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How to achieve your running goals


Last updated: 23-Aug-18

By Sarah Cooke

Last month, I chatted with Alice Morrison about how to set running goals and suggested some tips for sticking to them as part of her exploration of New Year’s Resolutions and how to keep them. Following on from this, I was asked to write an article on why some people may not achieve their running goals and how to cope with this. I had a lot of ideas and it seemed straightforward. As I write now it seems much less so – I know a lot of runners and they’ve all been disappointed at some stage in their running career but for a whole range of different reasons. We all approach our goals differently and we all respond to setbacks in different ways. Add in the fact that running itself serves different functions for different people and how do you offer useful advice on achieving running goals that will meet the needs of such a varied readership? I’ll do my best…

Ultra running requires a high level of fitness, a huge time commitment, buckets of energy and uses most of your body. Any illness, injury, niggle or deficit in sleep or nutrition can make a goal that originally seemed realistic suddenly insurmountable. One glance at my twitter feed and I will see frustrated tweets from runners who are longing to get out there in their running shoes. There are also medics, nutritionists, physiotherapists, coaches and many more offering useful advice on how to beat injury, ward off infection and eat healthily. But what about those endless tweets in search of that running Holy Grail the ‘mojo’? Most runners would agree that the further you go the more running becomes a mental battle over a physical one. So what do you do if you aren’t ill or injured but you still can’t seem to get your feet out of the door?

When I read about people losing their ‘mojo’, they almost always seem to be referring to a lack of motivation. It can be much harder to understand the absence of something we usually have than to understand the presence of something new. If you roll your ankle, it will be sore; if you don’t sleep, you will notice tiredness. Why does a love of running and the impetus to achieve a goal disappear? Why do some people find it hard to do something that research and experience tells us makes us feel better both inside and out? I don’t think runners are different from non-runners here – we all suffer from ‘can’t be botheredness’ from time to time. If you experience emotional difficulties such as depression, anxiety or low self-esteem then you may experience this so often that you’ve come to accept it and feel stuck in a cycle of perceived failure. If this sounds like you then physical activity and successfully achieving a goal is even more important, so set yourself the goal of finishing reading this article. When you get to the end, think of one thing you’re going to do today that you wouldn’t have done if you hadn’t read it.

Research shows that poor motivation pretty much always stems from one or more of the following factors: 

  • Low expectation of pleasure -  to put it simply, you just don’t think you’re going to enjoy going for a run tonight. No one wants to do something that isn’t enjoyable, so in this situation you would need an external motivator such as being chased or seeing the bus just ahead in order to make you run. The trouble is, the more times you don’t run, the less evidence you have to evaluate whether your prediction of how enjoyable it would be is accurate. If you have had some bad running experiences then it can be even harder to break this pattern.
  • Fear of failure – this may stem from a lack of self-belief, or it may be that you just set a running goal that wasn’t realistic or didn’t have a plan attached to it that makes it seem achievable. If this is the case, then take a look at Alice’s article to help you frame some SMART running goals and stick to them. If self-belief is the problem, then consider how you are ever going to start believing in yourself if you don’t take the risk of putting your abilities to the test.
  • Perception of limited resources – this occurs when we just don’t think we have what is required to do the job at hand. Those most susceptible to this difficulty will be runners who have experienced a setback and see themselves as less able than they once were. This could be an injury or illness, pregnancy or anything else that affects performance or fitness. The gap between where you were and where you are now can make it seem like you’re just not cut out for this anymore. This is highly linked to fear of failure. There may also be a fear of an old injury recurring and a reluctance to take risks.
  • Fear of others’ reactions – I think most runners have experienced this at one time or another. Social networks are a source of encouragement and motivation but they are also a source of negative self-comparisons. If you perceive the people around you to be judgemental or unsupportive (whether they are or not) then it can be difficult to make a start without feeling that you are falling short.

When we decide whether or not to do something, we tend to weigh up the perceived benefits against the perceived risks. If your belief is that you have no athletic ability and that when you head out the door you will be slower than you want to be and other people will criticise you, then you aren’t going to predict that you will enjoy it. That’s quite a bit of risk for no benefit, so why on earth would you go for a run? As this continues, you fall further behind in your training plan and your conviction in those negative beliefs strengthens.

So what is the answer? Quite simply this: go for a run.

In all four factors, lack of motivation persists because we don’t get out there and experiment to find out if the evidence supports our beliefs. You might just find that you do enjoy it, that you succeed, that you are stronger than you thought and that other people are inspired by you. Yes, you might find that some of your beliefs were accurate, but then you know what you’re dealing with and you can target the problems that need solving – for example, do you need more supportive friends? Do your goals needs reframing? Do you need to address an injury? Do you need to change something to make running more fun such as finding a training partner or running a new route?

I hope this has given you some food for thought. If you struggle with motivation then well done – you reached then end of the article. What are you going to do differently?

Your Comments On How to achieve your running goals

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10:57 07-03-17

Love this article Sarah!

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03:43 07-03-17

I am trying hard to stop believing in motivation. If it doesn't exist I'm not going to need it! As somebody who has an anxiety disorder fear of others’ reactions is the biggest factor for me.