Most sports companies would have us believe that any of our fitness dreams are possible with the right kit, the right wearable and the right inspirational quotes shared with our Instagram followers. The same applies, they tell us, whether we're hoping to train for a triathlon, lose weight or just hit those 10,000 steps per day.
But according to research from a number of different fields, it might take a lot more to reach your goals than you first think. And a big part of the problem might be you and what's going on inside your head.
In the past, we've explored why tracking leads to success for some and failure for others, why goals can make or break you and why being around a team can urge some people on and cause others to crumble. These investigations all suggest that a mixture of beliefs about yourself, the world around you and everything the world might throw your way, can have a huge impact on your fitness success.
It's about recognising that it's not just the surface level stuff that's holding us back, like say lack of time, resources or energy. Instead, the reasons for your success, your failure or your general apathy are likely to run much deeper.
A fixed mindset vs a growth mindset
Initially introduced by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, the basic premise is that a fixed mindset is just that, fixed. Creativity, character, intelligence and performance are static.
In contrast, a growth mindset considers them all as flexible. The implications here are that characteristics and habits can be worked on and cultivated. So failure is a springboard to growth, not a setback, effort leads to mastery, not exhaustion, criticism helps, it doesn't hinder, the success of others inspires, it doesn't intimidate. And so on.
When you understand this, a fixed mindset is the person focused on the external stuff. How they look to others, new kit and a commitment that won't last long. A growth mindset is focused on small gains, regular, sustained commitment and more success over time.
"For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value," Carol Dweck writes.
Your beliefs about yourself and the world
Sure you could just vow to adopt a growth mindset and be done with it. But we all develop a set of beliefs about ourselves that stem way back to childhood.
In The Biochemistry of Belief, Dr. TS Sathyanarayana Rao described beliefs as "the guiding principles in life that provide direction and meaning".
We can obviously have positive, life-affirming beliefs. But it's the negative ones we want to focus on, whether you have a belief that you're weak, stupid or can't do things on your own.
These beliefs are often completely irrational, but that doesn't mean they don't crop up again and again throughout our lives and influence our actions, decision-making and view of ourselves and the world.
For example, you could get ready to train for a race. But you have a belief you can't change. You sign up for the race, you begin training and you take the necessary steps to begin. But then maybe you'll sabotage yourself, find proof from the world to give up or come up with an excuse about why you couldn't do it anyway. Sound familiar?
Is change possible?
The good news is that just because you've always had these self-limiting beliefs or bad habits doesn't mean you have to have them forever.
"One of the biggest misconceptions people often harbor is that belief is a static, intellectual concept. Nothing can be farther from truth. Beliefs are a choice. We have the power to choose our beliefs. Our beliefs become our reality," said Dr. TS Sathyanarayana Rao.
This idea is based on a relatively new scientific theory known as neuroplasticity. In his book The Brain's Way of Healing, Dr Norman Doidge describes neuroplasticity as "the property of the brain that enables it to change its own structure and functioning in response to activity and mental experience."
Which means that the brain is more than capable of creating new neural pathways and changing its beliefs and old patterns of behaviour. It just takes some effort.
Doidge believes that the answer here isn't to analyse your beliefs — unless you want to pay a fortune for years of psychotherapy. Instead you need to take steps to notice them, challenge them and even begin to replace them.
So what does this mean for our fitness goals?
Adapt your language
Laura Baudoino, co-creator of Sniper Fitness, believes language has a huge part to play when it comes to motivation and achievement.
"If people have an 'I can't' attitude they are setting themselves up for a fall straight away […] We always tell people never to say 'I can't'. We try to encourage people to believe in themselves and their ability to improve. We would rather people said they dislike or struggle with something as 99% of the time this is usually the case," she told us.
In his book Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, calls this internal chatter your "explanatory style". He writes: "your explanatory style is more than just the words you mouth when you fail. It is a habit of thought."
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Seligman's view was that in order to change not just our words but our explanatory style, we must better learn how to label events in our head.
He believes people who are pessimistic and more likely to give up often think things are pervasive (it's terrible), personal (they caused it to happen) and permanent (it'll always happen).
So in the context of weight loss and dieting setback, a pervasive explanatory style would say "there's no point trying to change", a personal one would be "I'm a failure" and finally permanent would be "diets never work."
To switch this up you could instead see the opposite. "Change is always possible", "this paleo diet doesn't suit me, another will" and "this paleo diet didn't work for me this time, I'll find another that will soon."
The difference between these statements is huge.
Accepting failure is a key part of adopting Dweck's growth mindset and leaning into what Martin Seligman calls "learned optimism" instead of the opposite, which is "learned helplessness."
It also has huge implications when it comes to fitness goals and making self-promoting choices. We are all bound to make mistakes or face minor setbacks but often it's how we deal with them that counts.
According to Kim Ingleby, mind and body coach for Team GB, "when you experience failure it's normal to feel cross, angry, frustrated and emotional.
"Let that happen and pass, then reflect and take the opportunity that failure gives you. What can you learn about not achieving your goal?"
Just like Ingleby, Seligman believes in the power of separating emotion from belief. So he claims it's alright to feel sad about something that you consider a setback or failure. But resist attaching a belief of "I'm sad because I'm incompetent" or "I'm sad because I'm always a failure."
"When we encounter adversity, we react by thinking about it," he explained. "Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs. These beliefs may become so habitual we don't even realise we have them unless we stop and focus on them."
There's no one-size-fits-all approach
This is just a snapshot into what's going on below the surface when it comes to performance, motivation and self-esteem. Of course, there's no one-size-fits-all approach. Everyone learns at a different pace, has different beliefs and different experiences.
Armed with a lot more awareness, you can start to really question whether you might be getting in your own way when it comes to change, hitting your goals and committing to training. But although it's invaluable to get more insights into why you might be experiencing roadblocks in your head, the important thing now is to actually take the steps to remove them.