Something Amazing Happens to Your Willpower When You Train

Willpower is the ability to make choices about what you will do and what you will not do. It’s the capacity to live life in the active voice, with intention and purpose. Though we can all agree willpower is a good thing, a lot of us have trouble accessing it.

But what happens to our willpower when we commit to a long-range goal like participating in a triathlon or riding a century?

Life Without a Plan

When you’re passively engaged in day-to-day life without a purpose or long-range plan, you are subject to your instinctual demands for immediate gratification. The discomforts and uncertainties of our lives ask us to stimulate our pleasure centers in the most immediate way possible, often with food, drugs or alcohol. 

But when we actively engage the will—in this case, by signing up for an endurance event—we can resist those impulses. When your brain thinks about a gooey donut and says, “Feed me! Feed me now!” we are able to pause and say, “Wait a minute, how does the gooey donut influence my goal?”

Maybe that donut actually does fit into the overall plan of a 100K training ride at about mile 50 or after you cross the finish line. But consuming it is part of a plan, not a random, reward-seeking act.

In this case, willpower is not an instrument of self-denial, but is rather an instrument of discrimination. When we are passively engaged, we light up with anticipation at the thought of a donut’s sweet goodness and react to it by eating one. When we are actively engaged, our willpower helps us think through the decision more clearly.

Finding the Reason Why

When we commit to a long-range goal, willpower gains an ally that helps us know what must be done in order to get there, day-by-day, week-by-week and month-by-month. If you’ve decided to forego drinking alcohol while you train, you now have a reason why, and you are no longer struggling with feeling deprived.

We now have a reason to workout, eat right and get enough sleep. One element supports the next. If you are training effectively, you are tired at night and ready to sleep. If you are burning calories, you want the right food, but don’t want so much that you are uncomfortable. At work, you are more efficient because you are not struggling with lethargy from lack of exercise, a cortisol-laden nervous system or lack of sleep.

What’s amazing is these goal-oriented behaviors that emphasize good diet, plenty of sleep and exercise do not necessarily require an act of the will. Sure, some days are more difficult than others, but on the whole, you are simply following a plan, and the plan dictates your choices.

Willpower is a phenomenal tool to aid you in pursuit of living the good life. Strengthening it is most certainly a worthwhile thing to do, but you can give it an immediate boost by signing up for an event or creating a new training plan. When that is done, the work necessary to reach the goal almost—almost—becomes easy.

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