and success, workouts covering many weeks and even months may be preplanned.

A plan for a specific workout is a realistic projection of what you can do in the upcoming workout.

If you’re a very experienced trainee, you know that going from bench pressing 160 lbs for 8 repetitions that involved a great deal of effort to 170 for 8 repetitions in the next workout is unrealistic and self-defeating. Planning to bench press 162 for 8 repetitions is a more realistic plan. It also may be one step toward your long-term, overall goal of 175 for 8 repetitions. Fulfilling your plan, performing a successful set with 162 x 8, should be gratifying and the way your training becomes and remains a rewarding experience.

How do you know if you are a good planner? ‘The proof is in the pudding’. If you consistently perform your planned training session, achieve most of your planned repetitions and sets or reach designated levels in cardiovascular training, and find the sessions reasonably satisfying or better yet, enjoyable, you are a good planner.

The essential part of becoming a good exercise training session planner is becoming a good exercise monitor and tracker.

Monitoring and Tracking:  There are good reasons to keep ongoing, detailed records – a log - of your training with data recorded preferably during or shortly thereafter a training session.

Your planner and training records should be within the same, preferably portable, log. That way you can plan or modify your plan for your next workout based on the immediate results of your current workout 

There are many ways to keep records and logs from laptops, desktops, pda’s to even your cell phone. But a simple written log in notebooks works just as well, if not better. The reasons are that it is very portable and requires little cost or skill. With simplicity and portability, it’s easy to see how your log also becomes your planner making it very simple to plan or modify the plans for your next workout right after or very soon after the workout.

An effective monitoring and tracking system does not just involve ritualistically recording each workout in your log.

There’s much more that simple monitoring and tracking in your log can achieve.

A simple monitoring and tracking system can reveal what exercises, resistance, time under load and repetitions, and time between workouts are most effective for you. You do not need elaborate formulas or an exercise consultant to figure things out.

Examine your records in your log over several weeks and preferably several months. What has worked especially well and especially poorly? When were your great workouts? What variables such as time between workouts, or warm-up, or focus, or even time of day or the presence or absence of a training partner contributed to effective workouts? Because we are not engaged in ‘rocket science’ and there are not many key variables, the process of seeing what does and what does not work well is not a difficult one.

A good tracking and monitoring system also should include notes and comments in your log that should make the process of seeing what works best - or worst - even easier. For example, a particular way of warming-up may have made workouts more effective. That’s a great piece of information.

Your notes and comments also can include points that you need to attend to in certain movements. For example, you may want to remind yourself that for the squat or bench press you need to focus on consistently performing smooth repetitions with no stopping between repetitions. If it’s in your log and your log is with you in the gym, you are very likely to look at this reminder and perform your repetitions as prescribed.

Clearly, the purpose of tracking and monitoring is to modify your training plans to more successfully perform training sessions directed toward meeting your goals.

Tracking and monitoring also can help you pinpoint patterns leading to injuries and help you prevent them.  Avoiding injuries has to make your training more effective.

Cognitive and Affective Regulation: Employing goal setting, planning, and tracking and monitoring means that most of your workouts should be reasonably enjoyable and effective. There should be few or no instances of dreading an upcoming training session or training sessions where you do not successfully perform the workout or even ‘bomb’.

The basic idea is that the training sessions are all set to optimize what you can do and like to do. The workouts are not someone else’s vision of what you should be doing. If you dread the workouts, something is wrong and you need to change the workouts to better suit you.

Performing good training sessions does require a reasonable degree of focus and concentration on the tasks at hand but nothing absolutely extraordinary. Performing good workouts does, however, require paying attention to what you’re thinking and feeling.

An important exercise for any endeavor is to listen to your thoughts, your internal dialogue. What are you telling yourself? What kinds of words do you use? What do you say to yourself when you are doing things well and when you’re not doing things that well?

Words matter a great deal. Words determine how you think and feel about yourself. And, we can regulate what we think and tell ourselves. Here’s one example.

 Let’s say your goal in a particular exercise in a given training session was 100 for 8 repetitions. You made 7 repetitions last time without a struggle so performing 8 repetitions the next time seemed a reasonable goal. However, we’re not perfect machines and our physiology is dynamic. Not every plan is perfect.  For a number of reasons in your workout you now may have to struggle just to make the 7 repetitions with 100. What are you saying to yourself?

