When Motivation Hits Rock Bottom

[Editor’s Note: This month’s Trail Sisters article is written by Pam Smith.]

Trail Sisters - Motivation 3

Pam Smith running the 2016 IAU 100k World Championships. All photos courtesy of Pam Smith unless otherwise noted.

If you ask an ultrarunner how they feel about running, I would bet the near-universal answer would be that they love it. I suspect a good number would joyously expound on this by passionately explaining how running keeps them grounded, how it helps to relieve stress, how it connects them to nature, or how it makes them feel free, among other things. Most of the time I would enthusiastically nod along in agreement, but not this past December. The end of 2016 found me suffering from a serious lack of motivation to the point that I tallied a mere 58 miles total for the five weeks between November 28, 2016 and January 2, 2017.

I spent all summer logging big miles in preparation for the 153-mile Spartathlon on September 30 and then had a quick turnaround to be ready for the IAU 100k World Championships eight weeks later, so it seemed only natural to want a bit of time off particularly since it is not uncommon for me to do so after a big effort. I tried to run at the end of the week, but I just wasn’t into it at all. My legs seemed to be fairly recovered but there was just no part of me that thought it would be a good idea to jump back into my pre-work early morning routine, so I told myself I could have another week off.

By the third week, I was getting back into my routine when a nasty cold that spread from my son to my daughter to my husband finally caught up to me too and any building motivation I had vanished. Running with bronchitis and an achy body–no, thank you! Give me warm blankets and extra sleep instead!

And when that finally abated, it was nearing the holidays; my parents were coming to stay with us; the weather was abysmal; and we were going out of town after Christmas. Running just seemed like too much of a hassle with everything else going on. Just how am I supposed to decorate the house, shop for presents, take care of house guests, bake holiday goodies, and go for a run too!? I am not even sure I have time to shower! And would you look at that sleet–no one should go out and run in that! So many times in my life, running has been my number-one priority, but now it felt like it just took too much mental energy to get out the door and so I made excuses and didn’t go.

Trail Sisters - Motivation 2

Pam’s Strava log.

All of this could’ve been deemed a healthy break if I had just planned it and fully embraced it, but instead, every day was fraught with guilt: You really should run. You didn’t run yesterday (or the day before, or the day before). You are going to be so out of shape. You are eating waaay too many cookies to not be running. You’re supposed to be a runner!

Though I didn’t want to run, there was a lot of mental toil by not running: If you define yourself as a runner but you don’t want to run, then who are you really? Is running a thing of my past? Am I no longer a runner? And why is everyone else on Facebook and Instagram so happy about running, but I’m not?!?

It’d been more than eight years since I took this kind of time off with no good reason and I wasn’t sure what it meant. Well, I am happy to tell you that I started running again January 2 (because who wants to start anything on a holiday or a Sunday?) and I have made some sort of effort toward my 2017 goals every day since. And not just because I felt obligated to but because I wanted to! But regaining motivation isn’t necessarily a passive process. There are many things I did to get back on track. Here are some of the things that helped me climb out of my winter cave of apathy as well as a few other tricks that can help you when your mojo is waning.

Trail Sisters - Motivation 5

Pam training earlier this month.

Sign up for a Race
Having a race on the horizon always seems to motivate me to get back on track. And I will admit a lot of that motivation can come from fear! The more a race scares the crap out of me, the more motivated I get! Of course, there is always the excitement of a new place and a desire to do well that can add to the stoke factor when you sign up for a race.

Change Your Routine
Doing a track 24-hour race, Spartathlon, and IAU 100k Worlds this past year meant that I spent A LOT of time training on the roads. While I enjoy road running, slogging out 20 to 30 miles every weekend on the city streets got quite monotonous. I realized how much I missed the trails and how much I need to keep them a part of my training even when I am training for hard road efforts. Already this year, I have done a couple of snow runs, an evening-time mountain hike on a clear night with a full moon, and a fat-ass run on the Oregon coast trails. All of these different adventures got me excited to lace up my shoes.

Ditch the Schedule
In the past seven years, I have run more than 60 ultras, which means I have spent the majority of that time ‘training’ instead of just running. Obeying a set schedule has gotten me in good shape, but at times it can feel a little confining or even downright onerous. Since my focus races are a few months off, I am going schedule free for a few weeks and just running what I feel like running each day. There’s been very little speedwork in my routine, but I know there is time for that later.

Get a Coach
To me, one of the best parts of ultrarunning is figuring out how to train for a race and not just doing the work. But not everybody feels that way. Many people don’t want the burden of coming up with a training plan or you may find yourself stuck in a rut and needing a change but not knowing where to go. A coach can likely help you with either of these issues.

