Running Motivation: How to Find Strength When You’re Feeling Down

Conquering bad days, weeks, or even months is a necessary skill for any runner. Reaching your goals depends on it!

Note: this post was written by Strength Running Content Editor Christine Sandvik.

Running ultra races – particularly 100 milers that can take 24 hours or more – is often compared to living your entire life in a day. The early optimism, the frequent highs and lows, the long, dark overnight hours leading into dawn, and the exhaustion and exaltation at the finish line all become a microcosm of life.

My own first 100-miler is looming large with the Vermont 100 in July and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to navigate those highs and lows to get me to the other side of 100 miles successfully. I’m certain it will be an experience unlike any other that I’ve tackled.

The physically challenging aspects will be tough; however, I expect the mental challenges to be even tougher. But I also know I can draw upon previous experiences in my training and racing to find strength in the most challenging moments.

2018 is the year of strength on Strength Running. While we often devote most of our time and energy to getting stronger and faster physically, it’s important to remember how essential mental strength is as well.

Not only does mental tenacity allow you to persevere when the going gets tough in a race of any distance, but it also allows you to work through difficult times that will come in life and training.

“Always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” – Christopher Robin

Remembering our strength can be a challenge in all sorts of scenarios. Races push us to our limits and are an obvious test of your mental tenacity.

But there are lots of reasons you may feel like your running motivation has been challenged:

  • Struggling with an injury (especially a chronic cycle of injuries)
  • A bad race – or even a DNF (did not finish)
  • Sub-zero temperatures, snow, never-ending wind and rain…

Sometimes feeling challenged has nothing to do with running itself. Maybe other life obligations distracted you from your goals and it feels overwhelming to get started again. Or maybe a personal loss or life-changing event (positive or negative) has completely upended your usual schedule.

Challenging personal events can leave you struggling for motivation even when running has previously been your happy place.

Finding Your Running Motivation

When you have lost your strength – whether you are sitting on the trail in the middle of the night or just struggling to get off your couch – it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the idea of getting back to where you want to be.

To get out of a rut you have to keep it simple. Focus on your most pressing needs first and take one tiny step at a time to move forward.

While some of the steps below are more applicable to longer-term training rather than a mid-race blow up, they can all become part of your toolkit to get your running motivation back.

Address Your Physical Needs

Before you address anything else, you have to take care of yourself physically. This means attending to the basics, including the following:

If your body isn’t physically prepared to take on a challenge, then you’re likely to keep digging yourself a bigger hole both physically and mentally.

Putting a wellness framework in place can help make it easier to tackle any challenge you face.

Fulfill Your Emotional Needs

Once you have addressed your physical needs, make sure you have an emotional support system in place as well. For some, spouses and other family members lovingly support your running goals and will help you through challenging times, no matter how large or small.

Sometimes you have to look outside your family as well. This may be true if you have a spouse who doesn’t run and can’t relate to what you’re going through.

Running friends and online communities such as Strava or Team Strength Running may be enough if you’re looking for advice or a boost in running motivation.

Rediscover Internal Motivation

When your running and training isn’t in a happy place, it can be an ongoing struggle to get out the door.

Social media has its place and can sometimes provide inspiration, but it’s also easy to get wrapped up in a cycle of comparing yourself with others. Highly curated images of happy runners on Instagram and Facebook may leave you wondering why you don’t feel equally fabulous.

Any time you find yourself in a tough place with your training or racing, it helps to re-evaluate your internal motivation. While there are a number of ways to do this, a few might include the following:

  • Focus on finding intrinsic joy in the act of running – what sense of strength or joy does it bring you?
  • Don’t compare yourself with others or even your previous self.  Social media can make this challenging, so you may need to limit your time there.
  • Live by the maxim of never judging a run by the first mile – it’s all about how you feel at the end that counts! I know that if I manage to push myself out the door, 99% of the time I will come back with a better perspective on running and life.

Find what excites you about running – and do a lot more of that.

Rebuild Confidence With Small Wins

Finding a way to get yourself out the door one time when you are feeling down is one thing. But getting yourself back on track day after day, week after week, requires a greater commitment.

