I've had a couple of conversations recently with athletes who are struggling with motivation. January can be a tough month, especially when you take a solid "off season" and don't train a lot through the holidays. I think the biggest issue is that when you're not super fit, training sessions don't feel great. Instead, they are a struggle. Maybe you remember your old paces and watts from when you were fit, and you can't hit those now, and heart rate is higher than it should be, and you just feel like garbage.
So then when it comes time to train, you're not super stoked to go. You pretty much have to force it. Because it isn't fun. And races feel really far off. So maybe you skip it. Which just makes it harder to go next time. It's not getting better so you're not training as much as you're "supposed to", but why bother training when it's not working anyway? You're not getting faster and it's not fun. Screw it.
That's negative momentum!
Contrast that with maybe accepting that you took an extended off season and your fitness isn't where it used to be. To get it back you realize that you're going to have to suck it up and pay your dues and deal with the crappy feeling for a while. But you trust that if you do the right work and you do it often enough that it will start to feel better and your paces/watts will improve and your heart rate will come back down and ta-dah! It will feel good again! Once this takes place it's quite easy to get out the door to go train because training once again becomes like an addictive drug. The more you do (to a point) the better you feel.
That's great momentum!
Training is so much easier when you're on a roll. When I've got good momentum I find myself making better choices about sleep and nutrition as well, and when those two factors are on point they serve to further stimulate positive training adaptations. So clearly, the key is maintaining positive momentum. The first step, I think, is just starting. From wherever you are, you just start. And go easy enough in your first sessions that you're able to handle them and not feel too trashed. Then go back out again tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. And if you don't judge yourself too harshly about where you're at, instead just keep chipping away, you're likely to find that one day you feel GREAT.
I'm not yet at the point where I feel GREAT with my swimming and biking (or let's be honest, running) but I have seen some positive signs the last few days. Yesterday I swam and while most of the session was pretty relaxed, it included a total of 3x200's *hard* and I managed to do those all in times that felt somewhat satisfying. Today I rode my bike and while I wasn't watching watts or heart rate, I could totally tell that I had different legs than I had last week. Sometimes its nice when numbers confirm that we are heading in the right direction, but sometimes it's also perfectly fine to just know that you felt stronger. Seeing/feeling progress is motivating, and it supports positive momentum, which results in more consistent work, which results in achieving goals. You just have to start.