10 Strategies for Motivating the Recreational Athlete

by Eve Fleck, MS on Feb 01, 2013

Skills and Drills

Help push participants past self-imposed boundaries.

You know the ones. Their commitment is inspiring. They consistently show up to class and work hard to master everything you throw at them. Where do you take them next? How can they move past their plateaus to reach the next level of fitness? These students are ready to be athletes—all they need is a push from you.

What Is a Recreational Athlete?

An athlete is trained or gifted in tasks of physical agility, stamina and strength. A competitive athlete uses these skills to compete and win in various sporting events. A recreational athlete aims to become fitter and stronger—a better version of him- or herself. Anyone who is persistent in overcoming physical and emotional boundaries to achieve a new level of fitness can become an athlete, regardless of current ability. Whether it’s a recently sedentary individual beginning to add hills or brief jogging intervals to his walks, or an already conditioned client eager for the next fitness challenge—it’s the push past the person’s imagined boundaries that defines athletic status.

Elite athletes are successful partly because they are willing to train at more intense levels than an average person. Recreational exercisers can also become “athletes” by learning how to train outside their comfort zones, thus improving their agility, stamina and strength. In the recreational setting, however, exercisers tend to stay below their lactate threshold, where it’s “comfortable,” and the fitness levels they hunger for remain just out of reach.

Causes of Physical Fatigue

To motivate someone to train at a higher level of discomfort, you must first be able to explain why this is an important thing to do. Performance enhancements can continue even after improvements in aerobic capacity have leveled off. One way to achieve this is with interval training, which hit the mainstream around the same time indoor cycling became popular. Since then, high-intensity interval training programs, boot camps and Tabata have spurred a trend toward harder training. For interval training to be effective, students must exercise above the lactate threshold. Muscles will be burning, and participants will be breathless and uncomfortable. However, even within these more intense protocols, students tend to want to remain in their comfort zones. This brings us to the concept of mental fatigue.

Causes of Mental Fatigue

Fatigue has a psychological component as well as a physiological one. If you take someone working her “hardest” in an exercise interval and tell her to push a little harder for the last 10 seconds of the interval, chances are she’ll do it. This shows that physiological fatigue is not the only thing at work. Psychological motivation was powerful enough to overcome her perceived boundary. This knowledge is key during interval training.

Exercise physiologist Tim Noakes, PhD, has written about the brain’s perception of an exercise acting as the “central governor” in fatigue. This means that while physiological fatigue seems to limit your ability, in reality the brain determines when you quit (Noakes 2007). Moreover, your perception of an exercise’s difficulty affects your judgment as to how well you can handle the challenge.

Think of a person who can normally lift a certain amount of weight comfortably. One day the weight feels heavier and he struggles to lift it. On a different day there is a group of young athletes in the weight room and suddenly he is able to lift the weight more easily than usual. These day-to-day differences aren’t necessarily due to physical changes; they can often be attributed to mental shifts.

Using this idea, as athletes commonly do, we can motivate ourselves and our students to adjust their perceived limitations. This allows exercisers to achieve things they never thought possible, which is the basis of progress. What methods are most effective for motivating clients to alter their perceptions of exercise intensity?

Qualities of Effective Instructors

Effective instructors and trainers are attuned to their students and know exactly what to say or do to motivate them to push past their comfort zones. To do this successfully, leaders must know various methods of motivation and adjust their approach based on students’ needs. In general, leaders are divided into three categories: authoritarian, democratic and laissez-faire. An authoritarian leader dictates (“Do 10 more push-ups!”), while a democratic leader involves the group in decisions (“How many more times should we turn the knob on the bike?”). In the laissez-faire method, no one is in a defined leadership role (“Let’s go for a walk together”).

Authoritarian leadership styles tend to be more effective with interval training because if decisions were left to participants, they would probably decide to stop! Within the authoritarian leadership style, however, there are many different ways to motivate people, and no one tactic will work for everyone. It’s best to have several in your arsenal and to know your students so you can tell which method will work best at any given time. Let’s look at some motivation techniques to use in class.

10 Motivation Strategies

1. Music. Music has been shown to lower ratings of perceived exertion (Mohammadzadeh, Tartibiyan & Ahmadi 2008). When music is playing during exercise, there is less of a response from the sympathetic nervous system, which means lower levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine, as well as a lower heart rate. People can be exercising at a certain level, but their bodies are responding as if the work were easier, so they don’t feel as fatigued.

