How to reward yourself during MTB practice
There's a way to do it that you've likely never considered
There are two ways to affirm your progress from a practice session:
1. The Win: Recognition that you're making progress and giving yourself an extrinsic reward (for example, an ice cold beer, ice cream or chocolate, a favorite song).
2. The Effort: Recognition of your current hard work that's contributing to the progress and giving yourself an intrinsic reward (some type of self-talk).
Both can trigger a dose of dopamine, commonly known as the brain's pleasure molecule. But dopamine is also the motivation molecule, encouraging us to get MORE and to set and pursue goals.
Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman has a popular podcast called The Huberman Lab. Episode #39 of the show is titled Controlling Your Dopamine For Motivation, Focus & Satisfaction.
At the 01:37:55 mark of the episode video on YouTube is a long segment titled "Tool 7: Tuning Your Dopamine for Ongoing Motivation." If you have time, start there.
If not, jump to the 1:44:50 mark for a 3-minute segment in which he explains how to reward yourself DURING practice. The transcript of this shorter segment is below. Click here to watch the video from that point.
Andrew Huberman (transcript):
The beauty of this mesolimbic reward pathway that I talked about earlier is that it includes the forebrain, so you can tell yourself the effort part is the good part. I know it's painful, I know this doesn't feel good but I'm focused on this. I'm going to start to access the reward.
You will find the rewards, meaning the dopamine release inside of effort, if you repeat this over and over again.
And what's beautiful about it is that it starts to become reflexive for all types of effort.
When we focus only on the trophy, only on the grade, only on the win as the reward, you undermine that entire process.
So how do you do this?
You do this in those moments of the most intense friction. You tell yourself, this is very painful and because it's painful, it will evoke an increase in dopamine release later, meaning it will increase my baseline in dopamine.
But you also have to tell yourself that in that moment, you are doing it by choice and you're doing it because you love it.
And I know that sounds like lying to yourself. And in some ways it is lying to yourself, but it's lying to yourself in the context of a truth which is that you want it to feel better. You want it to feel even pleasureful.
Now this is very far and away different from thinking about the reward that comes at the end -- the hot fudge sundae after you cross the finish line (and you can replace hot fudge sundae with whatever reward happens to be appealing to you).
We revere people who are capable of doing what I'm describing. David Goggins comes to mind as a really good example. Many of you are probably familiar with David Goggins, former Navy SEAL who essentially has made a post-military career out of explaining and sharing his process of turning the effort into the reward.
There are many other examples of this too, of course. Throughout evolutionary history, there's no question that we revered people who are willing to go out and forage and hunt and gather and caretake in ways that other members of our species probably found exhausting and probably would have preferred to just put their feet up or soak them in a cool stream rather than continue to forage.
The ability to access this pleasure from effort aspect of our dopaminergic circuitry is without question, the most powerful aspect of dopamine in our biology of dopamine.
And the beautiful thing is it's accessible to all of us.
But just to highlight the things that can interfere with and prevent you from getting dopamine release from effort itself:
Don't spike dopamine prior to engaging in effort.
And don't spike dopamine after engaging in effort.
Learn to spike your dopamine from effort itself.
Huberman Lab rationale for rewarding effort during practice
Andrew Huberman suggests these benefits for using self-talk DURING practice to affirm your effort:
It triggers a dose of dopamine which is pleasurable
It makes it more likely that you'll keep working hard during that session
It makes it more likely that you'll work hard in the future
It helps prevent focusing too much on your practice goals instead of the process
Additional elements about rewards
The Huberman Lab also has a free monthly Neural Network Newsletter with "actionable information in a condensed form."
The September 2022 edition, Tools to Manage Dopamine and Improve Motivation & Drive, has some additional elements about rewards to consider in addition to the self-talk-during-effort protocol. Some excerpts:
You can use extrinsic rewards to celebrate your wins, "but do not celebrate every win. When you succeed in reaching a milestone, sometimes enjoy that; other times (at random), just keep going."
