Athlete Motivation Part I: It’s In Both of Your Brains

motivated-athleteThere are a couple standout ways to become a better athlete yet even more ways in which you can hinder fitness progress and overall performance. Simply put – it’s easier to screw things up. With respect to improving, (making improvements or seeing improvements), proper training and recovery are at the top of that list which can encompass everything from sleeping well, an adequate diet, and an overall healthy lifestyle.

Yet, many athletes fail to make progress or they see their fitness regress due to three main factors:

#1: You become injured or are dealing with some sort of chronic injury. Therefore you can’t progress because you attempt to recover from an injury while still trying to train, or there is some limit as to what you can do as you are breaking down too quickly, (ie: you can’t run over five miles because your knee starts to give out).

#2: You are training improperly. Often improper training can result in #1 – you become injured. Secondly  improper training can also mean that you’re not challenging your body adequately so you don’t adapt and progress. Not only may you be training too much and wasting time best spent elsewhere, it can also mean that you are not putting in the time you need to progress as an athlete and you just need to train more consistently.

#3: You’ve simply lost the desire to train, or train like you used to. Motivation not only plays an important role in your fitness, but your fitness and overall health can both greatly impact your motivation.

This three-part Sock Doc series will discuss the science behind motivation, from your brain to your gut and the stuff going on in-between. Also, you will learn what you can do to improve your motivation whether that means taking your fitness to the next level or simply getting off your ass and moving once again.

You Have Two Brains, Take Care of Them

second brainYour motivation is greatly impacted by your brain. Actually, it is impacted by both your brains. What – you have two brains? Actually in a way you do. Many scientists now classify our gut, the complete digestive tract, as our “second brain”. Essentially our digestive tract acts as a separate nervous system that not only controls digestion but also our mental well-being. The brain in your head and the “brain” in your gut function independently of each other, but like all systems in your body, they also greatly impact each other. The connection between your two brains is the vagus nerve which transmits signals back and forth between your main-brain and your gut-brain. This is why you have perhaps heard the saying, “food affects your mood”. Likewise, the way your main brain is working can significantly impact your digestion – just think about something that stresses you out and causes “knots in your stomach”. Hormones, such as testosterone, progesterone, estrogen, and insulin, all impact both your brains and likewise those brains in turn affect our hormones. Your diet and daily stress level have a huge influence on these systems and therefore your motivation to get out of bed and succeed in whatever you do.

Brain Chemistry and Motivation

dopamine motivationNeurotransmitters (NTs) are small chemical messengers that allow neurons (nerve cells) to communicate with one another. With respect to motivation, there are two NTs that are most important – dopamine and serotonin. I have discussed these NTs before in my article “Become a Better Athlete: Have More Sex” as both dopamine and serotonin are vital for sexual performance. But they are equally as vital for athletic performance especially for the drive to succeed and perhaps more importantly, to enjoy what you’re doing.

Dopamine is known as the “pleasure and reward” NT. Dopamine is what allows you to stay cool while under stress, enjoy many aspects of life, and what motivates and drives you to succeed. If your dopamine levels are low then you may quickly lose your temper and snap,  you may not enjoy things like you used to, or you may feel worthless and hopeless at times. Dopamine imbalances can also cause you to grind your teeth at night (bruxism) and have restless leg syndrome (RLS). Dopamine is also what gives us craving and desires that can lead to addictions such as sugar, drugs, or even sex. Since dopamine drives the pleasure centers of the brain, if you have insufficient dopamine levels you will find it hard to get motivated to train, but once you get going you’ll stick it out, though you won’t enjoy it to the same degree.

Serotonin is the “feel good” NT. If you lack serotonin then you won’t enjoy much of anything. I like to say that adequate serotonin makes you want to enter a race and dopamine makes you want to win a race. Serotonin is that NT we all associate with depression and which many drug companies have products for – Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, and so many more. Many athletes deal with low serotonin for reasons I will soon explain. Alberto Salazar was on Prozac and claims it helped his overall performance and many other elite endurance athletes such as those in the Tour de France have been known to suffer from depression. I think it’s safe to say the problem is more widespread than we know. Of course none of this is normal, but it is very common, and you can take steps to not only prevent NT imbalances and depletion, but to accentuate your brain messengers to become a healthier and fitter individual – drug free.

brain food motivationYou Think What You Eat

Yes, your food does affect your mood, just look at some athlete who is bonking during a race and they’re pissed off at everybody since there’s inadequate sugar going to their brain. But it goes much deeper than that. Serotonin and dopamine have a major impact on the gut and that gut function comes back to adequately provide serotonin and dopamine. So a body bonk is also a brain bonk and this is a result of unhealthy chemical changes occurring in the brain and the gut.

