By Pete Dyson, Senior Consultant at Ogilvy Consulting’s Behavioural Science Practice


8 mental shortcuts for physical training (and other life endeavours) 

“no pain, no gain”  “champions train, losers complain” “be badass”

These are the kind of toxic mantras that people think are needed to motivate people to walk, jog, gym, cycle, swim, box, yoga and much more in between. It sounds convincing, but there’s a problem. All this bold talk only pulls on one lever…..motivation.

There’s a big wide world beyond motivation; context, timing, opportunity, ease, understanding, social structures and many more factors that affect behaviour. What follows are lessons unearthed by me; a full-time behavioural science strategist and a part-time triathlete competing at National and European races. So, some tips are peer-reviewed and others are just plain ‘Pete-reviewed’.

Here we talk here about physical training goals, but many could be applied to learning a language, instrument, skill or even relationships (maybe).

1. Patience: consistency and timing is everything

Think of consistency like baking a cake. Even the best ingredients won’t bake in 5 minutes, there are no shortcuts here, it’s just physics. You have to take the long view and trust that over 30mins (aka 6 weeks for human fitness) the physiological effects will take place. Spontaneity is not a virtue, if you keep putting your mix in the oven for 5 minutes and out for 5 minutes, you’ll never end up with a cake, you’ll just have a luke warm stodgy blob. Training is just the same, it massively rewards a consistently good temperature.

2. Positivity: thinking faster

New research is shedding light on a long-held suspicion that the mind limits the body. Professor Samuele Marcora of the University of Kent studies this ‘psychobiological model’ by testing how changing people’s thoughts can change the power in their legs.

A series of studies have proven: self-talk (effectively cheering yourself on) increases cycling speed; being shown fake numbers suggesting you’re doing well makes you do even better; being shown smiley positive images increases the time to exhaustion; being told you are beating virtual competitor (you don’t even know) increases your maximum power output.

I highly recommend a book called Endure by Alex Hutchinson that summarises all this work and much more.

3. Peak End: avoid burn out

Many people in the gym and jogging in the park are absolutely killing it. It’s very impressive but quite confusing because people remember things based on the peak of the experience (the best/worst point) and how it ends.

The training-oven (yes, let’s continue that metaphor) works brilliantly at 160 degrees but it’s very costly to go to above 200 degrees.

Digging deep and bringing on the pain-face will be etched into your memory, which is fine if you can get up and do it tomorrow, but not if it puts you off doing it. In this case pain does not equal gain. Personally, I re-frame faster running sessions as ‘push as hard as I can such that I still want to run tomorrow’. Following the nice ending rule, a sociable warm down of high fives, some banter and sugary drinks is the sweetest ending you brain can get.

4. Defaults: Getting out the door

Any session is 100% better than no session. Try to ‘hack’ your way out of the door, because once a session begins then you’re basically there. Here are some ways to reduce hurdles. Here’s an ABC….

A pre-packed bag: get everything in a rucksack the night before, leave it by the bed

Breakfast in bed: have some cereal next to the alarm clock, ideally a coffee-drink too.

Count yourself out of other options: Sometimes I’ll purposefully leave my bike at work so I have to run in.

This particular advice is Olympian-approved, in so far as I tweeted it in response to a Twitter competition evaluated by Alistair Brownlee. He trains 3 sports 35 hours a week. He’s a good judge.

5. Future Self: Don’t let second thoughts come first

Even when highly motivated, I can still feel there’s a little voice (usually just before putting my kit on) that says ‘do we have to do this?’ or ‘maybe tomorrow would be better’. In this case, I don’t live in the present. I think of it like this ‘I thought it was a good idea yesterday, nothing’s changed since then, so stick with the plan”

Also, I’ve noticed no correlation between how I think I’m feeling and how I actually perform. Whether it’s tired legs, exhausted mind, slightly sniffly; all this goes out the window once the warm-up is done. Don’t judge by your present by your mood alone.

6. Targets: give me a reason!

Some people are more motivated intrinsically; the pursuit of self-improvement and contentedness. Others are more extrinsically; achieving a certain standard and getting validation from other people. In either case, nothing beats having a race, an event or a specific target. It works amazingly to focus the mind and you can construct whatever purpose you want around it. Live that imagined reality!

Note: ideally, it’s not a terrifying target, because so called ‘panic-training’ almost invariably leads to injury of the body or mind.

7. Commitments: be social

Relying on just your personal willpower is a fool’s game. There are loads more sources of commitment and dedication.

A cheap one involves making your goals public; speaking, tweeting and sharing targets is ideal. Signing up with someone else is basically the crack cocaine of training motivation; it bonds and blinds you both to even needing to search for the willpower.

A friend of mine pursues a more expensive commitment strategy by signing up to the most luxurious gym because the sunk cost of a big monthly bill makes the gym more appealing. The utilitarian in me wish that he could make that £100 donation to charity instead, which might actually be more motivating as research has shown people running for charities, loved ones and good causes are more motivated.  

8. Temptation Bundling: treat yourself

I believe it was Dr. Katherine Milkman that coined the term ‘temptation bundling’ to describe the act of pairing treat activities like trashy TV, podcasts and gossip with tough activities like the treadmill or house-work. Her research demonstrated that if people were given an addictive audiobook (like Serial) that only worked at the gym, then their pleasure and consistency rose considerably.

Caution: watch out for temptation-bundling’s evil younger brother called ‘moral-licensing’, where doing one small good thing acts as a constant excuse for indulging afterwards. Many Sunday afternoons and evenings have been lost to this vice.

There are many more than 8 mental shortcuts. The best ones are those you find yourself, which for many people is a hidden benefit of physical excursion – it helps you find out more about yourself.


References / Further Reading:

Brown, R. (2004). Consideration of the origin of Herbert Simon’s theory of “satisficing”(1933-1947). Management Decision42(10), 1240-1256.

Hutchinson, A. (2018). Endure: Mind, body, and the curiously elastic limits of human performance. HarperCollins.

Marcora, S. M., & Staiano, W. (2010). The limit to exercise tolerance in humans: mind over muscle?. European journal of applied physiology109(4), 763-770.

Rogers, T., Milkman, K. L., & Volpp, K. G. (2014). Commitment devices: using initiatives to change behavior. JaMa311(20), 2065-2066.

Seiler, S. Seiler’s Hierarchy* of Endurance Training Needs.

Sibley, B. A., & Bergman, S. M. (2018). What keeps athletes in the gym? Goals, psychological needs, and motivation of CrossFit™ participants. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology16(5), 555-574.

Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. R. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Journal of personality and social psychology83(5), 1178.

Zhang, Y., Fishbach, A., & Kruglanski, A. W. (2007). The dilution model: How additional goals undermine the perceived instrumentality of a shared path. Journal of personality and social psychology92(3), 389.