motivation · training

Measurements, counting, and motivation


I’ve been thinking about the role of measuring and counting in motivation today.

Since I posted about speed and the burpee challenge here, I’ve been wondering what’s a reasonable number of burpees to do in a minute. LiveStrong suggested 30 but that seems impossible to me. I said I thought 20 seemed like a good goal. So when the challenge is done that’s still only five minutes of burpees a day.

But what’s funny is that a minute of burpees seems oddly easier than doing 15, even though in my last minute I did 17. And that’s strange. I wasn’t about to stop. The clock was running!

I think I might be the same way if I were timing how long it took me to do 15 burpees.

But to just set out and do 15 with no timer…that’s hard! Sometimes when I just set out to do 15, I change my mind and settle for 10, putting off the additional 5 till bedtime. And that’s silly.

A few years ago I bought a simple timer for doing Tabata style workouts. There a good Guardian article about them here. They’re hard. But again, for me, without the timer they wouldn’t work at all.

CrossFit uses both these styles of measurement. Some workouts have a fixed time and you do “as many reps as possible” (AMRAP) in that time. Other workouts have a set number of things you need to do and then you do them “for time.” This helps you compare your past performance with your current performance and track improvement.

Now I have a timer on my smart phone and an android app for logging Cross Fit workouts. I always have my “Fran” time close at hand.

I’m not sure why measuring and counting has such a great motivational effect. With timing, I think I just tell myself that I can do anything for a 20 seconds or a minute and with more minutes, I try to pace myself.

Pacing is key in athletic performance. A flying lap at our local velodrome takes under 10 seconds but you want to have nothing left, to go all out for those seconds. A 500 metre sprint takes longer but still under a minute but you don’t want to run out of steam before that minute is up but you also don’t want anything left in the tank.

So measured workouts aren’t just motivational, they’re also educational as they teach you what your body can do.

How about for you? Do the numbers help or hurt your motivation? Do you like to count and measure? I see some people at the gym who cover up their treadmill information screen that gives them speed and timer data but those people kind of baffle me.

Try it and see what works. Compare a) just do 20 burpees with b) 20 burpees for time and with c) what’s the highest number of burpees you can do in a minute?

Which is most motivational? Which is the least?

I know that for me both options “b” and “c” beat out “a” big time. But then I’m a bit of a data geek when it comes to fitness. So is Natalie who guest posted on our blog about why counting makes her geeky heart happy.

13 thoughts on “Measurements, counting, and motivation

  1. I want to know my numbers! I always want to know.

    When I swam competitively, we had huge analog clocks on the wall with big, coloured arms. When we did interval training, the first thing a swimmer did upon completing a sprint was check that clock.

    When I trained seriously for running, our coach timed our intervals for us. And yelled them out as we crossed the finish line. And kept a record. And told us exactly how many seconds he expected us to shave off the next one.

    In roller derby, one of the skill standards we have to meet is a timed trial: how many laps can you skate in five minutes? We don’t have a clock large enough for the skaters to see, so we rely on a teammate standing on the side of the track to time the test for us. It drives me crazy when we hand the stopwatch to a fresh meat skater and she neglects to call out the time every minute. Or call out the halfway point. Or, during that final minute, tell us when we have 30 seconds left, 15, 10, 5… It also makes me crazy when the person counting my laps doesn’t count out loud. (Although this is mostly so I know she hasn’t become distracted and missed a lap. I count my own laps in my head.)

    If I’m not given my numbers while I’m skating my time trial I obsess over the missing information to the extent that it distracts me from concentrating on my skating form. But we’ve had skaters ask not to be told. It baffles me too.

  2. I absolutely must have something to count and measure. And for a long (more than a few minutes) activity, I want to see a countdown clock of some kind. Just doing something until the timer goes off feels like eternity; the same amount of time with a countdown is completely manageable.

    When I started doing Cto5K, I counted steps in my head. That was fine for 90-second and 3-minute run intervals, but after that it’s too many steps to count. Now that I play music while I run, I count songs. My husband, on the other hand, counts nothing and never looks at the clock. IMO he’s mentally ill 🙂

    I suppose it depends on whether one is doing an activity for fitness/achievement, or just doing it for enjoyment. When I go on a nice long walk I don’t count anything or time anything.

  3. Doing repetitions of something is clearly motivational for me or at least, keeps me on track.
    I did track my cumulative mileage for cycling in a little journal. For the first few years of returning to cycling in my early 30’s. Then gradually, I just dropped it. Then about 7-9 years later I didn’t bother putting in my cyclometer on my handlebar. I got tired of remembering to remove it after I locked up my bike.

    So in short, I know:
    *that some years I’ve cycled cumulatively up to 7,000 km (being unemployed for certain periods jacks up the numbers)
    *on average 3-5,000 km annually. It just depends on the year and type of touring of trips thrown in with daily work commuting rides, local fitness rides.

    Cycling is part of my lifestyle and being car-free, in a way one doesn’t think of cycling just as exercise all the time to stay on the bike. I just often don’t have a choice! Sometimes it is the best way to get to particular destination if the buses don’t penetrate into certain neighbourhoods, etc.

    My motivation for cycling has changed. It’s the lifestyle, not the mileage. It’s the freedom, not the mileage.
    My weight has generally been the same for the last 10-15 yrs.

  4. I love my numbers. It helps me know if I am improving. Without some kind of measurement, I won’t ever strive to achieve more. Besides, seeing good numbers gives me that great rush of accomplishment.

    1. Yes, I’m the same. I’m now running a 1 min timer for burpees. LiveStrong says to aim for 30. That might be out of my reach. 15 is easy, so I’m aiming for 20 and then maybe 25.

    2. I really only care about time when interval training. Most of the time, I want to see the time because my intervals are for the most part timed. But sometimes, when performing longer intervals, I don’t look at the clock but rather think of racing toward someone I know – the goal being to get to them. And I push myself to make it to them really as fast as I possibly can for as long as I can bear it – and then I look at the clock to see how long I was able to sustain the all-out sprint. I then ususally slow down big time for the same amount of time – sometimes a bit longer, before going again. Making it a bit of a game in this way, just affords me the opportunity to change things up. So I think these things can largely depend on the mindset you put yourself in, and of course, your own particular goals, as well as the type of training exercise in which you are engaged.

  5. I used to use how my body felt as a measure and that was good enough until recently. I injured my back and now my appropriate maximum effort has nothing to do with how exhausted I am after a workout (if I push to my muscle and endurance max, I’ll be in spasms for days). I was finding this depressing until I started measuring my progress. It really helps my mindset to see that I can swim faster (without incurring back spasms) now than I could a month ago, and reminds me that I am on the road to recovery.

  6. In answer to your question, I find c) the most motivating. I also find that the most motivating for work as well (thanks Tracy for putting me on to the pomodoro technique).

  7. For me measurements are a blessing and a curse. When I’m watching the numbers, I feel tired a lot sooner and take breaks more often. On the other hand, I’m just starting to row again after about a year of relative inactivity, and seeing my speed and distance increase feels amazing.

    My compromise has been to see how many strokes it takes to travel 100m, calculate in my head how many strokes will be needed to go 1,500m, and then count down the distance in strokes. It keeps my brain occupied with numbers, and for some reason the math never comes out right so I have a hard time pinning my exhaustion to a specific number.

    1. Lots of counting in rowing. And some tricky math too. I find it a bit perplexing at first. Do a 2 km test. Get your 500 m split and go from there. But then is it plus 5 or plus 6 for a given work out? I’d get started and then forget. Tricky. Good luck getting back at it! I’m just learning.

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