2. Voice modulation. Have you ever been in a class where the instructor never modulated her voice? She either kept the same monotonous, emotionless voice throughout the workout, or she never stopped yelling? It’s not very motivating. It’s more motivating when the instructor’s voice adjusts to the intensity of the exercise. During short bursts of intense work, the instructor’s voice should change—often by getting louder or simply more intense or excited. During recovery times the instructor’s voice can even lower to a whisper to mimic the expected intensity level. Students want to know that the instructor is engaged, is going along with them for the ride and can empathize with what they’re feeling.

3. Proximity. When you are near your students, their intensity level seems to skyrocket. When you turn your back, they slack off. Use this to your advantage by canvassing the room. Give each person some attention and help everyone achieve that feeling of breathlessness and discomfort. Point out that feeling, and ask students to push to that level even when you are not watching. Once they have experienced that level of intensity, it will be easier for them to find it and achieve it later.

4. Calling out. When you can’t get to all of your students, another option is to call out names. “Great job, David!” will be enough to let David know you’re watching him. Other eyes may be drawn to him at that point as well, and he will be motivated to pick up his intensity. Be cautious with this one, however, and know your students. Some people do not like to be called out.

5. Focus. You might think that calling attention to internal cues, such as exercise technique, would help students maintain their intensity. However, studies have shown that focusing externally, on things such as time remaining or distance left to travel, produces better performance (Barwood et al. 2009). Theoretically, this means the brain can be distracted and is then less able to pick up on fatigue cues from the body. This results in a lower level of perceived exertion.

6. Counting down. “10 more seconds!” may be exactly the encouragement someone needs when she is about to give up. This is a perfect example of using an external focus as a motivator. Not knowing how much time is left in an interval can have a negative impact on perceived intensity level. Knowing there are only 5 or 10 seconds left can energize someone who is losing focus.

7. Word choice. Choosing powerful words can have a significant effect on your students. Build up their confidence and motivation by using words that elicit positive emotions and images. Words such as strong, athletic, determined, successful, energetic and focus can be very inspirational.

8. Group dynamics. There’s a reason why group exercise classes are so popular. Many people are not willing to work as hard on their own as they do in a group setting. If they were, everyone would exercise at home with videos. Even personal trainers can increase client motivation by bringing in a partner or a small group to enhance the social aspect of motivation.

9. Goals. In the middle of an intense interval, a student may be focusing on her discomfort, not thinking about her goals. Use this opportunity to remind her why she is there. If you’re aware of her specific goals, take advantage of that by reminding her, “I know you’re trying to lose weight for your wedding, Sarah. Now is your chance to move toward that goal!”

Even if you don’t know specific goals, you can still say, “Why are you here? Something made you get out of bed this morning and come to class.” It’s safe to assume that most people want to get fitter and stronger. Remind them that every repetition is an opportunity to improve. Help students set goals by providing pre- and post-test measurements for various exercises. Test participants monthly and have them set goals and monitor their improvement.

10. Rewards. Offer students rewards when they meet their goals. Examples include a free session, a club T-shirt or simply an in-class announcement of their achievements. Keep in mind, though, that there’s an intrinsic (internal) reward for meeting one’s goals, and this should be the main focus. Next, have students readjust their goals and continue moving forward.

There are many ways to motivate people to achieve more than they think is possible, but the best idea is to know your students and adjust your methods to meet their needs. Students always have the final say in how far they are willing to push themselves. They know their bodies best, and only they know what they are truly experiencing. Always modify when needed and praise students for what they can do. Emphasize that every day brings a chance for improvement.


Barwood, M.J., et al. 2009. A motivational music and video intervention improves high-intensity exercise performance. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 8, 435–42.

Mohammadzadeh, H., Tartibiyan, B., & Ahmadi, A. 2008. The effects of music on the perceived exertion rate and performance of trained and untrained individuals during progressive exercise. Physical Education and Sport, 6 (1), 67–74.

Noakes, T. 2007. The central governor model of exercise regulation applied to the marathon. Sports Medicine, 37 (4–5), 374–77.

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About the Author

Eve Fleck, MS

Eve Fleck, MS IDEA Author/Presenter

Eve Fleck, MS, holds a master's degree in exercise physiology and is the owner of Gym Without Walls, an outdoor fitness program in Los Angeles, California. She uses creative class structures to train multiple fitness levels in the same session and encourages parents to let their kids in on the fun! Eve also specializes in the practical application of scientific concepts through lectures, workshops, articles, and "real world" classes. Eve has been active in the fitness industry as a researcher, author, presenter, university lecturer, instructor, and Reebok Master trainer for almost 20 years. Certifications: ACE and NASM