The Psychology of Running Motivation: How To Get in the Right Frame of Mind to Dominate Your Training

Motivation - Reaching Goals

Not qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

Failing to set a new PR.

Missing weeks of training.

Running a horrible race.

Runners fail all the time. But the failures I just mentioned are huge; they are the ones that consume you and that only other runners understand.

I want to talk about small failures. Little failures that can happen every day that you don’t seem to mind but in the end add up and result in the big failures. These are concessions; seemingly insignificant compromises you make with yourself based on external circumstances or how you’re feeling.

Have you ever…

Skipped your gym session because you didn’t manage your time

Planned a training program but didn’t ask an experienced runner for their advice

Cut your run short because of a lack of motivation

Bought a foam roller… and then rarely used it

Only did one set of a core routine because you really wanted to watch TV/meet friends/sleep in

Abandoned a run when it was too cold/hot/rainy

All runners can relate to these little failures. They’re small concessions we make on a daily basis because we’re human. We’re not used to perfection and we rationalize that we’re “doing enough” to meet our running goals.

The majority of runners undermine their own efforts with these shortcuts. But there are some who always make the right decision, run their mileage, and do the “little things” that keep them healthy. And it will be those runners who reach their goals, run new personal bests, and develop as a healthy runner for decades.

Most runners just need a simple shift in their frame of mind to succeed.

The psychology of motivation is complex but one simple decision (and the foresight to make that decision) can help transform you as a runner.

Case Study #1: Me

When I was just out of college I lived at home for about 8 months and worked over an hour away. It was a horrible commute and I had no time for… anything. I got up at 5am every day, ran for 70-90 minutes, took a quick shower, and was out the door to commute to my job.

The problem was, I wasn’t doing any of the “little things” that help prevent injuries. I realized that I was quickly going to get injured if I didn’t make a change. But how hard is getting up 20 minutes earlier when you’re already getting up at 5am? Pretty hard for a 23 year old. I realized I would have never done extra core and strength exercises if I just “tried harder” to get up earlier. For a young guy, 5am is where I drew the line.

So I joined the gym near my office. I took an hour lunch anyways so instead of wasting it shopping, surfing the internet, or eating at the food court I went to the gym. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I did a 30 minute core routine. On Tuesday and Thursday I did a light weight session.

The results were incredible: I had the longest streak of high mileage weeks ever, amazed myself with my 54:50 10 mile debut, and ran my first half-marathon in 1:13:39. I was on fire. I attribute all of this success to my hard training – what made it possible was the strength work that kept me healthy.

Since I had the time every day during my lunch hour, I might as well have used it right? With one small decision to join a gym, I created the structure and environment I needed to do the extra core work I know I needed. It had nothing to do with willpower or “trying harder,” but with creating an environment that’s conducive to success.

Case Study #2: Lydia Hintze

Lydia has come a long way in the past few years and even over the last 8 months that I’ve been coaching her. She started as a 2:35 half-marathoner at 230 pounds. Now she’s 170, running almost 3 minutes faster per mile for the half, and feeling better doing it.

Her success didn’t come easy. She has four kids and the same family responsibilities as many of you. She started running with no support group and ran her first half-marathon. She took a lot of time off and started to slide back into old habits. Lydia knew that to make a permanent change she needed a more structured approach.

Lydia and I started working together last September and her improvement has been constant. Every race she runs is a PR which is a testament to her work ethic. But she’s not just “trying hard” to be healthier and a better runner. I think her success is attributable to two very important factors:

  1. She got a running coach to plan her running, keep her on track, and offer advice.
  2. She’s involved in the running community through Twitter and Dailymile.

Her online support group and her coach (me!) make her extremely accountable for her actions. If she skips a workout, she has to tell me. She posts her workouts on Dailymile and interacts with other runners on Twitter. The value of seeing other people’s workouts shouldn’t be discounted; it motivates you to complete workouts of your own.

Lydia knew that if she wanted to reach her running goals a change in her life was needed. The same daily routine in the same environment will only produce the same results. When I started coaching Lydia she was very excited. Now that I think about it, she’s still excited to run every week and chase her goals.

Case Study #3: Meaghan (my fiancée)

A few years ago Meaghan wanted to lift and develop a more well-rounded athleticism than just running. But she couldn’t motivate herself to go to the gym we have at our apartment no matter how hard she tried.

One day she saw a flyer for a morning boot camp that met three times every week at 6am for an hour. It included body weight exercises, core work, weights, and light cardio. She signed up, knowing she needed the extra incentive to do the strength work she wanted.

Meaghan achieved her goal of finally going to the gym several times per week. She got cut, in better shape, and getting up early to complete her workout helped her make this a habit even when the course was over.

The boot camp provided Meaghan the accountability she needed to get up early every day and get stronger. She ran cross country and track in high school and college so she’s not averse to working hard. She could have written a lifting program or even had me write it for her. But she needed structure, a person and group to answer to, and accountability. She got it done.

Motivation is About More Than Just Willpower

Successful runners achieve their goals by setting themselves up to succeed. They create a framework that allows them to get in better shape and run faster with fewer barriers.

I could have set my alarm for 4:45am every day to do core work. But how many times would I have hit the snooze button?

Lydia could have tried harder to run better in the half-marathon. But without a structured plan and a coach to answer to, would she have stuck with it?

Meaghan could have easily written a four week strength program. But would she have “found” the time to get it done?

Those of us who achieve goals actively work toward them in a very structured manner. I love hearing about people who invest in a coach, buy a running book, or meet with a local group to run. These are the people who are going to succeed! They are surrounding themselves with motivators.

One of my favorite quotes about creating this type of framework is actually by a finance author – Ramit Sethi. He writes about those who complain about spending $15 for buying his New York Times best-selling book:

My favorite comment from people is, “I know how to save $15! I’ll save it by not buying his book! Hahahahahaaaaaha!!!!!” The sad thing is, there’s a game being played around these people and they don’t even know it. They genuinely believe that by not purchasing anything, they can somehow find their way to a rich life. They see cost, not value, while top performers will always invest in themselves.

The line that sticks out to me is “Top performers will always invest in themselves.” This is absolutely true for runners who want to run faster but have hit a plateau. Whether by buying a new running book for training ideas, getting a coach, joining a local running group, finding a friend to run with every day, or joining a gym – top performers set themselves up for success.

I know my personal limitations as a runner. I love to run and I’m good with core work (Meaghan calls me a “core whore”). But I hate going to the gym and lifting weights. But I also realize that weights will help my running, so I need to make it a regular part of my training.

Many other runners have told me they needed more motivation to get healthy and prevent injuries, so they signed up to learn more about injury prevention. I sent them several presentations and new advice on how to get stronger.

Want the same coaching material? Just sign up here.

Motivation at its core is about making decisions that help you achieve your goals. Some people choose to watch television all night while others go running, read books that bring them closer to their long-term goals, or spend time with their loved ones. To help motivate myself to be more productive, I simply cancelled my cable.

Not watching TV is easy when you don’t have one.

So is going for your run when a friend is waiting to meet you. Or completing a triathlon when you spent money on a quality training program. The doing is easy when the structure is set up to support you.

As you continue your training, be mindful of the environment you create for yourself. If you are having difficulty completing your workouts, getting enough sleep, or finding time for all the “little things” then ask yourself what you can change to make it harder not to run.

If you’re stuck, email me and let’s chat. I’d be happy to help you set up a system so you can be more productive.

Remember – motivation is only as good as the system that channels it.

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