Mustering Motivation

Even if you love to run, sometimes it’s just easier to stay tucked in bed or, after a particularly trying day at work, veg out in front of the television than head out the door. A good friend and longtime ultrarunner once told me, “Nobody’s ever sorry they ran once the workout’s over.” Why then, is it so tough at times for us to find the drive to lace up our shoes?

Our mind can play nasty tricks. It chips away at our motivation by creating destructive internal debate, confusion, and conclusions that stifle action. Anxiety, fear, lethargy, sadness, and loneliness negatively affect our desire to run. They can be paralyzing emotions, but with simple baby steps we can begin to nudge our motivation needle in a more positive direction. For example, just the simple act of getting out of bed when my alarm goes off in the morning or changing out of my work clothes into my running gear helps me. Here are some other tricks I’ve resorted to over my 35-year running career when I’ve felt unmotivated.

  • Make it part of the plan. Unless you’re being chased, running doesn’t happen organically. Before turning out the light tonight, decide what workout you’ll complete tomorrow. By integrating your run into your daily schedule you’ll be more likely to do it.
  • Prepare your gear. Slip quickly into your running outfit by laying it out the night before.
  • Fill the tank. Judgment and performance improve with fuel. Avoid mood-crushing drops in blood sugar by taking in a few calories. Caffeine can also provide instant inspiration.
  • Listen up. Cue up your favorite playlist before or during your next run. Music stimulates the brain’s release of dopamine, a chemical that will inspire you to get off the couch.
  • Seek out similar birds of a feather. Take your run to the parks, trails, and streets where you know others will be running. By surrounding yourself with other active individuals you’ll be less likely to throw in the towel.
  • Reward yourself after a workout. Don’t go overboard, but a bit of pampering on the back end of a tough run can be good incentive.
  • Make a date. Set a reoccurring day and time to meet a friend or a group for a run to help keep you accountable.
  • Play tourist. Pick a landmark—neighboring town, mountain summit, historical monument, scenic overlook—and run there and back.
  • Spice it up. Running at the same speed all the time can be mind-numbing. Once a week, inject some speed play into your run. Start with an easy warm-up followed by a dozen faster repeats lasting between 30 seconds to two minutes. Jog easy between each repeat. Mix it up by surging hard uphill, on the flat, and on the downhill, but don’t exhaust yourself. Leave time for a cool-down at the end of the run.
  • Try a different sport for a day. If you’re a road runner, hit the trails. The variations in terrain strengthen ankles and lateral stabilizing muscles. Off-road athletes should run on a flat surface occasionally. Focus on proper form and cadence.

Try these quick motivational fixes if you find yourself losing your mojo. However, I’ll be honest, at times, they still might not be enough to get you out the door. Maybe you need a bigger catalyst—one that has staying power and will engage you for weeks, months, or years. Some that have worked for me include:

  • Find your ‘200th’ reason. It took me 22 years to run 200 ultramarathons. Stay on task by creating your own long-term running vision.
  • Get inspired by others who’ve gone before you. Read or listen to running-related books, meet the authors at book signings and public engagements, and attend running camps organized by your running heroes and heroines.
  • Find a mentor. Work with a coach to create detailed, personalized plans that include a variety of workouts.
  • Form a team. Bring like-minded athletes together under one banner and use their collective energy as a motivational springboard.
  • Create an event. Involve and support non-profits and other organizations that give back to your community. Provide a meaningful experience for local enthusiasts, build morale, and forge lifelong relationships.
  • Get your canine fix. Foster a dog or volunteer as a ‘dog runner’ at a local shelter. There’s nothing more motivating than a pup demanding playtime.
  • Sandbaggers rejoice. Enter a race that caters to your strengths.
  • Choose your own adventure. Do a long run in a unique locale, like a rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon, a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, or crisscrossing the roof of New Hampshire’s White Mountains on the Appalachian Trail.

The next time your motivation wanes, you’ll have some tools to help you avoid falling into a rut.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Let’s talk motivation. What aspect of your life, the weather, your mental state, or something else demotivates your running?
  • And, what do you do when that happens? What have you learned helps you get out the door?

Ian Torrence running with Border Collie Quill outside Moab, Utah. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

There are 9 comments

  1. Andy M

    Nice article Ian. This is a simple “trick” that has worked for me over the past 20 years: Keep the bare kit (shorts, shoes, shirt) in the car and, during a work break or after work (or at any unforeseen opportunity), drive straight to the trail head. Going home to change costs time, opens the door to unforeseen detours and flagging drive, and is a total barrier for me that greatly increases the risk I won’t get out!

    1. Ian Torrence

      Great advice! I do this too. Also stop half-way on long road trips to break up the drive and explore a new place! Thanks for reading Andy!

  2. Adam

    Thanks for the article Ian! As you suggest, I found that making running a part of my schedule is key. I know that I’m going to run early in the morning Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday. “Knowing” that makes it easier to make it reality.

    I’ve been sharing a couple quotes around the topic of motivation with friends recently. First is from Tony Robbins, who I was listening to on Russell Brand’s podcast. In talking about a morning routine he has of taking a cold plunge he said “I don’t negotiation with myself”. I heard that line and was blown away at the concept. Easy to say, and hard to implement, but just that line was motivation for me. I think being mindful of my tendency to negotiate is a step in the right direction.

    The second is from Zig Ziglar: People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.

  3. Rob Decot

    I am constantly negotiating with myself. I always have gear in my car. I will never approach a hundred Ultras. I find, when my head needs a rest, my body may too. but I’m a creature of f inertia and I have never regretted a run!

  4. Alastair McCurrach

    Great article, I struggle with motivation as I always negotiate with myself. It might sound a bit strange but sometimes I sleep in my (clean) running gear. That way, when my alarm goes off I pop my socks and shoes on and head out of the door. Also, I think it’s important to identify at what time of day you’re most motivated to exercise (early morning for me) and plan your run around that time

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