Cross country running on uneven terrain.

Considering a charity challenge soon? Whether it’s a walk, run or cycle, here’s how to stay motivated

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How do you get motivated even when you don’t feel like it? We get inspiration from professional athletes on how to stay in the zone and stick to a training plan.

Every athlete knows the challenges of staying motivated. When they are in the zone – or ‘flow’ as some call it – they’re at the best. But what’s the trick in getting there? Whether you’re trying to keep fit or you’re training for an event, this is how to exercise when you don’t want to and keep up with your training goals.

‘iiParathlete at the London Marathon. Photo by Ariel Pilotto

Have a sense of purpose

Many endurance athletes are all too familiar with ‘the wall’ — that point when motivation wavers in the face of fatigue and the effort required to carry on. Research in exercise science has shown that the brain continuously weighs up how hard something feels against our desire to do it and makes us slow down or stop when the two are out of kilter.

The answer is to have another, more personal reason to carry on — a sense of purpose. Run in memory of loved ones who have died, do it to make your children proud or run to raise money for a charity you’re passionate about.

Schedule your exercise and eating plan ahead of time

For your race to go without a hitch, Elkie Mace, the coach behind Run with Elkie, stresses the need to plan your logistics ahead of time. “Doing so will make you feel less nervous and more confident on race day,” she explains. Planning ahead isn’t just about making sure you set your alarm in time, either. “Set out your tried and tested kit the day before, plan your travel — be sure to account for a possible missed connection. You should also know what you will eat when and where the last toilet stop is.”

Plan your pace based not only on your fitness, but also the course and the weather conditions. “Your strategy could be a consistent pace all the way round or aiming for a negative split (running the second half more quickly than the first). Use your watch to help you and get a pace band to wear on the day.”

Food shouldn’t be forgotten either — if you’re trying to build muscle, you’ll need to up your protein, so make sure you’ve got plenty of food in that’ll tick the box and plan your meals ahead of time to prevent going off your nutrition track.

Cross country running on uneven terrain.
Sunrise runner. Photo by Jeremy Bishop
Focus on process rather than the goal

After the initial thrill of setting oneself a new challenge, it’s common to feel discouraged in the face of the effort needed. Endurance athletes tend to separate the goal into different parts and concentrate their efforts on one at a time. As professional ultrarunner Coree Woltering has it: “I break things down to 10 seconds at a time.’ A mindset based on a sequence of small victories keeps one motivated for longer-term goals.

Elkie Mace believes the key to successful training involves including varied intensities and distances into your weekly programme. “A good basic formula is one steady run, one fast interval session, and one long slow run.” Elkie also emphasizes the importance of prioritising strength training as well, given the prevalence of injuries which can debilitate even the most seasoned runners.

Be realistic and be kind to yourself

Unrealistic expectations quickly lead to dissatisfaction, disappointment and even panic. Endurance athletes acknowledge the difficulties to come — the duration, the pain — which also has the benefit of leaving them open to performance-boosting pleasant surprises. Acknowledging that something is going to be a long slog — and that some days you won’t meet your goals — helps us cope with it and move on with unwavering dedication and positivity.

The best athletes also keep their spirits up by replacing negative self-talk and dark moods with a kind attitude towards themselves, and by taking positive action when the inevitable low points occur — by adjusting their plan, for instance, refuelling or giving yourself an unscheduled day off. Olympic athlete and half-marathon record-holder Ryan Hall calls it ‘running the mile you’re in’.

“Have a positive mantra you can repeat to yourself and use visualisation,” Elkie Mace adds. “Turn a grimace to a grin! Science proves smiling reduces our perception of pain.”

A woman running to stay fit and healthy
London runner. Photo by Jack Atkinson
Pace yourself and don’t overdo it

Veteran endurance athletes know how crucial it is to restrain yourself — even (and perhaps especially) when you’re doing well. Novices often start moving faster if they feel good early in a race, leading them to overextend themselves. Running coach, writer and podcast host Mario Fraioli says: “A successful marathon, regardless of what speed you are running at, is the person who slows down the least. You’ve got to slowly chip away.”

The excitement of your race may keep you up for nights before, but Elkie urges runners “give your body the best chance to perform” by getting ample rest in the lead up. “If your race is on a Sunday, make sure to get good sleep on the Thursday and Friday nights,” she advises. Adapting your diet will also help you succeed. “Slightly increase your carb intake forty-eight hours before the race and plan to get a decent portion of protein after the race.” Additionally, she points out that you should begin practicing your race fueling strategy during training and to avoid trying anything new on race day.

Like any skill motivation can be developed. When you start small and increase slowly you will reap the rewards. Every step will get you one step closer to being in the zone.

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