Training For Your First 5K, Part 2: Staying Motivated

Hey there, and welcome back to the Training For Your First 5K series! Last week, I went over making the time to train. It can be quite a challenge to fit your training runs into your busy schedule, but once you’ve figured it out, it’s onto the next hurdle: staying motivated.

Motivation vs Willpower

From Google:

mo · ti · va · tion

  1. the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.

  2. the general desire or willingness of someone to do something.

In my opinion, motivation is a lot like the holy grail. Everyone wants to get their hands on it, but most of us haven’t the foggiest idea where to look.

We’ve all been there: deciding to get fit and feeling really excited in the beginning. We buy new running shoes, a GPS watch, compression tights, and fall asleep reading Born to Run on our Kindle. Getting up early to run is easy the first few times, but, after a while, the novelty wears off and we admit, “I’m just not motivated anymore.”

The problem is, we’re confusing motivation with willpower.

Willpower, also known as self-control, helps you in the short term. It gets you through the tough choices, like choosing a side of veggies at dinner instead of mac & cheese. But, according to Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, in their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, we all have a limited amount of this type of energy.


Just like a muscle, your willpower gets tired after you’ve worked it a lot, which is why many people find it easier to make good choices in the morning but seem to go off the rails in the evening. If you’ve spent most of the day exercising self-control – like not losing your temper when your toddler throws his third tantrum in the grocery store or walking past a box of donuts in the break room ten times without taking one – by the time you get home from work, you’ve got nothing left when it’s time to decide between going for a run and relaxing on the couch with a beer. Your willpower muscle is tired, and it needs to rest before you can use it again.

Strengthening Your Willpower

After delivering the bad news that our store of self-control is limited, the authors go on to demonstrate that, with practice, you actually can improve your skills.


By training yourself to exhibit control in one area of your life, it seems we naturally develop the ability to apply it elsewhere. Start small, perhaps by changing a minor habit, such as making your bed every morning or cutting back on one soda per day. Eventually, it will become a habit and no longer require self-control . You’ll find that your small successes will spill over into other areas of your life. Essentially, that virtuous feeling you get from changing one behavior can be pretty addictive!

But it takes time to build that strength, and there will be days when your self-control muscle is just too tired to make a decision. As the authors of Willpower state:

We’ve said that willpower is humans’ greatest strength, but the best strategy is not to rely on it in all situations. Save it for emergencies.

That’s why it’s helpful to understand your true motivation for running.

Building Motivation


While self-control is in the moment, motivation is all about your long-term goals, higher aspirations, and your true reasons for wanting to reach them. And here’s something really interesting: although you might think your motivation for training is finishing a race or losing weight, what’s actually going on is you’re imagining how you will feel when you hit your goal, and you’re chasing that feeling.

In other words, it’s not crossing the finish line that lights you up. It’s imagining the feeling of pride (or whatever you associate with that achievement) that you really want. This is really great news for you because it means that you can tap into that motivation whenever you want to, even if your self-control is at an all-time low.

I have a great example for you.

Philly half-marathon.

Last year I trained for the Philly half-marathon. It was the longest distance I’d ever attempted, and I had no idea if I could do it. In fact, in 2012, I was registered for the same event and then slacked off all summer on my training. A month before race day I decided I was just going to bail and didn’t even show up to the starting line. Part of me expected that the same thing would take place in 2013. I thought my motivation for completing the race was to prove to myself that I could do it, to test my own limits, and (of course!) to have bragging rights. It was also symbolic to me of how far I’d come from being a fat, sick, and unhappy middle-aged corporate desk-jockey to a happy, healthy, fit personal trainer. The feeling that was associated with all of those ideas? Pride.

So I decided to experience that pride with every step I took during my training runs, instead of making myself wait until race day. Every time I went out for a long run, I thought of ways that I was proud of myself. Even when I crashed and burned on my first 6-miler, I was pretty stoked that I managed to not puke on the trail (seriously, it was a pretty bad run). On my first 8-miler, the pride came from realizing I’d stuck with my training plan for THREE WHOLE MONTHS. hen I made it to my 11-mile run, even though my body was plagued by patellar tendinitis and lingering plantar fasciitis, I was insanely proud of the fact that I was still in the game. On more than one training run, I cried real tears because I was so ridiculously, sappily proud of myself. With that kind of motivation, it was pretty easy to stick to my schedule,because once I realized how amazing I could feel for slogging through a 2-hour run, even when my body was protesting, I was hooked.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be that dramatic (and for most people, it probably isn’t). Just know that tapping into the emotion that fuels your motivation can be really powerful.

