Achieving running goals takes more than motivation

Header photo by Kristian Egelund on Unsplash

Written by Laura M. Brenner

February can be a make or break month for people who made new year’s resolutions. We are six weeks into the new year, and excitement for your new goal may be waning. Cold mornings and windy conditions may make you question your well-intended goal. As a result, you’re considering backing off of it, postponing it, or tossing it in the trash can. 

Sports psychology consultant, Shannan Mulcahy, finds this an all-too-common conversation she has with her athlete clients. “We need to shift our expectation of how motivated we will be every day and normalize that motivation won’t be there all the time,” Mulcahy said. “It doesn’t mean you don’t love running or don’t want to achieve your goals.”

Running motivation highs and lows

Runners don’t need an expert to know that motivation isn’t guaranteed. It can come and go based on several factors, including squishy ones like our mood. The good news our experts can give us is that it’s ok not to be motivated all the time. 

Mulcahy explains that many athletes think they should be motivated all the time, every day. This thinking may stem from youth sports or social media–but it can be easy to assume others are always running motivated, right? Maybe not.

Running motivation is helpful, but it’s not necessary every day. Runners can look internally for other ways to get themselves out the door for their run or workout. Mulcahy offers a few suggestions for runners struggling with low running motivation.

Find your “why” for your running goals

When runners can link each run or workout with a higher purpose, it can help make getting out the door easier. For example, runners with spring races on their calendar may find it easier to identify the purpose of their daily runs. But if you have a far-off fall race you’re focusing on, you may need to connect your runs this week with the impact it will have on your long-term goal.

Not every runner enjoys racing. Many runners enjoy logging miles as a way to de-stress from work or home life. For others, it’s a way to find a social network, lose weight, or keep up with their kids or grandkids. “If you can’t think of a purpose, it becomes harder to get started,” said Mulcahy. “Uncover the why of your training right now.”

Create a running motivation toolbox

Athletes can create a mental and physical health toolbox to pull from when running motivation is waning. Mulcahy suggests a variety of tools to get you through. One of her favorite tools is a training journal. She encourages her athletes to be sure to include a space to track their moods, not just their miles.

We know exercise boosts endorphins and makes us feel better, so something as simple as sitting outside or going for a walk can be tools in your box. Some of us can get in our miles without being cold if we have access to a treadmill. But, if going outside is your only option, Mulcahy suggests laying out the right clothes for the conditions in advance to make you feel prepared. “You can’t rationalize with that part of your brain, so you need to have a plan in advance,” explains Mulcahy.

Skipping your run one day a week won’t decrease your fitness as much as you think, and it may improve your outlook on running and your mental wellbeing. Or, as Mulcahy put it, “happy runners go faster.”

Recognize burnout versus low motivation

Now that we know motivation can naturally come and go, it’s important to look at something linked to long-term low motivation–burnout. We hear this term used a lot with professional athletes, but all levels of athletes can struggle with burnout. “If you’ve had a whole month of the ‘I don’t want to do this’ feeling, you may need to take a step back and consider time away from the sport,” suggest Mulcahy.

A feeling of burnout is related to an individual’s perception and stress levels. When stress, including work, life, and fitness, is running high, it could lead to burnout—making it unique to every athlete and not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. “Burnout is also influenced by what we perceive we are capable of doing,” Mulcahy said. “In that way, burnout is very person-specific.”

It’s best to take some time off or cut back when you feel the early stages of burnout creeping in. Additionally, Mulcahy stresses the mind-body relationship when recognizing burnout–it’s not just what your body can handle but also what your mind can handle. “Your body will adjust to an intensive workout schedule over time,” reassures Mulcahy. “But your perception of what you are capable of has to change too.”

Build successful habits in running

Another way to fight the winter blahs is by creating successful habits. Mulcahy advocates for discipline over motivation as a way to keep yourself accountable. By creating a habit of running or working out, you don’t wake up thinking, ‘do I want to run today?’ It’s just a given.

Forming a habit of going for a run or working out lowers the resistance to starting the run. Mulcahy suggests James Clear’s book Atomic Habits for anyone struggling with low motivation. “There are lots of things we do every day by habit,” Mulcahy said. “Brushing your teeth is a common example.”

The idea of “habit stacking” is helpful when trying to create new habits. Mulcahy explained it as adding a new habit to an old habit. For example, in the brushing your teeth example, you could add a vitamin regime to your habit by placing the vitamins next to your toothbrush. “Lowering the resistance barrier is important to finding actionable ways to build a habit,” Mulcahy said.

Knowing that many athletes–at every level of sport–struggle with low motivation at some point can feel reassuring. Be gentle with yourself. Choose to acknowledge the moments of low motivation, why you’re experiencing them, and find ways to work through them. The way we talk ourselves through these moments reflects in later performances.

If you’re struggling with low motivation or accountability toward your goal, RUN 717 Coaching can help. Our custom online coaching or training plans will let you safely work towards your goals, give you insight into your training, and connect you with a network of peers and experts. Contact us today for a free consultation.

Shannon Mulcahy, owner of Mulcahy Performance

Mulcahy Performance works with athletes and coaches of all ages and abilities to help them with their performance. She specializes in anything related to the mindset about performance, including confidence, self-talk, pre- and post-race nerves, training consistency, and training for personal records. 

“I truly am a believer that sport is something that should enhance people’s lives,” says Mulcahy.  “That means we should enjoy it. When we can push ourselves and enjoy it and have a mindset that lets us get the most out of ourselves, that keeps it fun and helps you live a happier, healthier life.”

For more information, visit Shannon’s website:

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