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Some motivation musings

As Woody Allen famously said, “80 percent of success is showing up.” And this rings true for running, too. As often the hardest part of a run is showing up in the first place.

I like to think I’m pretty motivated to keep fit and in good shape. But this isn’t always true. Some days I wake up and just don’t feel like exercising — even-though I know I’ll feel great afterwards. Other days, the first thing I want to do in the morning is hit the gym or go for a run.

I started to wonder what was causing these lapses in motivation, and in contrast what was causing me to wake up highly motivated.

Today I’d like to share what I wish I knew about motivation before I started running.

Motivation, behavior and time management

In an effort to understand how the motivation to exercise is linked to behaviour, researchers at Penn State ran a study where 33 college students were assessed over a 10-week period. The study measured both the students’ weekly intentions to be physically active and their activity levels.

During each of the 10 weeks, participants were instructed to log on to a website and to rate their intentions to perform physical activity for the week ahead.

The team found that for many of the participants, the motivation to exercise fluctuated on a weekly basis, and these fluctuations were linked to their behaviour.

“Our motivation to be physically active changes on a weekly basis because we have so many demands on our time,” explained David Conroy, professor of kinesiology at Penn State.

“Maybe one week we’re sick or we have a work deadline — or, in the case of students, an upcoming exam. But these lapses in motivation really seem to be destructive. Our results suggest that people with consistently strong intentions to exercise have the best chance of actually following through on their intentions, while people with the greatest fluctuations in their motivation have the hardest time using that motivation to regulate their behaviour.”

These lapses in motivation can be caused by something as simple as time management. During the week the students at Penn State had many demands on their time, such as course schedules, job schedules and extracurricular activities.

The same is true for many of us post-college, too. We have so much to manage on a day-to-day basis (work, meetings, housework, cooking, etc) that once we finish work and chores for the day, or even at the weekend when we have time to ourselves, our time management is thrown out of the window.

Tip: Try to manage your time and make running a part of your daily or weekly schedule. Instead of something you do when you have some spare time.

Motivation Formula

In his book, Drive, Dan Pink lists three elements of the motivation formula:

Autonomy: the urge to have control of our own lives and destinies

Mastery: the desire to become better at something that really matters

Purpose: the need to do what we do in the service of something larger than oneself

Whilst Pink’s book is mainly aimed at businesses looking to motivate employees, the three elements in his motivation formula can also link to running.


In your running, you should pick your own distances, locations and do runs on your terms — for example, maybe you’re not looking to run longer distances, but to improve your 5k time. Autonomy is all about focusing on what you feel is best for you.


We want to get better at doing things, right? That’s why a lack of progress when you first start learning something often feels frustrating. A sense of progress helps motivate us to keep going. In his book Pink believes that we should work on ‘Goldilocks tasks’, which are neither too difficult nor too easy. With each run you go on the trick is to reach a little higher in order to foster gradual improvement.


Pink says that it’s connecting to a cause larger than yourself that drives the deepest motivation. A great example of this in running terms, is raising money for a charity or cause by running a race.

Can you be too happy to exercise? How emotions affect motivation

Researchers from John Carroll University found that we’re more likely to plan workouts on the days we’re in a neutral frame of mind — being neither happy or sad.

During the study, 153 college students were divided into three groups. One group watched a segment from the TV show “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” A second viewed a sad scene from the movie “Marley & Me” in which a family pet dies and a third group watched a clip from a business documentary. Each video was designed to help put students in either a positive, negative or neutral mood.

After the students had watched the videos they were then asked about their intentions to exercise. The John Carroll researchers had expected that happy people would be more likely to say they planned to exercise than those who had a neutral or sad outlook.

However, the results show that students who watched the upbeat video said they were less likely to plan physical activity than those in the neutral group. People who watched the sad video had the weakest intentions to exercise.

The study suggests that sometimes emotions — both positive and negative — prevent us from engaging in exercise.

Rethinking how we approach motivation

Motivation is tricky topic as it can be affected by so many internal and external factors. Here are 3 tips for staying motivated.

3 Tips to Staying Motivated

1. Manage your Time

Look to schedule time for running and exercise in your daily or weekly routine. This way you’ll always know when you’re going to be active and running won’t just be something you do when you get a spare hour-or-two.

2. Don’t make you runs too easy, or too hard

Going back to the mastery part of the Motivation Formula, you should always make your runs just a little bit tougher each time — never too hard, or too easy. By challenging yourself on each run and seeing progress, you’ll stay motivated.

3. Do today, what you know you can do tomorrow

A number of modern exercise plans and diets are unsustainable. You might be able to stay motivated and stick with them for a few weeks, but once you stop you’re back to square one.

Focus your time on runs and workouts that you can do day-after-day, not just once off.

5 Replies

Crumbs Runner56, that's a seriously long and thought provoking post! I think it's important not to attempt anything too difficult too quickly. Progress and improvement are gradual things and pushing too hard leads to injury. Personally, the best way to ensure I'm going to run is to lay out my running kit the night before. It somehow feels like a definite commitment, so not running is unthinkable. Horses for courses I suppose. :)


Awesome! Well thought and explained. I am lucky enough to (generally) set my own schedule, and running is something I do before I get diverted by other things. As I am an early morning person this works too.


I don' t see any mention of weather and day length in there! I have to admit that my running is reduced to 1 x weekend 10k per week, since I mainly run off road or on country lanes and doing that in the dark before work is just not practicable now that so many routes are muddy quagmires. Fear not for me, though, come the longer days I will be back up to 3 runs per week. I just wish I could fit them in now. I miss them.

I just cannot find the motivation to run around the streets or go to a gym.


Either that or move to a drier climate.


I'm for that :)


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