When you first start running, it’s pretty easy to motivate yourself to work out. The excitement of trying something new keeps you coming back for more, at least for the first week or two. But then…something comes up and you miss a workout. And another. And, the next thing you know, finding excuses to skip your run has become a full-time job.
Have you ever thought about why you struggle so much? Why your brain argues and negotiates with thoughts like, “I’ll just finish watching this episode of Breaking Bad, and then I’ll go for a run” or, “the weather report shows a 10% chance of rain – I’d better stay home or I might get hit by lightning”?
The bad news? The struggle is real.
The good news? There are plenty of ways to retrain your brain and automate the decision to get off the couch and go for a run.
Think about brushing your teeth. This is (hopefully) something you do every single day with almost no thought. You can’t imagine leaving the house in the morning without a sparkling clean mouth, right? But, when you were little, it wasn’t an activity that came naturally. In fact, I suspect you had to be reminded over and over and over again. Eventually (either through repetition or peer pressure), you stopped needing reminders and just started doing it on your own. That’s because you’d done it so much that it became a bonafide habit. You can do the same thing with running if you’re willing to apply some techniques and have the patience to stick with it long enough.
Forming a healthy habit requires a few things: consistency, commitment, and desire. As long as you have the desire, the tips I’ve listed below will help you with the others.
The more often you do something, the more your brain gets used to the activity and starts to expect it. But, especially when you’re in the beginning stages of building a habit, sometimes you just have to fake it until you make it.
I majored in chemistry in college, and one of the key concepts we learned was the importance of activation energy to initiate a chemical reaction. In other words, sometimes just putting solutions together in a flask isn’t enough to make something happen – you have to add a minimum amount of energy (such as heat) to get the party started. Once the reaction is in progress, however, it uses its own momentum to keep going.
Going for a run when you just don’t feel like it is exactly the same. You need something to get you over the initial resistance to running. Try these suggestions to help you get moving:
Tell yourself that all you have to do is put your shoes on and walk out the door. You don’t even have to run – just walk for 10 minutes and you can come back home. Chances are, once you’re up and moving, you’ll keep going. If you do this enough, running will start to feel like a normal part of your day.
Do you remember learning about Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiment with dogs? He took something that dogs were hard-wired to desire (food) and, through repetition, created an association in their brain with a neutral stimulus (a bell) by ringing it during every feeding event. Eventually, the dogs began to salivate whenever they heard the bell ring, even if there was no food present. You can produce a similar result by associating a few favorite things with running.
For example, I have a few songs that I absolutely love to listen to when I run, and I make sure that I never listen to them any other time. Sometimes, when I’m in the car and one of them comes on the radio, I actually find my feet starting to move and my whole body craving a run. It’s pretty amazing! Now that the association is created, when it’s time to go running, all I have to do is fire up that playlist and I’m excited to go.
The same concept applies to running buddies. I have a friend who’s also a long-distance runner, and we save some of our best discussions for those times when we have a long run scheduled together. This turns what could be a long, uncomfortable, lonely workout into a fun gab-fest that goes by quickly and leaves both of us looking forward to the next one. In addition, the accountability factor is high when you have someone expecting you to join them for a run. You’re less likely to skip out on your workout if you know you’ll be letting someone else down by not showing up.
Sometimes it’s not about getting the energy to get off the couch but removing the barriers. In other words, kick those excuses to the curb by making sure your gear is packed, your phone is charged, and you’ve left enough time in your schedule to get it done. Keep extras of the important things (such as hair ties, socks, sports bras, headphones, etc.) in your bag, just in case you’ve forgotten something. Taking the extra few minutes each morning (or the night before) to set yourself up for success is time well spent.
Finding a reason to run will help you stick with it over the long haul. A commitment or a promise to yourself helps you find meaning in whatever you’ve decided to do. You’re no longer running just because it’s something you think you should be doing, you’re running for a purpose.
Pick a goal in the future that you won’t be able to meet unless you consistently run between now and then. A goal race is perfect for this, but you can also pick something like keeping up a 30-day running streak or running miles to raise money for your favorite charity. The key is to choose something that’s meaningful to you. Then, when you’re tempted to skip your run, remember your goal and think about how every little bit counts.
If you’ve done the work to create your running habit, reward yourself for a job well done! Knowing there’s a payoff at the end of the experience can help you stay committed when it feels difficult. You can approach this from two directions. The first is by giving yourself permission to have a specific treat (say a new pair of jeans) if you can maintain a certain level of consistency (such as running 3 times per week for 8 weeks straight). The other is to build up the reward little by little by putting a small amount of money in a jar every time you go for a run until you’ve got, say, $200 in the jar, at which time you can buy whatever you want.
Sometimes the ideas above won’t be quite enough to generate the motivation you need. And, when that happens, it’s time to be your own mom.
Ask yourself how you will feel later if you don’t run. Guilty? Disappointed? Nobody likes to feel that way. If you do go running, how will you feel afterward? Perhaps proud, happy, pleased, or accomplished. If you’d rather feel that way than guilty or disappointed, there’s an easy path to get there – just put your shoes on and go.
Creating a running habit isn’t easy, but it’s worth the trouble. That doesn’t mean you won’t still have days when you’d rather stay on the couch, but once something becomes a routine, the effort needed to get up and go at those times is much lower. So give some of these ideas a try to take your running to the next level!
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