One way to identify those feelings is to close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself at the finish line of your race. Visualize the sights, the sounds, who is around you, and what you are thinking. Really go there – let yourself experience the moment as if it’s happening right now. Drink it in. Then open your eyes and write down everything about your experience that stood out to you, especially your thoughts and feelings. Circle the ones you feel most connected to, and spend some time thinking about how you can generate those feelings during all of your training runs. It may sound silly, but nobody needs to know you’re doing it. Plus, who knows, you might just find your motivational holy grail!

 Then there are those days, and you will have them when your self-control seems to have gone AWOL, and you just can’t tap into your mojo. In that case, try changing your perspective. That training calendar can start to feel like an enemy at times, especially when running is the last thing you want to do and you’re wondering why you signed up for that stupid race in the first place. A pity party ensues: “Poor me. I have to go for a run on Saturday morning while everyone else gets to sleep in, drink lattes, and eat donuts. My life sucks.”

 (And yes, I’m drawing on personal experience here. There have been times when I imagined everyone else in the world was having more fun than me on my training run. Trust me, it’s a recipe for a really bad workout.)

The solution to this dilemma?

C’mon soldier, pull yourself together!

A little tough love. C’mon soldier, pull yourself together! Remember that you are in charge here – if running a 5K was your choice, these training runs are not a chore, but rather a part of the process. Nobody is making you run (unless you’re literally in boot camp – and in that case your motivation is clear: do not piss off your commanding officer). If you really don’t want to – don’t. But know that it’s possible to shift your thoughts, even slightly, from “I have to do this” to “I am choosing to do this” or even (gulp) “I am so lucky that I get to do this.” Give it a try, because it might be just the boost you need to get out the door and run.

Motivational Tips & Tricks

I also have a few go-to tips and shortcuts to share with you. These are designed to give you a jump-start while you’re working on all of the above. Some of these might seem cliché, but I promise you, they do work:


Just put your shoes on and go. Tell yourself you only need to run for 10 minutes and you can come back and have that beer.


Keep a training journal, and write in it after every run (or use an online tracking app such as RunKeeper). When you’re feeling discouraged, look back through it to see how far you’ve come. Consider recording date, distance, time, pace, weather, route, whether the course was hilly or flat, how you felt, and anything else that seems pertinent.


Find a buddy to train with, and make a standing appointment to run together. This one is even more effective if you choose someone that will be pissed off if you cancel!


Reserve your favorite podcast for running days (or your favorite TV show if you run on a treadmill) – never listen/watch unless you’re running.


Track your progress in a big, visible way. Get a huge calendar and plan out all of your training runs. Cross them off one by one. Or use sticky-notes on a wall, and pull them down after each run is complete.


Save your favorite running destination for those days when you really need an extra push to get out the door.


Download some brand new music to re-energize your playlist (and your legs). Or listen to the Rocky theme – that always gets me in the mood to run!


Do something else that will improve your fitness, give your mind a break, and still enhance your running (such as strength training or pool running).


Use anti-motivation. Imagine how unhappy you’ll be if you miss your run. Really wallow in it. Then put your shoes on and go.


Find a local running club to mix up your workouts. It’s social, the time will fly by, and you might even make some new friends.

And when all else fails, run to the ice cream shop, have a treat, and run home. Because sometimes ice cream is the only answer.

Finally, there will still be times when you feel unmotivated, and no amount of self-control or Jedi mind tricks will get you moving. And that’s OK! Skipping a workout or two is not going to destroy your training regimen, nor does it mean you are a flawed person. Just the opposite, in fact – it means you are human.

So that’s it – everything I know about staying motivated. Feel free to let me know if you have any motivational tools of your own or if anything above helped you stick to your plan. Next week we’re going to talk about choosing a training plan that is perfect for you.

In the meantime, run fabulous & run happy!