Find a Partner
Getting a reliable training partner can be one of the most helpful things to help you get your groove back. Not only can they make the run more fun, but agreeing to meet someone at a certain time keeps you accountable. Because I was training for races with very specific features, I ended up doing a lot more training than usual by myself last year. I’ve been making a point to rejoin old running groups and find ways to get out with friends more often. And that running partner doesn’t even necessarily have to be human! 2009 Western States champion Anita Ortiz has her dog to keep her motivated. When she doesn’t get him out of the house, he can get a little destructive!

Trail Sisters - Motivation 2

What happens when Anita Ortiz doesn’t run her dog. Photo: Anita Ortiz

Decide to Streak
I don’t advocate for extended streaks but sometimes setting a short streak goal can help get you out the door. I started 2013 with a goal to workout for 30 days straight and it got my year off on the right foot. Since this streak isn’t for records, you can set your own rules. For example, I let walking and the elliptical count as part of my ‘run’ streak. My current goal is to see if I can beat my 2013 streak, which ended at 67 days.

Step on the Scale
Okay, I know that sounds vain, but let me tell you, when the scale confirmed that I had definitely been eating too many cookies over the holidays, I warmed up to the idea of running again pretty quickly.

Run for a Cause
One way to make your running feel like it is serving a bigger purpose is to run for a cause. Find a cause you are passionate about and see if you can use your running to raise money or bring awareness to a certain issue. Not only can this keep you on your training plan, but in many instances it can remind you of how fortunate you are to be able to lace up your shoes and get out for a run.

Don’t Fight The Weather
There are some areas of the world where if you waited for a nice day to go run, you might be stuck indoors all winter. Still, on days when the weather is downright awful, it might serve your sense of well being to change up your plans. This year, my state of Oregon has experienced the worst winter in my 18 years of living here. And while I have developed a high tolerance for running in the rain during my time in the Pacific Northwest, I learned that I really don’t like running in sleet and freezing rain, especially when the roads are icy and I am worried about falling. So I hit the treadmill or the elliptical or shift a morning run to the afternoon. Even if you do opt outside, doing speed workouts can be miserable in bad weather and it might be better to save those for slightly better conditions.

Do Some Soul Searching
After an extended time of feeling pretty blah about running, I started to wonder if maybe I had fallen out of love, if maybe I had lost interest in the sport after so many years. I thought about what my life would be like without running and if I thought I would be happier if I got rid of the 4:15 a.m. alarms, the hours away from family, the suffering, and the sore muscles. It was easy for me to see how much running has added to my life and that I had no desire to permanently hang up my shoes. This realization helped me foster a new commitment to running.

Let it Ride
Sometimes you get in a funk and you just can’t will yourself out of it no matter how many motivational tips and tricks you try. Your body and your mind are probably telling you something. Spartathlon was not only the longest run I have ever done but I also spent about 35 miles in the middle of the night feeling cold, lonely, and miserable. It was mentally and physically the hardest race I have ever done and I really didn’t take proper recovery from it because of the proximity of IAU 100k Worlds. It made sense that I was a little burnt out and when I acknowledged that, a lot of the guilt and mental torment abated.

We hang out with a crowd where ultra distance races are the norm, but ultrarunning is the extreme far end of running and that takes a toll on the mind and body. Squash those compulsive drives and give yourself permission to take a break. I know I was feeling ready to start running again right after Christmas, but I still had a lot going on. I opted to take a few extra days off and by the time the new year came around, I was chomping at the bit to get back to routine running.

Every relationship has its ups and downs and running is no different. Even the most dedicated runner can have periods of low motivation. And with the busy lives so many of us lead, sometimes running can feel less like a stress reliever and more like a stressor. Making a few changes to your current training schedule may be just what you need to get you excited to run again.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When was the last time that your motivation for running waned? Did you sort out the cause of it? How long did the spell last?
  • What do you do to kickstart your motivation? Do you have tips that didn’t make Pam’s list that might be helpful to others?
Trail Sisters

is a group of three women, each with unique opinions, ideas, and attitudes toward all things trail and ultrarunning. Pam Smith is a mom, physician, and lover of running who lives in Oregon. Liza Howard is a mom and 100-mile specialist from Texas. Gina Lucrezi is a Colorado-based short-distance speedster exploring the realms of ultrarunning.

There are 11 comments

  1. Andy M

    Great article and great advice. I was also feeling kinda burned out after a long season (though with a fraction of the miles you put in!) and a frustrating PW at a local 50K in late October. So, following sage advice, I backed waaay off for two months and logged only 3 runs per week, no workouts or long runs, and a whopping total of about 15 miles per week.