The majority of your serotonin is made in your gut and the neurons in your gut are said to generate as much dopamine as neurons in your brain. There is a strong association between digestion, thinking clearly, and of course motivation because of this gut-brain axis and the NTs which influence them.

Yes, your brain can run off ketones as I discuss in this past Sock Doc article, though sugar is still needed even in small amounts in the most efficient athlete. One-third of the typical body’s glucose supply typically goes to the brain, and if that is needed elsewhere then the brain is starved of its nutrient source. Consequently, you may get shaky, have headaches, suffer from poor concentration, or deal with sleep problems such as waking up in the middle of the night or waking up with numb hands.

Though your brain needs glucose, too much glucose only causes problems. Actually, too much glucose and subsequently too much insulin, (the hormone your pancreas secretes in response to sugar), creates an impairment in the blood-brain barrier (BBB), which some physicians are now referring to as “leaky brain”. (Leaky gut is a condition in which the barrier of the digestive tract has broken down leading to increased intestinal permeability.) A healthy BBB protects the brain by preventing harmful compounds from getting in, yet allowing the necessary compounds, such as precursors for NTs, in.

Insulin resistance is the number one reason for a diminished BBB and therefore a leaky brain. Not only does excess glucose and insulin break down the BBB, but they also create inflammation – in the entire body including the brain. This is why Alzheimer’s is now being referred to as Type 3 diabetes. So to improve brain function, and thereby improve serotonin and dopamine levels so that performance and motivation improves, you need to control insulin. It’s the single best thing you can do to improve brain health.

As you may know from reading other Sock Doc articles, the best way to resolve insulin resistance and make your tissues sensitive to insulin again is to train your body to burn fat as a fuel as often as you can. This is essentially done through a proper diet and exercise. For diet – I refer you to my Paleo Diet article. For exercise – I refer you to the Sock Doc Training Principles. This is all about lowering insulin, reducing inflammation, and now taking it all a step further – making you a smarter, motivated, and more efficient athlete.

Here in Part II I discuss certain nutritional therapies which can help with an impaired BBB and a simple lab test which may help identify some health problems. I also discuss the effects of hormones on NTs and the effects of types of training on your brain.

Sock Doc Newsletter


  1. Matt Fielding says

    Thanks SockDoc, it’s a really interesting topic.

    Earlier on today I was watching the UTMF post race interview with François D’Haene and wondering about this.

    He tries to explain (about 4 mins in) that when he’s on the start line and happy to be there and when he’s enjoying racing he can go really fast.

    His lifestyle seems pretty amazing, as seen here

  2. SteveL says

    Can’t wait for the future articles. I have ground my teeth since I was like 3 years old and now I’m 56 and still do. I am insulin resistant so I need to watch my carbs but it will be very interesting to read what you have to say regarding dopamine in your future articles. Thanks!

  3. Sabrena says

    Wow!Just got off the phone with The Knee Pain Guru.I have meniscus and itb pain.He told me for $3k he could get me pain free in 3 months.When I told him that I have a moji 360(trigger point therapy device)he didn’t want to hear it.He then told me that trigger point therapy is painful. What do you think doc?I’m pretty convinced that I can get myself pain free for a lot less.No chance am I paying $3k for something that I can do myself.I know from reading your blogs Doc that you treat a lot of your patients with trigger point therapy.Gonna try it myself for a few months.Thanks for your insightful tips.

  4. joe says

    As always, amazing article, excited to read the second one. Did I understand this correctly, if someone is waking up with numb hands their brain is lacking sugar?
    I wake up from naps with numb hands, and trying to figure out why. With none of the other symptoms you mentioned, and only consuming vegetables and a couple pieces of fruit a day for sugar, no sweeteners at all. Anyway, thanks for your great articles.

    • says

      Thanks Joe. The numb hands is usually from some tissues lacking the proper glucose, and that usually correlates with the brain getting too little (or too much). So I use the term dysglycemia – unstable blood sugar levels which can be from stress, mineral depletion, hormone imbalances, or other health problems. Sometimes it is just from a poor diet – but not always.


  1. […] Lose Weight from Mommy Run Fast 4 Simple Tips to Improve Running Form Today from Run to the Finish The Athlete’s Brain by Sock Doc 3 Reasons to Cut Back Cardio for Fat Loss Goals & 3 Things to Do Instead by Your […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *