I do the same run three or four days a week, and don't feel I'm training as hard or as often I should, but I am having trouble motivating myself. What should I do?
There is a difference between the motivational process for elite, national-class runners and those with a more recreational focus. I'm writing this at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Punta Umbria, Spain, and a brief survey of the Canadian team about what gets them going reveals answers that are very specific: personal best times, finish place, making future national teams. It's a weird space to live in, and the ongoing intensity of that kind of life can be hard to appreciate from the outside. These elite athletes tend to use associative (narrow) focus much of the time when competing. They climb into a pretty rigid box and deal with body awareness, distance completed and race tactics.
For most recreational runners, however, the process is quite different. We head out for fitness, to lose weight, to be social, or just to have a few quiet minutes to ourselves. The focus is dissociative and so we daydream, look at the view, listen to music, talk to friends. We don't want our exercise to feel job-like after a day already spent at work.
Despite these differences, there are common themes that can help with motivation:
1) Ask yourself just once whether going for a run is worth it, rather than asking over and over. If you wait until your alarm goes off each morning to decide if you should train, at some point you'll say no and that only gets easier to do. Figure out what you can realistically accomplish and stick to it. It's better to be consistent for three or four days a week for a few months, than to think you're going to train every day and then stop a couple of weeks later.
2) Define your training time. As with financial savings, pay yourself first. Your exercise time belongs to you and needs to become an automatic part of your day. As a personal strategy, I lock in five days per week but give myself a couple of flex days a year, where I can miss a session and hit the patio with friends guilt-free.
3) Use variety. Doing the same run repeatedly, no matter how scenic, will eventually get stale. Guelph, Ont., for instance, is rich in trails, but there are still days when my group needs to try something different. Get out to a new country road, change modes (bike, swim, shoot some hoops), join friends, or just vary the pace (go shorter and a little faster or go 10 minutes longer than you have before and don't worry if it's a bit slower).
4) Share your goals. After 2008, I spoke with one of our Olympic swimmers, who said that knowing he had told his parents he was going to make the final was a driving force in getting himself into the water each day to train. You don't need to shout it from the rooftop, but having people in place who will remind you of your commitment will strengthen your resolve.
5) Keep it playful. After all, we're fortunate to live in a country where we can make such choices as when and how we exercise. Running should be a release and fulfilling …at least most of the time.
Dave Scott-Thomas is the head coach of the University of Guelph and Speed River Track and Field teams. He is a 19-time Canadian University Coach of the Year and has coached Olympians and 17 national teams.
Special to The Globe and Mail