Conor McGregor’s Former Trainer Schools Us on the Science of Motivation

When you need to be fit enough to fight, John Kavanagh is your man

November 16, 2020 1:04 pm
john kavanagh mma coach conor mcgregor monster energy
Coach John Kavanagh at UFC Fight Night Glasgow in the SSE Hydro Arena in Glasgow.
Ramsey Cardy // Getty Images

In partnership with Monster Energy

When it comes to getting motivated to work out and staying that way, calling John Kavanagh a good resource would be the definition of an understatement. Not only did the 43 year-old Irish MMA coach spend the early part of the aughts fighting professionally in the octagon himself, but recent years have seen him train some of the most elite fighters in the history of the sport, including Conor McGregor, Gunnar Nelson and Makwan Amirkhani. A win for “Coach of the Year” at the World MMA Awards in 2017 was just the icing on the cake.

InsideHook: On days you really don’t want to work out, how do you mentally motivate yourself to get going?

Jon Kavanagh: One thing I always hammer home with the athletes I’m training is by the end of the session I’ll turn off any background noise or music playing and tell them, “be mindful on how you are feeling right now, how you are breathing” — because the endorphins you feel after working out are like a stimulant you can’t buy. It’s an incredible feeling you can get for free but it does require you to put a lot of energy in. I like to always reinforce that amazing post-workout feeling. Sometimes your toughest opponent is the couch, but if you can remind yourself what that amazing feeling is like at the end of the workout, it’s going to push you to become more active. No one regrets working out once they’ve completed a session, so I remind our athletes to use that feeling as motivation, as fuel to beat the couch, get up and get active. As a head coach, I must lead by example and apply the same mindset to my workout routine.

What about your average person who just struggles with feeling motivated to work out in general?

I think it’s important to take it in bite sizes. If you come from a more sedentary lifestyle, it can feel overwhelming to get started. We have a program at Straight Blast Gym here in Ireland where we coach people who typically work full time and are getting into fitness for 100 sessions over 20 weeks with a competitive fight at the end of the program. These athletes go from zero to hero, and it’s really cool to be a part of their journey and coach them through it. With those guys, I’m not going to give them a full lifestyle change on day one, because it will seem overwhelming.

Where’s a good place to start?

One thing I do like to emphasize is developing a good morning routine. And I find if you are able to nail the morning routine, the rest of the day will somewhat take care of itself. You can actually reprogram your brain to be excited for a new habit if you reward yourself and motivate yourself to get up and get active. So whether it’s a protein bar or some music or a podcast you enjoy, allow yourself to indulge in that as a reward for getting up in the morning and getting a productive, active start to your day.

What about those of us who aren’t, you know, morning people?

My trick for the morning — especially for Whipped Warrior, since we train at 6 a.m. — is attaching this new habit with something rewarding. For me, I love drinking coffee and listening to podcasts in the morning, so my brain associates a new habit like getting up early and working out with a daily routine of doing something I enjoy leading up to that.

What about your diet, in terms of keeping your energy level up?

On days where I feel absolutely miserable, I’ll turn to a lower-calorie, lower-sugar Monster drink like Ultra for that extra edge. But typically I like to emphasize a clean, balanced diet with lean white meats like chicken and fish with leafy greens and complex carbs like brown rice and quinoa.

I have a very simple rule, if it came from the earth, you can eat it. It’s the pastas, breads and any other processed foods that you’ll want to be careful with — you’ll feel a little more lag and ups and downs from eating more processed food. I can tell when I’m eating well because my energy is consistent throughout the day. Of course, life happens and there will be days where we’ll need a little help to push through, and that’s when I’ll grab a Monster Original or Monster Ultra.

How does Monster help boost your energy levels for your workouts?

As you get older, your metabolism slows and you’ll need to start supplementing with ingredients that will help you stay energized and with your recovery. Monster Hydro Sport is a great one because it has electrolytes to keep you hydrated and aid recovery coupled with energy to keep you moving. A lot of the people in our Whipped Warrior program are people who work desk jobs and may not have trained at a high level since their teens or early twenties. Now they’re in their late thirties, so I would definitely recommend adding in BCAAs, caffeine and the like to help boost recovery and keep energy consistent so they can continue on with their day after our morning training sessions.

In addition to physical energy levels, is there a mindset element that you think is most effective to achieve long-term fitness?

Another thing I would stress is to become less goal-orientated and more good habit-orientated. What I mean by this is that a super common question I get is, “How do I drop 10 or so pounds?” People tend to obsess over the scale and the goal. After working with clients for the last two decades, a common thing we run into is after the client has achieved their goal there’s a sense of “Well, what’s next?” and that’s how people can end up yo-yo-ing on the scale, because they’ll undo the training and healthy eating they’ve done to get to this point. I would say focus more on forming long-term good habits that will help you maintain your progress and don’t worry about the scale, the mirror, etc. All of that will take care of itself as long as you are adopting good habits and sticking to them.

Any tips on folding the gym into one’s habitual routine?

Another thing I recommend is go to the gym with just a water bottle. Try not to bring a backpack or stop in the locker room to change, because it can turn a quick training session into a half-day commitment, which is where people get tripped up and will discourage themselves from going. Focus on getting in a shorter, high-quality workout, and you’ll be out of there in an hour, 45 minutes, whatever time you can allot that will keep you coming back.

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