Contrast the wide range of negative and self-abusive things you can say to yourself to: ‘Good effort. Just wasn’t quite there today. Let’s figure out by going through my training log what happened and how to do better next time’.

Listen carefully to what you are thinking about or telling yourself during a workout. If it’s not positive, practice using more positive thoughts and internal dialogue.

Affective self-regulation involves learning to control how you emotionally respond to situations. You can see the close association with what you are thinking and telling yourself. Let’s use the example from before. Everything seemed so planned and well set up to perform 8 repetitions with 100 but you land up struggling to get 7 repetitions. What’s you’re emotional response?

It’s hard to imagine that you will be very happy about your performance. But, there’s little to be gained and lots to be lost by getting angry or depressed. It makes the entire training session and likely the ones coming up not much fun.

Here are some better options. Compliment yourself for giving the set your best effort on that day. Consider that if you were able to perform the 7 repetitions on an ‘off day’ that’s really good. Your more positive thoughts are the first ingredients for a more positive and less negative emotional response.

Use some cue words that you personally attach to being calm and in control. They can be as simple as ‘ok’, ‘relax’, ‘calm’.

Then complete the rest of your workout as best you can.

There is another point to consider within cognitive and affective regulation.

It is ‘goal disengagement’. 

This is different from accomplishing the goal. Goal disengagement means giving up on achieving the goal. This can be considerably harder, cognitively, affectively, and behaviorally, than striving to reach a goal. For example, after a few months of no discernible progress in reaching a goal, or far worse, successive training injuries incurred while pursuing the goal, the signal is there to disengage from the goal.

It is difficult because so much time and effort and personal meaning have been invested in striving to reach the goal.

What you are saying to yourself and how you are responding emotionally are critical. You can call yourself a failure and become angry with yourself or depressed for ‘giving up’.

You also can choose a different course. Your own records in your training log should show that you’ve done all the correct planning and focused training. You gave it your best shot. It just wasn’t in the cards.

It is time to study your training logs, reflect, and learn something.  It’s time to develop new goals that are a better match to your strengths and current realities.

Self-Standards and Self-Incentives: A common idea about exercise training is that most people will need a substantial external reward on the near horizon to keep them going. Clearly, training to reach some meaningful goal and attaching the goal attainment to a tangible reward can be effective. Of course, your task then is to develop another goal and another meaningful external reward.

The ideas, however, presented here point toward a different approach and locus of reward.

You select your own high standards of training. An over-arching goal is to meet those standards every workout. The standards likely would include giving your best effort in each workout and performing each exercise with great form. Other aspects of your self-standards may include how you set goals, plan your training, and the positive feedback you provide to yourself during the workout.  Meeting your self-standards in each workout is rewarding.

Likewise training will be enjoyable if you:

bullet select goals that are meaningful to you and are reachable
bullet  train in a way that best fits your strengths;
bullet carefully plan your workouts and monitor and track your training as a way to understand patterns that optimize your workouts

Perhaps not every session is terrific and not every injury can be prevented. But, you also will also have a great deal of confidence in your ability to marshal your self-regulatory skills to understand and overcome any problems and continue to have outstanding workouts that will allow you to reach future goals.

The overall training experience will be sufficiently positive so that just performing the workouts is rewarding.

 If there is one ‘secret’ for long-term training success, that is it. [Emphasis added.]

A Compatible Training Approach:  

Please see the ‘Painless Progressions’ article on www.ageless-athletes.com (under ‘Archives’) for a compatible training approach.

Much more detail about self-regulation and successful training also is available in the April, 2006 Master Trainer.

The core of this ‘painless’ approach is making small progressions. Each progression is an interim goal. You do not move forward, however, if achieving a particular resistance training or cardiovascular training goal is very hard, or, in the case of resistance training, your form is compromised in any way.

There are five great features of this overall approach to training:

*You choose your own goals and do all the planning. You’re reasonably confident that you can accomplish the goals over time with some well-planned and executed workouts.

*It is never necessary to perform ‘killer workouts’. Ideally, you are working hard but not so hard that the process becomes aversive or you need more and more time to recover from workouts.

*You are able to see and understand patterns in your training and quickly solve problems or largely avoid them.

*You are able to see and understand patterns that make your training even more effective.

*A good training cycle is very engaging and very rewarding. You see yourself making small improvements on your selected exercises during most workouts. Your success reinforces all the self-regulatory processes involved in training and keeps you highly motivated month-after-month and year-after-year.

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