5 Science-Backed Mind Tricks That Will Motivate You to Run

Hack your brain's internal reward system to manufacture the motivation you need to get moving.

Maybe you’ve signed up for your first half marathon. Or you have some serious goals to tone up for summer. Or heading out for a run is the most accessible form of physical fitness when your entire paycheck is going to rent and student loans.

Whatever the reason, you’re attempting to make running a part of your daily routine.

And so far, Netflix and the snooze button are totally dominating the battle with lacing up your sneakers.

Some people are “runners.” They pop out of bed at 6 a.m. and jump right into their sneakers. They go for “long runs” on the weekend that are further than you’re willing to drive for a bacon, egg and cheese to cure your hangover. They wax poetic about hitting the wall, pushing past it, and being able to run for miles and miles and miles.

You, on the other hand, feel like you’re dragging that wall along with you the entire time.

The good news: it’ll get easier. Exactly how long it takes to complete the process of habit formation is debated, but most experts clock in somewhere between the 2 to 4 week mark. Not to mention that as your cardiovascular fitness improves, it will just be easier to run. Period. But that, too, takes time. Meaning you’re going to have to lace up those sneakers consistently for awhile before it becomes second nature.

Until then, you’re going to need some tricks to find the motivation to keep you hitting the pavement—through the side stitches, and leg cramps and all the huffing and puffing. Here are five ways to manufacture that motivation that isn’t coming naturally.

Recall Past Experiences with Running That Were Enjoyable

We know, the early morning wake-up calls and after-work treadmill sessions where you drag yourself through three miles are painful. But there has to be a good memory associated with running in there somewhere. Maybe it’s sprinting around the backyard playing with friends as a kid, running with your dog on the beach, or crossing the finish line of a 5k race with your friends cheering you on. It’s worth it to rack your brain for the memory: Science shows that remembering a time when you enjoyed doing an activity can spark your motivation.

A 2014 study showed that recalling and describing a positive memory of a task increased motivation to perform that task. Not only did remembering the pleasant experience of an activity boost motivation to start doing it, but study participants actually achieved more over the next week when they had the positive memory in mind.

Start with an Embarrassingly Easy Goal

It’s a no brainer that if you haven’t run in years, setting out on a 5-mile jog is probably not the best plan of attack. But we’re talking setting a goal even smaller than you may think.

Run up and down the driveway. Run to the end of the block and back. Get on the treadmill and jog for 10 minutes.

The brain produces dopamine every time you achieve something, no matter how small it is—yes, that includes running around the block.

So if you’re having a hard time finding the motivation to hit the pavement, tricking your brain into rewarding you for a not-so-ambitious goal is a sneaky way of manufacturing that motivation you’re in need of.

“Dopamine floods your body and mind with a rush of satisfaction and reward anytime you succeed at achieving something biologically necessary for your survival,” wrote Christopher Bergland, author of The Athlete’s Way, in Psychology Today. That’s why we feel so good after eating a sandwich, flirting at the bar, or yes, running around the block.

Which makes those small achievements very valuable: The dopamine release you’ll get from the initial accomplishment will leave you with a boost of feel-good chemicals that will propel you to keep moving towards your goal. Hyped up off the dopamine, tomorrow’s run may just be two blocks. 

Or Accomplish An Unrelated Fitness Goal

We draw motivation from our success … and those successes don’t necessarily need to entail the act of running to produce a shot of dopamine that can fuel our motivation to hit the pavement.

Dopamine is often referred to as the “reward molecule,” and the more of it we are able to create, the more likely we are to persevere and accomplish goals. Scientists have identified higher levels of dopamine as being linked to forming lifelong habits, such as perseverance. Research shows that higher levels of dopamine might be a major differentiating factor between those with an internal drive to persevere with those who are more likely to give up.

So do something you know you can achieve,  like biking 5 miles or completing a yoga class, and bank on that dopamine release.

“Obviously, there are a wide range of factors that come into play when someone decides to persevere—but dopamine can be harnessed and used as a prime motivating force to help you keep pushing and achieve your goals,” wrote Bergland.

You can strengthen any circuit in the brain by simply using it more, and that goes for your motivation to stick to your training, and the perseverance to push through it when it gets tough. If these things aren’t coming naturally, get a boost from achieving some smaller goals in a similar area, so you can strengthen that natural motivational response.

Get Your Dopamine Boost from Something More Fun Than Exercise

If running round the block or finishing a spin class just isn’t cutting it, there is another sneaky way to force that dopamine release.

Say, for example, every time you head out for a run you swing by your favorite coffee shop for a latte. Or if you hit your goal of running four times a week, you treat yourself to a manicure or a movie.

Running just became a whole lot more appealing didn’t it? When you don’t yet have the internal motivation to tackle a goal, linking it to an extrinsic reward will do the trick. When your alarm goes off in the morning, it’s a whole lot easier to lace up your sneakers for a run when you know your cinnamon almond milk latte is at the end of it.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, coined this very handy 3-step process the “neurological habit loop.” When a behavior becomes habitual, our brain strongly associates certain cues with certain rewards. But until something becomes habitual we can mimic this process by consciously employing the habit loop. Implementing it into your routine encourages your brain to make something a habit and it can work wonders on turning you from a couch potato to an avid runner.

“An extrinsic reward is so powerful because your brain can latch on to it and make the link that the behavior is worthwhile. It tells our brain whether we should store this habit for future use or not,” he explained. “It increases the odds the routine becomes a habit.”

Make Your Progress Visible

Don’t underestimate the power of the statement, “you have to see to believe.”

A study published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization set out to prove just how powerful the visual indication of process towards a goal can be. Students were paid to build Lego figurines called Bionicles, which they knew would then be dismantled. Each additional figurine they built earned a decreasing amount of money than the previous. Group one participants watched their Bionicles be dismantled as soon as they were built, while group two was told that their work would be dismantled at the end of the study, but were able to see the growing number of completed Bionicles placed on a desk throughout the creation of the exercise.

At the end of the exercise, group two out-built group one, eleven to seven.

That visible indication of progress—the growing batch of completed Bionicles—motivated group two to keep building, even knowing that they would all eventually be dismantled and that they were earning less money for each additional Bionicle built.

Why are we telling you this? You can employ this mind trick to get yourself to stick with your running routine. We encourage you to get a calendar and physically mark off every time you get in a run. Seeing those accumulating red X’s or neon Post-It notes will serve as your visible indication of progress to create the surge of motivation you need to stick with your running routine.

You know, until it becomes a habit and you’re one of those up-at-6-am-wall-pushing-runner’s-high types.


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