5 Mental Tricks to Keep You Motivated Through Winter

a man and woman run together bundled up in the snow

Building and maintaining fitness through the winter months helps with stress management and bolsters your immune system, as long as you're not sick. But how do you stay motivated when it's cold and dark outside? As most coaches will tell you, it’s largely an exercise in mind over matter.

You can set yourself up to remain motivated by leveraging these five mental tips and techniques. Keep these in mind next time your motivation to run is waning.

Two runners dressed in winter gear run down a snowy staircase

1. Establish a routine

Finding a predictable running routine is key to staying motivated. By making training a built-in part of your weekly schedule, you eliminate something social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister calls “decision fatigue.” This idea posits that we only have so much energy each day to lend to self-control.

At a certain point, willpower collapses along with motivation. When training is built into your weekly calendar, you don’t needlessly waste energy trying to decide whether to run or not.

2. Reframe running as play

In his bestselling book, “Running & Being,” physician and famed running philosopher, Dr. George Sheehan, argues that viewing running as a strenuous form of “play” is essential to developing intrinsic motivation to train. He asserts that approaching running with an almost childlike affinity helps to unify body and spirit.

While it might be a challenge to find great joy in running early in the morning or on a rainy day, a simple shift in attitude can make all the difference. Instead of something you have to do, work on thinking of running as something you get to do. On days when running feels more like a slog, consider recruiting a running buddy who makes you laugh or trying a new route you’ve been excited about.

3. Evaluate your inner narrative

We are often so busy that we lose touch with what is going on in our own heads. During the winter months, negative thoughts abound: “I hate running in the dark,” “I’m so out of shape,” “I’ll never reach my goals this season. I might as well stay inside.”

The first step to flipping that script is to identify the type of self-talk that is going through your head. If you find that your inner narrative is negative or self-critical, it can be helpful to become more purposeful about the mental chatter you entertain.

Positive self-talk has been shown to boost both motivation and performance, but it isn’t always easy to establish. This simply requires you to be more mindful about checking in with the thoughts in your head. Ask yourself, “Is this a productive way to be thinking?” Identifying unhelpful and damaging lines of thought can help you redirect to more positive and productive thinking that will help you enjoy running and keep you motivated to train.

4. Mix things up

Variety in training is an important part of battling physical plateaus and mental lethargy. Research indicates that not only do people tend to enjoy exercise more when their training is varied, they also see performance improvements.

If you’re in a rut, try implementing different workouts. Runners often let speed work fall by the wayside during the winter months, or times of uncertainty—so work some intervals into your schedule, or add a strength and mobility routine. Working different muscles and energy systems is not only good for fitness, it also keeps training from stagnating.

5. Phone a friend

Research suggests that healthy habits are contagious. Surround yourself with likeminded people—a spouse who is supportive of your training or meeting up with a running group each week—and you set yourself up for continued motivation throughout the year. What’s more, having a running buddy or team that is expecting you at a workout can go a long way in keeping you accountable. Not to mention, running with a group is usually a whole lot more fun.

[This article was originally published on February 20, 2019 and was updated on October 21, 2023.]

By Mackenzie L. Havey. Mackenzie Havey (née Lobby) writes about endurance sports, mind/body health and wellness, and adventure travel. Her work has appeared in Runner’s World, SELF, Triathlete, TheAtlantic.com, ESPN.com, the Star Tribune and elsewhere. In addition to completing 14 marathons and an Ironman triathlon, she is a USA Track & Field-certified coach, an instructor in the Physical Activity Program in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, and has done training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

Keep Reading