How Do I Develop More Willpower to Train Hard?

askYSB SquareIn today’s #AskYourSwimBook we tackle something I receive emails about all the time. Not only does it seem to be a common issue within the subscribers to the newsletter, but it is something that I still struggle with on occasion.

There are days where the last thing I want to do is train. I simply can’t gather up the willpower to train as hard as I know I should. Why are there those days that I have no willpower to do the right things for my training, and then other days I have willpower to spare?

Jenni W.


Why does our willpower desert us?

Why does it only show up sometimes, and then others it is nowhere to be seen?

And more importantly, what are the conditions for willpower to grow wildly so that we can never ever go without it and achieve all the crazy-awesome things we want to accomplish in the pool?

how do i develop more willpower to train hard(1)

There are lots of times where our willpower saves us…

We are able to say no to that last cookie. We are able to turn off Netflix before the next episode of one of our favorite television shows automatically starts. We put our phone away for the night even though we are anticipating a return text.

Then there are times when that willpower is nowhere to be found…

When we are fading hard at the end of a set and our technique is falling apart like a two dollar sweater. When it is 11:45pm and you know you should be in bed sleeping for an early AM call but you can’t pry yourself from the TV. When it is an hour before practice and the last thing you want to do is show up early and complete a missed dryland.

There are a couple different reasons your willpower is inconsistent…

A lack of sleep and rest can play a bigger factor than you realize.

While your muscles can run on low sleep with minimal impairment or loss of peak function (for up to 4 days on 2.5 hours of rest according to this research), all it takes is one night of low sleep to affect you mentally.

You know what I am talking about:

One bad night of sleep and you are a cranky little swimmer for the rest of the day.

(I am mega guilty of this.)

Battling tiredness is exhausting, and requires extra energy over the course of the day. And even though you might be able to swim at a peak level, your psychomotor function is significantly impaired (Sinnerton & Reilly, 1992), leading to increased tension, depression and an increased level of perceived effort. (In other words, doing the times you would normally do feels extra difficult.)

Being tired also leads to poorer decision making.

You might know this as the “ah, screw it” reaction—when all you can think about is how tired you are the last thing you want to focus on is doing the right things for your training.

All you wanna do is survive the day and get back to your pillow.

So get your Z’s.

Not only will they make you less of a cranky pants, and give you the ability to swim like gangbusters, but you will be able to make better decisions.

You are not making the things you want to achieve in the pool habitual.

Habits, habits, habits.

If you have been even just a casual visitor to my articles you know that I live and breathe habits. (Bing, bang, bing-bang, bong.)

Good workout habits are the closest thing we have to putting ourselves on auto-pilot, of creating a powerful override switch that bypasses the need to be motivate, or to summon willpower.

They dictate the important parts of our training for us so that we don’t need to get mentally jacked up to will ourselves past difficult and trying moments in our lives and our training.

For example:

  • If you create the habit of going to be every night at 11pm no matter what, you don’t need to convince yourself to turn off the TV. You just do it.
  • If you create the habit of showing up an hour early before practice to do extra core and mobility work you don’t need to work yourself up to do it. You just show up early.

Habits have the funny effect of removing the need to use willpower and motivation altogether.

Which means that you can use that leftover willpower for other things in your life, like choosing not to go back for seconds after you dummy a large bag of butter-soaked popcorn at the movie theatre.

(And no, I am totally not describing myself in this scenario…ahem.)

Putting it all together

Don’t underestimate the power of the 1-2 punch of good sleeping habits and, err, good habits.

Sure, they might not be the latest and greatest in physiology hacks, but they are proven, reliable, and things that you can implement into your swimming starting today.

(Yes, today. Not tomorrow.)

Got a swimming question you’d like answered?

Send in your question via our newsletter (if you aren’t a subscriber here’s the deal: it’s free, you get two motivational emails a week, and it’s kinda sorta awesome), or hit us up on Twitter @yourswimbook.

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Olivier Poirier-Leroy Olivier Poirier-Leroy is the founder of He is an author, former national level swimmer, two-time Olympic Trials qualifier, and swim coach.

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