    But I did go to the gym — something I hadn’t done much of in many years — and focused on core, did some plyometrics and TRX, and a little upper body. I wasn’t running much but felt good that I was doing workouts that would help my running when I got back into it and that helped buoy my motivation. And since late Dec, with a March race on the calendar, I’m back in a good running routine and all is good!

  2. Tom Jones

    Everything a person does is for a reason. If you don’t want to run but prefer to do something else there is a reason.
    The conflict within as a source – a reason to it – it could comes from identifying yourself as a runner as discussed in the article. It could be because a person sees health and fitness as one and the same and feels the need to compensate by adding positives to offset the negatives of modern life.

    What is of interest for me is if so many feel this lack of (for want of a better word)’motivation’ that articles can be wrote on such then perhaps it is not the application and the endeavour but the model that is wrong.That lacking motivation is bad because…???
    A person can come up with a 1000 answers all to the wrong question.

    I have thoughts on this and started on my n=1 project called removing the backward steps many years ago. Based on my empirical evidence it challenges perceptions that form why we do what we do.

      1. Pam

        I agree it is silly to force yourself to do something you know you just don’t like, but I think there are many times in life where our “Big Picture” desires don’t mesh with our “right now” desires. If you fully hate your job, then yes, it is probably time to look for a new one, but if you generally like your job but you just don’t feel like going on a certain day, well, you push through. When I get to the point that I really don’t want to be a runner any more, I will let it go. For now it is something that is important to me in the big picture, but I acknowledge that I may not be chomping at the bit every single day.

        1. Tom Jones

          Hi Pam,
          But to what degree must you feel motivated in the way expected to achieve this bigger goal.
          I have seen folk stress not feeling motivated to run the scheduled ‘x’ . A figure they set themselves months before in a spread sheet bold lined and coloured cell. Red =rest green = run. Yet now the time is upon them they don’t want to run when the cel is green so they ponder this lack of motivation to run and without thought ignore there observations and dismiss the overpowering motivation to rest.
          Sex is cool but a person may not always feel like sex is that loss of motivation or do the pots just need doing first.
          Chocolate covered cheese also but I don’t stress not having it at times. * I do accept cheese covered chocolate could be an outlier

          Folk stress the data on the spread sheet, bold lined, coloured cells , many hours to create and dismiss the fact the figures within were pulled, as it were, from there ass. The source of the stress well little more than compiling the training schedule on insufficient data. A fixed rota against a dynamic life form aka moi

          I see your point on the job analogy but for those days you don’t want to go there is reason.
          We are a running phenotype; indeed it can be said our choice of recreationas a species reflects our hardwired instinct and yet for it all man never only ran.
          How much is to much and how little is enough to achieve purpose? That is a blurred line once addictive behaviours form but what is sure we need do less than most figure for in spread sheet. We become ‘unfit’ for a reason it is a positive advantage.

          Ramblings as I sit in the van stealing wifi awaiting that cup of tea I need. Motivation is a misnomer in mu opinion. It is insatiable and often the result of a culture that says more is better. Aquire to accumulate and that has not been my experience.
          My greatest breakthroughs came when I understood process. That it always hurts because I misnamed natural biological function occurring ‘hurt’
          Attached negative association to biological function and compensate by injecting mojo between your toes

  3. John Vanderpot

    I take a less competitive approach to it than most, but towards the end of 2016 some veterans suggested I take a month or so off, and I did, and it was by far the least pleasant month of the year — by far! My distance from “the life” really started to unsettle me and being back at it, although slower than ever, has put the smile right back on my face!

    The moral is obvious,


  4. Brad D

    Thanks for being so real. We all go through seasons of our lives when we just don’t feel like “doing it”, but you made your way out of it and are stronger because of it

  5. Melissa

    I’ve admired you for awhile Pam! Thanks for sharing this insight- reassuring to know even super heroines lose motivation. I say celebrate the small victories! Small efforts can lead the way back and motivate you for bigger ones.

  6. Liz Canty

    Awesome write up Pam – have definitely felt the same way after being stuck in the race-taper-race cycle most of the winter. Hope to bump into you at Georgia Death Race this year!

  7. John

    Oh, THAT kind of streak – I thought maybe somebody else had discovered one of my favorite ways to break out of a rut…though I do have to save it for a short couple of tenths of a mile on the most secluded section of my favorite trail and only during the middle of a workday…minimizes the potential for starting sasquatch rumors…

Post Your Thoughts