How to Run 13.1 Miles: Stay Motivated

With six weeks still to go before the race, our blogger is wondering how she'll stay the course. Happily, the habit scientists have some hints

by Jennifer Braunschweiger • Deputy Editor
Yep, that's me, sleeping on the job. Think they'd install a trundle bed under my desk?

The race is six weeks away. Right on schedule, I hit a slump. It’s so hard to stay motivated during three months of training.

I ran 6.5 miles on Saturday and 8.1 on Sunday (don’t worry if you didn’t—my shorter weekday runs mean I have to cram in miles on weekends) and it left me pretty tired. Rephrase that: really tired. At the same time, I know I’m not yet ready to run 13.1 as fast as I would like. Tired, but not finished is a tough place to be.

I’ve been in this spot before so I know the only thing to do is to keep running. Stick to my schedule. This is one of the many reasons why running is a mental challenge. The real hurdle isn’t getting your legs strong enough—it’s getting your brain strong enough to keep your legs moving. It took a lot of mental stamina for me to keep running on Sunday when my legs felt like lead and I still had to get up and over the Brooklyn Bridge. And it will take a lot more mental stamina to keep hitting the road for six more weeks even though I’m already so spent.

One of the tools I use to keep myself going is a calendar where I mark off the days I exercise and what I did: if I lifted weights, if I swam, if I ran and how far. I believe it’s my single most important exercise motivator. I think of it as the way I hold myself accountable.

But it turns out that what is going on in my calendar may be a lot more complicated than I thought. If you believe the habit scientists (and yes, they do exist!), filling out the squares on my calendar is a reward that my brain has learned to crave.

This is from a fascinating article on habits in The New York Times Magazine:

“According to another recent paper, if you want to start running in the morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always putting on your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (like a midday treat or even the sense of accomplishment that comes from ritually recording your miles in a log book). After a while, your brain will start anticipating that reward — craving the treat or the feeling of accomplishment — and there will be a measurable neurological impulse to lace up your jogging shoes each morning.”

There it is—right there—“ritually recording your miles in a log book.” It’s a reward that my brain craves that has helped me turn exercise into a habit. I have a simple cue—I walk by the gym on the way to the office—and a clear reward, my beloved calendar. Such a simple thing creates meaning. At tough times like this in my training, when I’m tired, when there are weeks to go and it feels like the race will never come, I rely hard on these simple habits to get me through.

And on my friends and family. Thanks guys!

Read Jennifer's Training Week 1: Handling a Setback

Read Jennifer's Training Week 2: The Pros & Cons of a GPS Watch

Read Jennifer's Training Week 3: Finding Time to Train

Read Jennifer's Training Week 4: Strengthen Your Weak Parts

Don’t miss out on MORE great articles like this one. Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter!

First Published March 14, 2012

Share Your Thoughts!


Post new comment

Click to add a comment