Getting Out of the Door When You Lack Motivation

I had just returned from a seven-hour bus ride from the plains of Nebraska to my home in Colorado after coaching at a track meet. The couch in my living room beckoned me like a fluffy oasis. My training plan called for a 90-minute run, but the little voice in the back of my head protested. Did the run really matter that much? Surely there wouldn’t be any harm in me kicking back and cracking open a nice IPA instead. I came up with every justification I could to skip the run.

Finally, out of habit, I donned my running shorts and shirt. I laced up my shoes slowly, trying to come up with new reasons of why I should stay home. The door looked more like a bank vault than an invitation to the outside world. I stood and told myself to give it 25 minutes. If I still felt terrible, then I could turn back and make it a short, easy run.

My body felt stiff and slow as I trotted away from the house. In the first 10 minutes, I was sure I would turn back, but I stuck with the 25-minute rule and kept running. Fifteen minutes went by and my pace began to pick up as my stride became more smooth and familiar. By the 20-minute mark, my sleepiness had passed and I was ready to keep running. The planned 90-minute run ended up going well. I felt accomplished, relieved, and grateful that I got out of the door and stuck to the plan.

Those days when just getting out of the door seems like a huge task are hard to avoid. Running can be extremely joyful and rewarding at times, and at other times it can feel like a chore. Hard days are a part of the training process and if we don’t challenge ourselves to do a little more, progress can stagnate. When those tough days show up, I stick to a few go-to strategies that can help motivate me to get out of the door and stay consistent, even when I would rather not.

Mountains and cloud inversion

Photo: Alex Nichols

The 25-Minute Rule

When I feel tired and unmotivated before the run, I always give myself 25 minutes of easy running to evaluate how I really feel. Whether it is the day after a long run or just a day that I feel sluggish, I never really know how my legs will react until somewhere around the 25-minute mark. More often than not, I can shuffle through those first 25 minutes and then find new legs for the rest of the run. By focusing only on making it to the 25-minute mark, it breaks up the run and makes it feel more approachable. Those crucial first few steps come easier when I am only thinking about 25 minutes of running.

When Things Don’t Improve

If my legs respond and I am able to accomplish my planned run for the day, then great. If I hit 25 minutes and I am still feeling like crap, then I know I need to make a change to the plan. This is when it is important to listen to our bodies and the feedback we are getting as we start the run. When your pace is slow, but your heart rate is much higher than usual, or your effort feels much harder than it should at an easy pace, it is worth reevaluating the run. When an easy day becomes a hard run, it is no longer serving its purpose in your training plan. Pushing through a difficult run just to hit the planned mileage for the day is not going to do you any favors in the next day or few days. This is when it pays to think big picture.

Moving Forward After a Bad Day

If my legs continue to feel like bricks after those first 25 minutes, then I give myself a free pass for the run. I don’t try to make up the run the next day, or adjust my schedule to somehow sneak that run in later in the week. The run simply didn’t happen the way it was supposed to, and I do my best to accept that and move on. The 25-minute range hits the sweet spot between giving the run a full chance, while not committing to a full-fledged run if your body isn’t ready. When the run really isn’t happening for you, this time range allows for the bad day to become your recovery day.

When moving on, it is a mistake to ignore that a bad day happened. Instead, use it as an opportunity to see why you needed that extra recovery time and do some reflection to help inform future training plans. We can learn as much from the bad days as the good days.

Final Thoughts

One of the core principles of my coaching philosophy is to understand and appreciate that our bodies are not machines. We can hope to predict their stress and recovery cycles, but there are a million other factors that can get in the way of an “ideal” plan. Getting out of the door on those tough days can be intimidating, but if we can give ourselves some flexibility to feel things out, listen to our bodies, and make decisions based on how we feel, then we can stay healthy and keep improving in the long-term. Even when you really don’t feel like it, give yourself 25 minutes, you might be glad you did, or you might learn that your body needs something else. Either way, you will be progressing at your own pace.

Call for Comments

What is your process for trying a run when either your mind or your body isn’t feeling it?

Alex Nichols

coaches at Colorado College as well as at Trails and Tarmac. He has a Master of Arts in Sport Coaching and a USATF Level 2 Endurance coaching certification. On the trails, Alex has finished second at the Western States 100 Mile and won the Pikes Peak Marathon, Mont Blanc 80km, and Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile. He's supported by SCOTT Running.

There are 4 comments

  1. Rich Myers

    I do the 25 min rule too. Even when I start sluggish on a day, running a 12:00 pace, then 25 minutes or basically 2 miles gives me a nice window to decide if I just need to walk it out on the day or if it was just some sluggish that I needed to shake off before picking up the pace a bit.

  2. Natasha Sankovitch

    For me, it’s the 2 mile rule. It typically takes me 2 miles to warm up and find my rhythm. And much more often than not, if I get past that 2 miles, I will complete whatever run I had planned for the day, and much more often than not, I make it to that 2 miles. Thanks, Alex, for the powerful reminder.

  3. Graham

    Yesterday I set off on my long run of the week. Since Covid hit I seem to have developed a bit of a phobia of long runs and as I set off my knee was twinging and my ankle was playing up. I was all for turning round in the first quarter mile. I assessed my options and decided to give it 10 minutes so that by turning at that point I would at least have 20 minutes under my feet. Within a couple of miles I was cruising along, aches and pains gone, and ended up having a fantastic run that I would have liked to have gone on longer. Most times I have a beginning like this, it vanishes within the first mile or so. Only a few times do I cut my losses and head for home. And most times I push through I end up having a much better experience than on the days that start well.

  4. Bart

    There are 2 types of days where it’s hard for me to motivate. So I follow the follow step rule. The first 25 steps are the hardest. If I can get out the door, 80% of the battle is over. Sloppy mud season days where I know it’s just going to be wet and sloppy are hard for me. And windy days are hard for me. For some reason the wind seems to just suck the life out of me. The first thing I did was get waterproof shoes for mud season. Simple, and probably all in my head, but I like warm sweaty wet feet over cold, frozen feet and now I smile when I see the thaw coming. Wind is a different beast. I had to flip the mental switch on it all. I can’t change the wind, but I can change my mental approach. Your mention of a blank wall is sort of where I go when the wind kicks up. I let my mind go blank. I accept the wind. I even laugh at my own futility at running in the wind when it gusts. Whatever happens, I know it’s making me stronger, and I try to accept that as fact.

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