Young woman running in city center

Willpower. Self-discipline. Determination. Focus. Dedication. Anyone who has spent time seeking to improve athletic performance has heard these words and is aware of their importance. When it comes down to it, these words are often used to describe one key idea: your mindset is a major player when it comes to working towards goals. The mental aspect of running in particular is so important. Your perspective in training and in keeping up your fitness is a make-or-break in whether or not you achieve success. 

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Kim Dawson is a professor in sports psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University and a mental skills consultant based out of Waterloo, Ont. To do a little homework for runners beginning spring race training blocks, we chatted with her to learn about self-dedication. Here are four take-home points: 

Your level of determination is in your genes.

Some people are born with a high level of willpower, others… not so much. “Genetically, there are certainly some who better adhere than others,” says Dawson. “It’s part of the personality profile how self-determined we are.” Notice that there are a few members of the family who never seem to skip a workout or sleep in and who always have a personal project on the go? It could be a result of nature. If you were born with a natural high level of self-determination, feel lucky. 

RELATED: Six mental tricks to keep you on top of your game

You can strengthen willpower by changing your environment.

If you weren’t born as an intrinsically motivated person, you’re not a lost cause. A person’s self-discipline and focus can be changed by altering the environment. How do you apply that to running? “Become more aware and recognize what you get for yourself out of [physical] activity,” says Dawson. What you personally gain from running? Perhaps you run to feel more calm afterwards. Maybe it’s the connection you get with others or that you become an overall more relaxed person. But say you’re someone who isn’t motivated by having a race on the calendar. Scrap that and change the environment to instead focus on the aforementioned positives. 

Most people need external motivation.

Don’t feel bad if you don’t naturally embody that get-up-and-go attitude at all times. As Dawson explains, there are three camps when it comes to self-dedication. Those who have strong levels of dedication don’t need an external motivation (such as the post-run reward, praise from running partners or being able to say you’ve run a marathon). Those people, just do it for themselves. A step down from that is the group who can practice self-dedication but they need a reward of some kind (i.e. external motivation). Most people fall into that camp. The third group really struggles with commitment. If that’s you, emphasizing health consequences that occur from skipping out on physical activity might be the motivation to get you going. 

When self-control is lacking, respect future you.

If in winter, the willpower has just evaporated, Dawson suggests that the best thing to do is think of how your actions impact yourself come May. “Now your focus is future self. Be kind to future self. That’s going to be you who has to toe the line,” says Dawson. Think of it as a big project. If you don’t chip away at it day by day, it becomes a huge and daunting task. Don’t let the problem become a big one. “How you keep it a small problem is by doing something,” Dawson says. 


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