When I was little, I practised sprinting for my sports day race on the fields near my dad’s house, with my granny watching, giving pointers. I still remember one piece of her advice so clearly: run through the finish line, not to the finish line. It turned out, whenever I sensed that I was close to the end of the track, I slowed down, stopped pushing myself forward with such speed.
17 years later, in the middle of a global pandemic with numbers of cases creeping back up, this trait of collapsing towards the finish line is something a lot of us can relate to. We can see the new normal we clutched at throughout summer slowly coming to an end, as lockdown begins to be reinstated across the country, so we are giving up.
I realised this when, in the gym at 7AM, the mood felt very… meh. I spotted my friend on the squat rack, who told me she was struggling to get her lifts back to what they were before the first round of lockdown. “I don’t even know why I’m bothering anyway,” she said to me. “The gym is just going to shut again and I’ll be straight back to square one.”
What she really meant by this was ‘why should I keep trying when I will never be able to reach my goal?’. It’s a good question. While we know that exercising is important for us, having something extrinsic is what motivates us to get up, out of the house and doing it. Without meeting goals, things can feel a little pointless.
Why are we motivated by goals?
“The brain is a muscle and it likes the familiar,” explains Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist from The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. “Our thoughts, feelings and behaviours help to create neural pathways which reinforce messages, so if we practice something and become good at it, we feel good about ourselves, which increases motivation to continue.”
For Anna, a 24-year-old writer, lacking a goal made her re-evaluate her relationship with running. “Something I’ve discovered about myself this year is that I need a lot of structure and big goals in order to feel motivated – and it’s probably not that healthy,” she says. “I was meant to run a half marathon in May and, just as I was about to start training for it, we went into lockdown and the race was cancelled. Without that goal, I felt as though I didn’t have anything to work towards so completely lost my running mojo – and months later I’m still struggling to get it back.”
How lockdown has changed our goals
Heading into a potential second lockdown, it’s the anticipation of our goals collapsing that is interesting. While many of us have probably fallen off course slowly without noticing it, or had our daily routines challenged by unexpected events, this time it’s different. What we are experiencing now is the great unknown – and how do we work through that?
It’s something I’m asking myself right now, as a fitness writer who very much sees exercise as a non-negotiable. And while research suggests that dedicated exercisers see training as part of our identity, meaning we are more likely to be committed to workouts without the need for extrinsic goals, I’m also struggling to see the point in continuing to push myself.
Perhaps the problem stems from the fact we are told that we should always be improving. The very basis of a lot of training programmes is progressive overload – gradually increasing demand on the body to consistently improve. What if, and imagine this for a minute, we could just accept that right now we might only maintain or, even, regress – and those facts don’t make our training pointless?
When it comes to long-term health, doing something is always better than nothing. So, while we may not be able to finish our carefully planned four-week training programme, by just turning up to the gym while we can we will be supporting bone density levels, insulin sensitivity and reducing the amount of disease-causing inflammation in our bodies.
But that’s not inspiring, is it? No one ever said, “I’m going to train today because I want to reduce my risk of disease”. So, let’s go back to those goals.
How to create attainable goals in lockdown
While the general consensus is that goals must be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relatable, timed), it’s time to rip up that rule book. Because we’ve already thrown out every other aspect of normal life, right? Instead, it’s time to focus less on the final event and more on our values, says Dr Touroni. “Let’s say you value being fit and healthy. How you act on that will be different in different contexts – but the value still grounds you in what you care about and it means you can adapt to different situations,” she says.
For this, we need to tweak our mindsets to think about the underlying principle of why we chose to exercise in the first place. Ultimately, we aren’t there so that we can brag about how much we squat (I’ve tried and, trust me, no one cares). We are there because we value spending time on ourselves, learning new skills, feeling stronger, stepping away from a computer… whatever it is. Therefore, we don’t really need the goals to continue exercising, they are just micro-steps to help us along the way.
Dr Touroni continues: “As long as you’re trying your best to maintain your training in whatever scenario you’re in, you’re going to see long-term gains from that. Ultimately, the only situation we can respond to is the present moment.”
When you think about it like that, there is no race. There is nothing to give up on. We don’t need to push through the finish line because what we value doesn’t come to an end – we can still move, train, sweat and look after ourselves regardless of whether your marathon is called off or your gyms are closed.
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).