Drive: Motivation on the treadmill

For a moment I thought about commandeering the small plastic bin which holds the used cleaning towels and placing it next to my treadmill. These 800 meter repeats were hard. Really hard. And the gym was hot. And I was probably dehydrated. And, oh my GOODNESS, I feel  like I may just throw up. I whined and complained. A lot. It started with the warmups and continued until I jumped off the fast-moving treadmill belt to complete the sixth and final interval of the day.

Luckily, Sue was suffering alongside me. “Positive, positive, positive,” she said each time I explained that I was going to puke. I stopped thinking which really wasn’t too difficult as I preoccupied with the jello-like feeling of my legs, the intensely noisy breathing that would wake the dead and the burning sensation in my core. I stared at the stepping machine in front of me and repeated my impromptu mantra “focus, focus, focus.” Original and inspirational it wasn’t, but it got me through those 800s.

Among the books I’m currently reading (and yes, I usually have several going at once) is  Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. The premise is that for ages we’ve worked with a “carrot-and-stick” approach to work, life — all sorts of motivation. We value the reward system. If I do this then I’ll get that. But Dan Pink has found research to the contrary. Yes, sometimes the reward and punishment system works, but not always. He contends the three elements of true motivation come from within, not without, in the form of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

I thought about the reward-punishment system in relation to my workouts. It never really works. At least not for very long. A workout could be “punishment” for binging on Christmas cookies, for example. “Gotta go to the gym and work off those calories.” But then the workout becomes drudgery. Then again, food could be the reward for the workout. “I just ran 7 miles. I’m going to reward myself with a chocolate chip muffin.” That, well, that defeats the purpose of exercising in the first place. An occasional reward-punishment cycle can work just fine, but it’s not a strategy for long-term success.

So what got me out of bed at 5 .m. on rainy Thursday morning to go to the gym? What got me through six really hard sets of treadmill intervals? It was the desire I had to connect and share with my friend. It was the curiosity to see how I could challenge myself and if I could develop a mastery over the workout. It was because as much as I bitch about the puke factor, part of me is really proud and satisfied when I push myself to that limit, to see what it is I may be capable of. There’s a challenge both physical and mental there and, for me, a bit of creativity. That’s so much more rewarding than any delectable holiday treat. Even if it includes Nutella and pancakes.

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