Dopamine interacts with the visual system... physically focusing your visual attention on a specific point (or “spotlight”) will help maintain focus during bouts of goal work. When you focus on a particular point, a medley of neurochemicals (dopamine, epinephrine and others) are recruited and put you into a state of readiness and clear focus.
When we layer too many sources of dopamine (e.g., pre-workout energy drinks, plus music, plus friends/social connections... it can increase dopamine and our energy and motivate us to work hard toward a goal. But stacking all these dopamine-triggering sources causes a crash afterward, ultimately undermining our longer-term motivation and continued drive. Instead, try to do some workouts without music or with just caffeine. Change it up.
Example: My self-talk during hard work
In the spring of 2022, I joined The Strenuous Life (TSL) program. The motto: Do Hard Things.
"The Strenuous Life is a structured program designed to push individuals beyond their comfort zone and develop every aspect of who they are. Adherents are expected to train their bodies with vigorous exercise, train their minds and muscles by learning new skills, and train their souls by living a life of service-seeking virtue. In short, it’s a platform designed to facilitate skill acquisition and personal development. Think of it as a scouting program for grown men."
It starts with a 12-week online boot camp called The Strenuous Life Challenge which includes weekly challenges "designed to immerse you in the habits of strenuosity." Week #1: "
Expose yourself to cold water (for at least a 5-minute stretch) every day for 7 days... The easiest way to get your cold water exposure is in the form of a shower or bath. But you can take a dip in a cold body of water too.
It was early June when I got that assignment. Since I was camping with my wife at a state park near the shores of Lake Superior, I opted for the cold water dip. But I couldn't stand the pain of staying in the water up to my neck, so I dipped under water a dozen times in 5 minutes, taking 30 seconds between dips to recover in the sun on a rock. (Speeded up video here.)
I later checked a website that monitors the lake’s water temperature, and it was 37 degrees F. So although I technically failed the challenge, the group consensus was that I passed. It was one of the physically most demanding things I've ever done.
That experience helped to create my mindset for the rest of the 12-week TSL Challenge: I can do hard things.
I got the cool medallion (above) for completing the 12-week TSL challenge. And I wear a TSL bracelet to this day as a reminder for whenever I hesitate to do something difficult that I know is good for me:
My current protocol
I didn't know about Huberman's protocol for using affirming self-talk when I did the TSL 12-week challenge.
But I began implementing it when I created my 2023 New Year's resolution to get in better physical condition. It goes like this:
I handwrite my Implementation Intention for my physical workout for the week
If I hesitate when it's time to work out, I look at my TSL bracelet and tell myself I can do hard things.
If I feel the need for an extra boost to get my ass in gear, I look at my TSL 12-week challenge medallion and remember some of the hard things I did
And now, when I'm in the middle of a hard workout, I use some of Huberman's language for my self-talk:
This is hard. Painful even. But it's my choice. I love doing this. I'm going to get a dopamine hit later as my reward. And by doing this now, I'll improve at following through on all types of hard efforts.
Now that spring has arrived, I’ve started to use this protocol for all my challenging practice sessions.
Say more about the choice you selected above. Comment below.
I’ve often used positive self talk to get me through tough workouts and practices but not as a conscious training tool or in a “reward the work not the finish” point of view, so I’m going to pay more attention to the words in using in the moment and how I can adjust them.
Incidentally, I much prefer to ask athletes how they felt about their race rather than their finish result. One, because I think empty praise of a finish result is lazy but also because I think that athletes should be more focused on how the race went rather than the finish. I suspect this is closely related to what you’re discussing here.
Also, don’t beat yourself up about whether multiple plunges versus 5min sustained submersion “counts”. In water that cold, had you forced yourself to stay in for 5min would almost certainly have resulted in hospitalization due to deep hypothermia. You wouldn’t have easily re-warmed in the trailer.