Willpower And Self-Control

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

When we talk about discipline, we’re really talking about self-control and willpower. The American Psychological Association defines self-discipline as “the control of one’s impulses and desires, forgoing immediate satisfaction in favor of long-term goals.” In other words, making sacrifices today so that you can achieve what you want to tomorrow. 

Whether it’s passing up a few extra hours of sleep to run before work or resisting the urge to sit in the chair too long at mile 75 of a 100-miler, training and racing constantly require using willpower to make the decisions that are most consistent with our goals. At its core, willpower is acting in accordance with your goals and values even if you don’t feel like it or if part of you doesn’t want to. Some people talk about willpower as if it’s something you either have or don’t have when it’s something we all have the ability to enhance and strengthen. 

We’ll get to the part where I offer some tips on how to do that, but first, it’s helpful to understand self-control and why it’s hard for us. Not too many generations of humans ago, our tasks for survival were relatively simple – eat, reproduce, and avoid the various environmental threats that endangered survival. Other than that, life was pretty simple. 

However, as our species progressed and continued to operate in tribes that developed into communities and then entire civilizations we needed a new skill – the ability to engage, cooperate, and plan with others. Doing that required the ability to override instincts and impulses and consider what is best for the future. Over time, our brains have gotten better and more efficient at decision making and considering different scenarios. The challenge is that the old system wasn’t just erased and sometimes we still feel intense urges and desires that may conflict with our values. That doesn’t mean you have to give in into them, and the following strategies will help you strengthen your willpower muscle. 

Know Your Triggers

When you have big goals and you are putting in the time to get there, you’re going to be confronted with things that challenge your commitment. Some of those things aren’t avoidable. No matter which way you look at it, training is time-consuming and you’re going to have to make sacrifices. However, there are some triggers that make that harder than it needs to be. 

For example, you may notice that you have a really hard time sticking to your training when you plan your runs for after work. It may be easier to convince yourself that you don’t have time because you would have to miss dinner with your family or that you’re too tired because you had a stressful day. Even though you may not like getting up early to run before work, there could be fewer temptations during that time of day and you might be more likely to stay consistent with training. Avoid situations where you give yourself an easy out. 

Accept It 

It’s easy to convince yourself that more committed athletes just don’t struggle with self-control or willpower. Maybe their brains are just wired differently and it’s not hard for them to resist the urge to press the snooze button or cut a run short. That’s simply not true. In the decades that I’ve spent around high-level athletes, I can tell you that they struggle with self-control just like everyone else. The difference is that they accept the urges and distractions without believing that they need to react to them. You can learn to coexist with the thoughts and feelings that threaten to derail you from the path to your goals. Self-control and discipline are about learning to live according to your values regardless of the things that threaten the journey. Accepting that, rather than fighting it, frees up a lot of mental and emotional space to redirect to somewhere more productive. 


I know, I know…another article telling you that meditation is good for you. But, hear me out. The purpose of meditation isn’t always to get better at meditating. The goal is to get better at noticing when you’re distracted and then redirecting your attention to somewhere more intentional. Does that mean you experience fewer distractions? Nope, not necessarily. But, it means you get better at recognizing when your focus would be better served on something else. Self-control and discipline operate the same. Just because you may get briefly distracted by the urge to stay in bed or binge on Netflix instead of getting in your workout doesn’t mean you actually have to do it. Notice it. Acknowledge it. And, shift your attention to where you want it to be. 

There’s no way to eliminate all the various temptations that will try to convince you that they are worth tossing your goals out the window. But, let’s be honest – we are trail runners so a willingness to do hard things is the price of entry. Implementing these strategies can help make your self-control and willpower a little bit more reliable. 

Addie is a professional ultra trail runner, coach, and sport psychology consultant helping athletes of all ages and abilities to prepare for the mental demands of competing through her practice, Strive Mental Performance

Want to Know What It Takes to Finish at Western States? Just Ask Hellah Sidibe.

Find out what happened when this six-year run streaker and HOKA Global Athlete Ambassador took on an iconic ultramarathon in California's Sierra Nevada