Updated: Nov 4, 2022
Note from Dr. Jamie: Although I have my degree in Clinical Psychology, this is NOT the same as sports psychology. My friend, Dr. Hayley, who is a Doctor of Sports Psychology wrote this blog to provide you with expert advice on how to stay engaged in running when your motivation is low. Enjoy!
Even for the most experienced runners, getting motivated to run day in and day out can be a challenge. So how do we maintain our motivation to run (or cross train or strength train or do physical therapy exercises)? First, it’s helpful to know that motivation is a process rather than an entity. We don’t “have” motivation or not. Motivation is a function of our personal characteristics and our environment, so some small changes to the way we think and things we do can have a big impact on our motivation.
Are you having trouble with motivation? Try these three strategies!
1. Consider your why
Why do you run? You do not have to run. Really, you don’t. It’s helpful sometimes to remind yourselves of this and consider why you have chosen running.
Research1 tells us that our “why” for running impacts our motivation as well as our performance and physical and psychological health. Motives for running range from intrinsic (i.e., love of running) to performance related (e.g., to complete a race or achieve a certain time) to avoiding perceived punishment (e.g., to avoid gaining weight). The closer our “why” is to intrinsic motives, the more stable our motivation will be and the less likely we will be to struggle with things like burnout or other negative physical and psychological outcomes. For example, research2 on first-time marathon runners found that runners who focus on motives such as weight loss or social recognition were less likely to complete the marathon than runners who focus on more internal motives such as enjoyment and personal improvement.
Action step: If you are struggling with why you run, try to focus on the things that you enjoy about running itself. Maybe it’s the feeling when you finish a hard workout, time alone (or with friends) outside, or seeing yourself become a faster or stronger runner. During each run try to think of something positive or enjoyable about the run and note it in your training log. This not only helps you identify the things you enjoy about running, but it also can help you change your focus on runs to be more optimistic as you learn to find positives even during difficult runs.
2. Make it easy for yourself
We often look at other runners and think they are more “disciplined” or have more “willpower,” when in reality it’s more likely that they have simply done a good job of creating an environment that supports their running.
Generally, we want to create environments that make it easier for us to choose the behavior we want to do (e.g., run, strength train, etc.) and harder to choose behaviors that are counter to our goals (e.g., skip a run/workout). Consider ways you can set up your environment to make it easier for you to choose to run even when you feel like your motivation is low.
Lay out all your running clothes the night before. Although this might seem like a small thing, you are reducing a barrier for yourself when it’s actually time to run. Who hasn’t been derailed when you can’t find the sports bra you want to wear, your sneakers, or your running jacket?
Make a plan with a friend. Having someone else count on you makes the decision to run easier.
Have a snack ready an hour or so before your run. You don’t want to be starving when you’re trying to make yourself get out the door—plus there is the added bonus of energy on the run!
Schedule your runs at times in the day when you have fewer barriers. If you hate getting up early, don’t plan on early morning runs. If you're tired/hungry in the evening, don’t schedule evening runs. Find ways to maximize your likelihood of actually going out and getting it done!
3. Make it fun
We are more likely to do things consistently if they are fun or enjoyable. Consider ways you can make a workout or training block more fun. When you are trying to enhance motivation, think of ways that your run could be more fun. This might mean wearing a favorite running outfit, meeting up with a friend, running a favorite route, doing a new workout, or capturing a segment on Strava.
Do things besides running. Incorporating other activities from time to time can make it feel less like you “have” to run and more like you “get” to run.
Try a new route or a much-loved route when you have a challenging workout or a long run.
Listen to a favorite podcast or album on your run from time to time. (note: performance tends to be better without distractions4 but when you need a little motivation boost this can help!)
Focus totally on the run. Immerse yourself in the experience of running, consider how your body feels, and the sights, sounds, smells around you. Being mindful while you run can increase your enjoyment (MacKenzie Havey has a great book on this).
Leave your watch behind and run by feel.
If running consistently feels “not fun,” take a break. One of the signs of burnout is lack of enjoyment. A break from running might make it more fun when you return.
As you consider how to best support motivation, look for data from your running to help understand your motivation. Journaling can be a great way to notice trends in things that support your motivation and things that don’t. By noting in your training log times when motivating yourself to run is easy and times when it’s hard, you might notice patterns and identify ways to modify your approach.
Don’t be too hard on yourself when you're struggling with motivation—everyone does. Remember, running is a choice. Focus on ways to make it easier and more fun!
Hayley Russell, PhD, is an expert on sport and exercise psychology. A teacher and scholar at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota. Her research focuses on psychological responses to sport injury and the psychology of running. She earned degrees in human kinetics from St. Francis Xavier University (Nova Scotia) and kinesiology from Wilfrid Laurier University (Ontario) before completing her doctoral work at the University of Minnesota.
1. Hammer C, Podlog L (2016) Motivation and Marathon Running in Marathon Running: Physiology, Psychology, Nutrition and Training Aspects
2. Havenar J, Lochbaum M (2007) Differences in participation motives of first-time marathon finishers and pre-race dropouts. J Sport Behav 30:270–279
4. Masters KS, Ogles BM (1998). Associative and Dissociative Cognitive Strategies in Exercise and Running: 20 Years Later What do we Know?