What to do when you lose the motivation to run

March 21 2018

One of the things that fascinates us about professional athletes is their relentless pursuit of self-improvement. Stories of swimmers that are in the pool for 5am every morning, MMA fighters that train for a gruelling eight hours a day, and even runners hitting the track on Christmas morning are commonplace in the world of sport.

But that kind of endless motivation can seem, well, superhuman. They’re out there tearing up the asphalt in the wind and rain while you’re skipping spin class because, heck, you’re tired today and you deserve a rest.

The truth about these athletes is that, just like you, they require regular motivation to exercise. The difference is that they have plenty of experts coaching them through the days when they’re feeling unmotivated.

Replenishing motivation is vital if you want to improve as an athlete, so you need to understand exactly how it works and - most importantly - how to get it back.

Understanding what drives you

To improve focus and determination, you first need to identify what type of motivation will help you to succeed. Sports psychologists tend to split motivation into two different camps:

- Extrinsic motivation - what motivates you is the promise of external rewards, whether that’s money, prestige or recognition from your peers.

- Intrinsic motivation - what motivates you is pushing yourself to new personal targets and a love of the activity itself.

Now, it’s key to note that it’s unhelpful to think of either of these types as “good” or “bad”. For elite athletes, intrinsic motivation tends to be what sustains them long-term. But that’s not to say they don’t have any extrinsic motivation: they employ coaches that will push them harder and many of them aspire to earn global recognition as one of the best in the world.

If you just can’t put your trainers on and get out there for your next run then, take a moment to consider whether you are primarily extrinsically or intrinsically motivated. Once you know that, you can work on getting back on the treadmill and increasing your distances.

If you’re extrinsically motivated (reward-focused)

Being extrinsically motivated means that there needs to be certain environmental factors to help you achieve your goals. Leverage external pressures to help push yourself further.

Here are a few quick ideas:

- Match milestones with rewards

Want that new jacket? Make yourself earn it by reaching your 10km personal best. Reserve big rewards for big goals to really keep your working for it.

A great way to keep yourself focused is to set out a calendar, with dates that show the times or distances you need to cover to earn the reward. This adds a sense of urgency that certainly helps get you out of bed on those cold, wet mornings when you’d much rather lie in. 

- Enter a competition

Entering a race works well for extrinsically motivated people because it sets an external goal with a hard deadline. If you’re not good enough by race day, it will be clear to you and other competitors, which can help push for faster times and longer distances.

It also forces you to carve out a more rigid training regime, making it difficult for you to convince yourself that skipping your long run isn’t going to do much harm. 

Get a personal trainer

Not only can a personal trainer keep you accountable, but they can also set realistic but challenging goals based on your current performance and help you identify flaws both in your running technique and your mindset.

A good personal trainer will strike a good balance between the carrot and the stick: they’ll give you the praise you need to spur you on when you’re doing well and they’ll get tough with you when you aren’t giving it your all.

If you’re intrinsically motivated (passion-focused)

It’s easy to believe that intrinsically motivated people never lose motivation, but that’s not true. If you work by putting expectations on yourself, failing to meet those expectations can be disappointing and, in turn, demotivating.

Thankfully, you can get back on track with a few easy steps.

Get a running partner

Being intrinsically motivated doesn’t mean you have to be a lone wolf. Teaming up with another runner can help you not just in pushing yourself further, but also helping you re-engage mentally with your running by offering tips or mentoring.

Helping others is a productive way of reminding yourself that you’re good at what you do and that you’re passionate about it. Plus, seeing others develop is an additional motivational boost you can use to your advantage.

- Get expert advice

If there’s an issue with your running technique that’s holding you back, a repeated failure to hit your goals may erode your motivation, so you need to nip it in the bud at the earliest possibility. Get a personal trainer to work with you on your technique.

They’ll be able to identify fast ways you can improve so you can get right back on track to smashing your personal best and feeling fully motivated.

- Get nostalgic

Often we can spend too much time focusing on the progress we’re yet to make, rather than the progress we’ve already made. Make some time to look back over your journey. Reflect on your key achievements - maybe you have built up enough stamina to be able to run 5km non-stop, or increased your long runs from 10km to 13 miles.

Seeing what personal targets you’ve already hit can reassure you that you can hit those new goals that until recently felt impossible.

By understanding what motivates you, you can quickly combat a lack of desire to run with the right external or internal factors. You might still have off days, but being smart means that, at the very least, you’ll still be on track to run the distance.