I think we can all agree there are many days where training closer resembles a chore than fun. The dread of getting out the door for a big workout that has been glaring at us from the pages of our training plan can make us question whether it' really worth it. Be glad to know it's a natural feeling for runners of all abilities from time to time.
That being said, a chronic lack of motivation can be detrimental to both our mental health and a future race performance as our training quality begins to suffer. Thus, it's crucial to recognize the situation early and make changes to mitigate it. I have found success using each of the six methods below (or a combination of them) to help me reframe my training in a way that sparks fun, reignites motivation and reminds me why I continue to lace up my shoes every day.
The focal point of most running literature and training plans is physiology and the science of running. In other words, the spotlight is on determining which workouts we should be doing, at what paces, how often, and at what points in the training cycle. This has led to a mentality that in order to run X time for our goal race, we must run our workouts at Y pace. Otherwise, we are doomed. The problem with this approach is it can zap much of the enjoyment out of running, and it does not take into consideration the many other life factors that contribute to performance. Science has its place, but we should go on feel and connect with our inner self first and foremost. Too often people get injured overstepping themselves to hit numbers, or they limit themselves by slowing down when they see numbers that are faster than what they are used to.
As children, everything we do is play. When we are kicking around a soccer ball as a youth, we are not thinking about it as training or placing importance on getting the perfect number of kicks in, kicking each ball the perfect distance to develop the right legs muscles, and so on. It is play; yet, it serves as training simultaneously. Use the same approach with running. Treating our running as adult play can allow us to find joy in running at varying speeds across varying terrain and distances. Remembering the importance of adult play and not excessively focusing on the science of hitting splits can reignite motivation to get out the door. Running is, after all, meant to be enjoyable.
Wearable technology, like a Garmin watch, makes it way too easy to gather more data than we can even begin to process or use to our advantage. We too often allow the flashing numbers on the screen of our watch’s dashboard dictate how we think we should be feeling and alter our workout on the fly. On the one hand, I love technology and the ability to track every little piece of my workout (I admit I am addicted to the Garmin Forerunner 645M). On the other hand, too much analysis can be detrimental and counterproductive.
Running by feel and perceived effort is what truly matters during training (for more information about the effort versus data debate, I highly recommend the book Endure by Alex Hutchinson). To genuinely ditch the data, try not wearing a watch at all, or at least turn off the GPS functionality, so your pace is solely based on your effort with no outside influences. If you cannot resist wearing your GPS watch, then turn off all sound/vibration notifications and try not to look at it during the run. That way, you still have the data to analyze, but you didn’t allow the watch to be the dictator during the workout itself.
Shifting the focus of running from being a prescribed chore to an opportunity to explore can emphasize running’s inherent naturalistic roots. There is no better way to achieve the exploration mindset than by trail running. Trail running allows you to remove any thoughts of hitting splits in favor of connecting with yourself and your surroundings. There is something inexplicably empowering about adventuring into new territory and being one with nature.
Aside from breaking the mold and monotony of prescribed training, trail running provides a number of physiological benefits. The softer footing reduces the risk of injury, the uneven ground improves lower leg strength, stability, and coordination, and the often hillier terrain increases strength, aerobic capacity and the ability to alter speeds. There is no run more gratifying than exploring and conquering fresh territory.
Too often, we get so caught up in running-related numbers, namely miles run per week, that we use these metrics as our sole indicators for fitness and readiness to perform. This can be a slippery slope as we begin to channel more and more of our focus and energy on running itself and neglect the supplementary activities that allow us to perform better at the goal activity. While you may be able to do this for a while, it is also an easy route to an out-of-left-field injury.
To counter this pitfall, I find it helpful to remind myself that I am an athlete first and a runner second. This shift in mindset places my training focus on how I can best prepare myself as an athlete for a goal competition, as opposed to placing my training focus on how much running I need to complete to satisfy some arbitrary mileage number. With this mindset, I don't push crucial training activities (weight lifting, core strengthening, form drills, etc.) aside in favor of eking out a few bonus miles.
During a training rut, it can be very productive to shift the focus away from solely running onto some of the other athletic activities you enjoy. For example, you could replace some of your runs with a basketball game, a bike ride, or a game of tennis. These activities contribute to your all-around athleticism and allow you to maintain fitness while taking your mind off of running long enough to re-discover your motivation.
Nobody is perfectly symmetrical. Observe any runner, and it is pretty easy to spot asymmetries in her running form. Perfection is impossible, but we can strive to come as close to it as possible. By improving strength, mobility, and efficiency in your form you raise your ceiling of performance potential. Shifting the focus of your runs toward mastery of technique (cadence, arm swing, foot landing, etc.) gives you new goals to work towards and places stale mileage and speed goals on the back burner.
As humans, we now live in an unnatural environment that goes against our physical and mental development throughout existence. The world we designed for ourselves to make life more comfortable (e.g., the chair) has consequences on our health and ability to attain peak performance because we never learn how to optimize the use of our body to perform (strength, speed, power, etc.). Much of our adaptation to our surroundings throughout life is contradictory to our needs to perform our best athletically, which is why focusing on improving our strength, form, and mobility are so crucial for raising our ceiling of potential.
Getting a training partner or training group is perhaps the simplest and quickest way to gain newfound motivation in your training. Training partners hold one another accountable for showing up and putting in the work. It also creates an atmosphere of friendly competition that will motivate you to push harder in your workouts.
Even if you cannot think of someone at your exact level to train with every day, you can surely find someone to meet up with a few times per week. If your struggle is pushing your hard workouts hard enough, then find someone slightly faster than you for those days. If, on the other hand, you want someone there to converse with during the easy miles, then it is perfectly fine to run with someone slower than you so you can take your recovery seriously.
We all go through training ruts, which often result from mental stress and fatigue. By shifting the backdrop and mental focus of our training, we can quickly renew our motivation and remember our purpose for training in the first place. Sometimes we need the reminder that running is meant to be FUN.
By Chris Robertson. Robertson races competitively for Chicago’s Fleet Feet Nike Racing Team. He holds a marathon personal best of 2:24 and is the Beer Mile American Record holder (4:46). He is currently training with the goal of qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Trials Marathon and defending his 2017 Beer Mile World Title while working full-time as a Technology Consultant and pursuing additional entrepreneurial endeavors.