Is Your Personality Sabotaging Your Fitness Goals?

I am an extrovert.

I’ve taken a personality test periodically over the years and took it again last week because it’s helpful to think about as I’m planning my team’s offsite at work. A light bulb went off in my head midway through the 64 questions.

“No. 32. The more people you speak to, the better you feel.”

Over the course of the six months since my first marathon, I’ve been distracted in my training and finding it harder to achieve a sense of well being or even an endorphin rush after a long run or a workout. And instead of being exhilarated after crossing the finish line at a half marathon at the beach, on a gorgeous, sunny day, two weeks ago, I was disappointed with my performance and unusually moody.

Worse, I’m skipping exercise sessions, sometimes even several days in a row, so I’m not getting the benefits of exercise that are so important to my health – both for now and for the long term – and for my performance at work and in my relationships.

People whose personalities are high in motivation/self-control can experience a severe let down after a big race, said Chris Friesen, an author and Ph.D. clinical psychologist who specializes in sport and performance psychology.

“To feel normal, you need goals, to know what’s next.”

On top of that, for extroverts like me, life just doesn’t feel right without the external stimulation of working with a team and training for a race, Friesen said.

I told Friesen in our telephone conversation about the exercise professionals – my squad – who helped me cross the finish line at my first marathon and how I’ve made it a goal since then to self-train and self-coach. Meaning I stopped working with a trainer or a running coach, and I don’t have any sessions scheduled with my sports nutritionist.

My mantra: I can do this.

I came across Friesen’s new book, Achieve, and reached out to him for additional insight. In Friesen’s practice as director of Friesen Sport & Performance Psychology in Ontario, Canada, he uses the Five-Factor Model of personality, also known as the Big Five, to help his clients find the best strategies to achieve their personal goals critical to their athletic or business success.

Friesen said these five personality traits – better known as dimensions in the psychology world because each trait is made up of sub-traits – are normally distributed within the population. This distribution is in the classic bell-shaped curve with most people falling near the middle. However, most of us tend to fall either above or below the middle point, he said, and where we fall on each of the five personality dimensions has no relationship to where we fall on the others.

So having an awareness of where we are on the continuum is critical to finding what works for us and what doesn’t. And for my purposes here, in order to achieve my fitness goals.

The Big Five and Why They Matter

1. Negative emotions

I know these sound like something you don’t want to have, but, according to Friesen, most professional and elite athletes are high in negative emotions, meaning they are susceptible to feeling anxiety, self-consciousness, irritability, and sadness. People who are high in negative emotions tend to be cautious.

Many successful musicians, actors, and writers also tend to be high in negative emotions, because these emotions foster creativity and passion. It’s hard to write a gripping novel with characters who are anxious if you don’t have a lot of those feelings yourself, Friesen said.

People who are high in negative emotions regardless of where they fall on the other four personality dimensions, Friesen said, are prone to making prevention-focused goals. In other words, these are people who make goals to prevent bad things from happening. For example, you work out because you’re afraid if you don’t you’re going to die of a heart attack because your father had one at your age.

“If you’re high in negative emotions, to motivate yourself, you think of the negative things that will happen if you don’t reach your goal or take an action,” Friesen said.

Not surprisingly, I am low in negative emotions and relatively cool under pressure. I experience anxiety or self-consciousness infrequently, and I’m not very creative or artistic.

2. Extroversion, or a person’s tolerance for external stimulation

Friesen said you can think of an extroverted person’s brain as a car engine that’s naturally revving too low. In order to feel normal, the person would need to seek more external stimulation, whether it’s doing exercise or talking to people. In the psychology world, the trait is commonly known as “extraversion,” which I find interesting because I’m probably extra-extroverted anyway.

People who are more introverted, or who have a low tolerance for external stimulation, have a brain that’s revving high naturally, and too much external stimulation makes them feel overwhelmed, he said.

People like me who have a high tolerance for external stimulation will stick to an exercise routine if there’s a social or exciting aspect to it, such as working out at the gym or running on a busy trail or joining an Ironman or Tri club to train for a race.

People who have a low tolerance for external stimulation, like Friesen, prefer to work out on their own. When they’re at the gym, they may gravitate to a quiet place within the training area or prefer a time when the club is less busy.

My first trainer used to start every session asking me if I’d had a chance to do my treadmill runs on the Woodway, a superior piece of equipment on the third floor of the gym as opposed to the regular treadmills on the main training floor.

“Just stop,” I finally said.

“It’s not going to happen.”

It’s physically impossible for me to run even half a mile on a treadmill in isolation no matter how great that machine is for my hips. I need to run on a treadmill surrounded by other people running on a treadmill.

Preferably next to me.

On both sides.

Friesen said people who have my profile – low in negative emotions and high in extroversion – tend to make promotion-focused goals. This means the trick to getting ourselves motivated isn’t to think of all the bad things that can happen if we don’t reach our goals, but rather to think of all the good things that will happen when we do.

We’re less afraid to take risks and don’t typically sweat the small stuff. We come up with big goals with the possibility of big payoffs. The bad part is we tend to underestimate the risks and the hard work in achieving the goal.

3. Openness to experience

People (like me) who are high in openness are more willing to try new exercises or alternative health care options. If you’re low in openness, Friesen said, you’ll prefer more traditional ways of doing exercises, and you might avoid using the latest great thing to track your workouts or you’ll wait before investing in a gadget or new app.

Because I’m low in negative emotions and high in openness, I have the tendency to grab on to new trends. As a result I’ve had little injuries that ended up sidelining me from running or even swimming for longer than I’d like. My Washington, D.C., physical therapist Kevin McGuinness says this is the “Secret Squirrel Program,” where you combine a bunch of programs or ideas that are good on their own and think that by doing them all or taking little pieces of each you’re going to come up with something better than everyone else.

“Don’t be the squirrel,” he said.

4. Agreeableness, or your attitude toward others

On the high end (me), we’re trusting and reveal how we think and feel. (McGuinness and my trainers and coaches know so much about me I’d have to kill them if I ever ran for public office.) We tend to be more cooperative than competitive with others and don’t have a killer instinct (except for the situation above). People who are low in agreeableness tend to be skeptical and not easily duped, they’re more guarded, more focused on their own challenges, more vocal about what they disagree with, and more competitive, Friesen said.

I race against myself instead of against others, so big races are good for me. The downside is registering for big races and making big goals and becoming disappointed in my results because remember, people like me don’t think of the bad things that can happen if we don’t reach our goals.

5. Motivation & self-control

People who are high in this dimension (me) are ambitious, detail oriented, efficient, disciplined, and more deliberate. We’re great with weekly training schedules and a regimented training plan. Friesen said if you’re low in this trait you’ll need a really big Why to get yourself to exercise. Writing out a list of reasons for exercising and keeping the list next to your alarm clock could be clutch.

What you need to worry about if you have my profile and you’re high in motivation and low in negative emotions, Friesen said, is becoming fanatic about exercise, inviting overuse injuries and re-injuries, and failing to recover, or deload, properly.

A few months ago McGuinness gave me a lower body workout to do on my own no more than two times per week.

You know where I’m going with this.

“There are benefits and pitfalls wherever you land on each dimension,” Friesen said. “All traits are good and bad, depending on the scenario. They are all our strengths and all our weaknesses.”

By now I was audibly (of course) uncomfortable, and Friesen was trying to make me feel better.

“There’s no perfect profile,” he assured me.

“Knowing these things about yourself can be very helpful,” he added.

“And the key to your success.”

Boom.

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