Expert Advice on How to Get Out of a Workout Slump

POPSUGAR Photography | Maria del Rio
POPSUGAR Photography | Maria del Rio

Even the fittest of athletes can go through a slump. If you find yourself in a rut, feeling particularly unmotivated, there could be a few key contributors. We got the scoop from Bridget Hearon, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Albright College, on what it takes to stay motivated — and how we could be self-sabotaging!

Mistake 1: You only focus on long-term benefits.

Solution: Make short-term goals and benchmarks for your bigger goals.

Is your goal "lose 40 pounds"? What about "drop three dress sizes," or "shave 30 minutes off my half-marathon time"? This might actually be putting you off course. While it's excellent to have a big, long-term goal, focusing on shorter goals and smaller benchmarks can be beneficial.

Professor Hearon's forthcoming research suggests that people who focus on immediate (rather than long-term) benefits have better outcomes. "For example, exercising for just 30 minutes has been proven to lift mood, so focusing on the short-term mood boost rather than the long-term effects, like weight loss, might make you more likely to stick with it."

Mistake 2: You set goals but don't make plans.

Solution: For every goal you set, create a step-by-step outline of how you'll achieve it.

Are you setting a goal but not creating any tactics or strategy to achieve said goal? "As a clinical health psychologist, I have noticed that clients often jump full steam ahead into reaching a goal without being realistic about their limitations or circumstances, and without spending time on the front end to plan ahead," says Hearon. Sound familiar? This usually happens when we get goal-happy around New Year's Eve. Remember that gym membership?

To avoid this, Hearon suggests not setting goals based on a year or even a deadline (like "a Summer body for vacation") — set them from week to week, instead. Then spend 15 minutes at the beginning of each week to make realistic plans to achieve that goal.

"Many individuals with a goal of eating better might state an intention to cook a healthy dinner on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday instead of getting takeout," says Hearon. "This is a great idea, but they often fail to add time for looking up a healthy recipe, preparing a shopping list, and going to the grocery store for the necessary ingredients." We've all been there — don't get discouraged, just start planning!

Mistake 3: You don't actively replenish your motivation.

Solution: Create a motivation reward system.

According to psychology research, Hearon says that motivation doesn't work like "a gas tank," going from full to empty, and vice versa — and you're not unmotivated, you're just more motivated by other things. "Research suggests that motivation works more like a hierarchy," she said. "This means that no individual is actually unmotivated. Instead, competing motivations often get in the way of keeping our goals," says Hearon.

Read: your motivation to eat pizza in a given moment may outweigh the motivation to lose weight. You're motivated to lose weight, but your motivation to eat pizza is higher on that hierarchy.

Here's how you can use that motivation hierarchy to your advantage: use another activity that would naturally fall higher on a hierarchy of motivation as a reward. In a true Pavlovian-style psychology experiment, you can train your brain to associate healthy behaviors with reward.

"Certain activities, such as watching a favorite TV show, will almost always naturally fall higher on a person's motivation hierarchy than a less preferred behavior such as exercise," says Hearon. "Therefore, it can be helpful to combine something that falls lower on the hierarchy with something closer to the top. For example, DVR your favorite TV show and only allow yourself to watch it while walking on the treadmill. This allows exercise to become associated with your favorite show, thereby driving them up the motivation hierarchy."

Mistake 4: You're being a poor coach.

Solution: No more negative self-talk!

Your thoughts have energy, and the words you tell yourself have power. Always remember that. You're going to encounter setbacks and stumbles on any goal journey, but it's about how you respond to them. "Too often, clients respond with incredibly negative self-talk that can help turn a stumble into a complete fall off of the goal wagon," Hearon said.

You can avoid this by staying away from negative self-talk and also avoiding making yourself feel guilty. Guilt is a useless emotion, and does not help with motivation! Hearon suggests that the next time you are calling yourself lazy or weak, ask yourself, "Would I let someone speak to my loved one that way?"

"Think about being your own coach." This is excellent advice. Which instructor or coach do you respond best to in your favorite fitness class or sport? How do they treat you, and how do they keep you motivated? "Good coaches don't get results by simply yelling insults at athletes — instead, they acknowledge when mistakes happen and work to correct any issues that got the person off track in the first place."