Remember that willpower is a muscle, and just like any other muscle the more you exert it, the stronger it becomes. Use that willpower to focus on just one habit at a time as you master it. Know you will temporarily leave some non-essentials by the wayside to avoid overwhelming yourself with too many varied commitments.

Extrinsic motivation can be useful when it comes to making a longer-term commitment, but know that it doesn’t have to be a race! Start small, build slowly, and give yourself something to work towards.

This is especially important if you are coming back from injury. Committing to rehab exercises and strength exercises may not be sexy, but seeing the steady weekly progress can help you maintain that commitment.

Control What You Can But Be Adaptable

If you’re injured or facing a major life change or loss, you have to be willing to acknowledge that some circumstances are simply out of your control. Perfection is never the goal – it’s the consistent, steady effort rather than an all or nothing mindset that will work best to get you out of a mental or physical rut.

There may be days when you feel overwhelmed, and it’s ok to rest or rearrange your schedule or shorten a workout when necessary. A coach can be a great resource to help you do this in an appropriate, productive way.

When you are trying to get back on track, the key is not to let yourself miss too many consecutive days. Be realistic with your time and planning, and do your best to schedule in a way that keeps you committed but allows you to adapt when necessary.

Balance Rest and Work

If you have rediscovered your running motivation, that’s fantastic! But sometimes in an effort to get back on track we go to the opposite extreme, and forget that rest is just as important as hard work. Push yourself where appropriate, but be careful not to let the rest/work balance get totally out of sync.

Since runners are often a driven group of individuals, it’s easy to think that burying yourself in hard efforts will solve your problems. While it may work for a while, burnout and injury probably won’t be far behind.

Remember, growth only happens with interspersed rest and recovery, so always allow yourself appropriate downtime.

Assess and Reflect to Make Targeted Changes

When something has gone wrong with your running, it’s easy to think that you need to overhaul everything you have been doing. Once in a blue moon that may be warranted.

But usually, that’s not the case. Changing everything at once will leave you wondering what’s beneficial and what’s not, so take time to assess the situation before you act.

Whether you are in a mid-race bonk or stuck in a training slump, self-assessment is a necessity. During a race, reflection may simply entail a quick body scan to see what’s bothering you and figure out how to address it. Is it mental fatigue? Nutrition? Hydration? Do your best to fix it in the most efficient way possible.

During a longer training slump, or if you’re struggling to recover from a bad race, you may need a longer-term plan.

Start with self-assessment and don’t be afraid to ask yourself the hard questions:

  • What has gone wrong?
  • Did you train too hard, or not hard enough?
  • Do you need to enlist outside help?

Change one thing at a time in your training:

  • Need a better fueling plan? Use every long training run to get it right.
  • Maybe you need to run more mileage?
  • Perhaps you should domore pace-specific workouts (or more consistent rest days)

No matter what issue you’re addressing, make changes gradually.

Recruit Your Run Family

For years I ran solo. Long runs, workouts and easy runs were always done on my own.

Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to have a dog who loves running as much as I do, and he happily joins me on my adventures in all sorts of weather. But as I’ve pushed through longer distances and spent more time on tough, hilly trails, I’ve also developed a tremendous appreciation for my running friends.

Enjoy your solo running time, but if you need a change or some added motivation and support, don’t be afraid to try running with a group.

I was initially a little apprehensive about running with others I didn’t know well, but taking that small leap of faith has been one of the best decisions I ever made. When life throws you twists and turns with major changes or the loss of a loved one, your running family can be a tremendous support system.

Find Laughter and Joy

Years ago when I was running far more roads than trails, I never would have thought that challenging myself on tough, hilly trails would bring me so much joy.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s never easy. And there may still be some expletives along the way! But something about pushing hard and reaching the top of a long climb brings me an intense satisfaction.

Hills may not be your happy place – maybe it’s a loop around a local pond, or a quiet, scenic street, or running with an enthusiastic canine. Whatever it is – if it makes you happy or allows you to find joy and laughter – do it.

Because ultimately it’s the joy that brings you back, day after day and year after year.

Building a foundation of physical strength and athleticism is essential to becoming a strong, consistent runner.

But don’t neglect the mental side of running!

We all face ups and downs throughout our years of training and racing, and having the necessary tools will allow you to dig deep and persevere in the face of any adversity.

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