Running is one of the most effective ways to improve overall fitness and health, but what if you can’t get yourself to actually do it?

Odille Remmert
Mar 25 · 13 min read
Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

Every time I climbed more than two flights of stairs, I felt like I’d run a marathon. It was ridiculous just how unfit I was. It wasn’t surprising, since I spent all day, every day, sitting in front of a computer — which I loved. But, I really, really wanted to get healthier, fitter, and stronger.

I started a running program recommended by a friend who had experienced immense success with it, and who was now running every day. I was excited. I started the program… four times, over the course of six years in all, and never got further than week five.

Now, I run for 30 minutes, three times a week (and have been doing so for three months) — and I’m loving it!

No more procrastination, no more excuses, and no more forcing myself to run when I’m dreading it.

How did I do it? By using a set of tactics I developed in the course of all those times I failed to get further than week 5. Here’s what I learned, and the specific steps you can take to succeed even more quickly than I eventually did!


Insights

I went through a journey of insights into how I was “self-sabotaging” and came up with a few observations that led to the transformation that I’m enjoying, now. In general, they were:

  • I discovered that putting my running clothes on as soon as I got out of bed in the morning, and then going straight out to run — catching myself by surprise before I could object — worked well… but only in the short-term
  • Where I put my focus determined whether I would run or not
  • Using willpower and determination led to forcing myself to run… which often led to injury or illness, and then giving up completely
  • Bribery works better than toughness
  • Audiobooks. Are. Magic!

Translating those observations into specific tactics and habits made all the difference.


Planning Ahead, and Starting with Joy

Putting my running clothes out the night before and putting them on as soon as I got out of bed was definitely a start. But, making myself go out to run immediately, I discovered, was part of an old pattern of being tough on myself — and it turns out, it wasn’t necessary.

So, I do put my running clothes on as soon as I get out of bed, but I then proceed with my morning gently. First, I have a cup of hot water with fresh lemon, while watching something funny on YouTube — that gets the “feel-good” chemicals in the brain going — getting the day off to a positive start.

I put the coffee on, but I only have my first cup of coffee when I get back from the run. I have a deal with myself: I can take as long as I like before I go running… but I will only have coffee afterwards. This means that the smell of the coffee is now a positive connection to running, and it’s motivation for getting it done.


Setting the Coordinates

Wherever you put your focus is where you’ll be heading in the moment.

Photo by Robert Penaloza on Unsplash

Thoughts are connections in the neocortex of the brain, and those connections between neurons trigger the production of matching chemicals. In other words, thinking a sad thought (a particular neural connection) triggers the release of stress chemicals in the limbic system that create the feelings of sadness. Thinking a happy thought (a different neural connection) triggers the release of endorphins, creating the feelings of happiness.

I discovered that when I thought about going for a run, if I allowed myself to consider the option of skipping the run, I would think about how tired I was: how cold it was outside, how nice it would be to just have a cup of coffee and get on the computer. It didn’t take long for me to come up with a really strong argument for skipping the run!

If, on the other hand, I did not even entertain the idea of skipping it, I could stay in the happy mindset of completing my habit. If I kept my focus on the wonderful feeling of getting back, after the run, taking a shower, and then sitting down with a coffee, having achieved completing the run — I would be more willing to go out and do the run.

So I learned to focus on this imagery, rather than anything having to do with skipping the run.


The Magic of Audiobooks

For me, one of the challenges of running was the boredom. It wasn’t terrible, but the idea of running for 30 minutes seemed tedious. Using the Couch-to-5K app helped — a lot — but music only worked for me for short periods of time.

Then I came up with one of the main reasons I am now loving running for 30 minutes at a time: an audiobook. But not just any audiobook. For me, it needs to be a captivating story, and — most importantly — I only ever listen to it when I’m running.

This means that when I think about going for a run, I choose to focus on the fact that I’m looking forward to hearing what happens next in the audiobook.

It also makes the time go faster, of course.


The Running App

I have to admit that I wouldn’t have got to this point without my running app. When I first started this running program, I was living in the UK and used the one recommended by my friend: Couch to 5K. Since moving to America, I’ve discovered there’s a wide selection of similar apps here.

The apps work in conjunction with the music or audiobook you choose to listen to, and the programs start off with just 60-second runs, interspersed with two minutes of walking.

60 seconds doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re anything like I was, it’s challenging enough to start with. However, it doesn’t take long to start building stamina when it’s organized gradually and in manageable chunks.

The program lasts for nine weeks (three runs per week, with recovery days in-between) — each week building fitness, stamina, and endurance.

So, you start out on Day 1 of Week One, with a five-minute warm-up walk, and the guide explaining to you what to expect for the rest of the week. By the time you get to Week Nine, you’re running for 30 minutes straight.

When the guide isn’t actively giving you instructions, the app automatically plays the music or audiobook you’ve chosen.

After that first day, even though you’ve done mostly walking, the feeling of achievement (and the reward of what you’ve chosen to listen to) is enough to bring you back two days later.


Easy Does It

I used to only see two options to hurdles: (1) forcing myself through resistance, injury, and illness or (2) giving up. If I didn’t force myself to run when I really didn’t feel up to it, I saw it as a failure, and I would then give up. Naturally, this always happens, so I always gave up.

But I changed that perspective when I realized I need to be more gentle with myself. That meant admitting that sometimes the body just needs more rest and recovery. This completely changed my results.

Instead of pushing myself to the point where I gave up, when my ankle hurt a bit at the beginning of Week Six, I took a couple of extra days of recovery, with the intention of starting back at the beginning of Week Five— and continuing to keep my focus on the end result during those recovery days.

It made all the difference, and I was actually looking forward to repeating Week Five because I felt it would be easy since I’d already done it!

As it happened, it wasn’t easier. Weirdly enough, it seemed harder. So, instead of forcing myself harder the following week, I repeated Week Five again. And the great thing was, I was happy to do so! And, it was definitely easier that time. It also made Week Six much easier than it would have been.

There’s no shame in repeating earlier levels until you’re really ready for the next one, with no need to struggle and force yourself.


Getting Yourself to Run for 30 Minutes Three Times a Week

Photo by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash

Now that you’ve read up on the tactics I used, how do you put them into actual practice?

  1. Spend some time thinking about why you want to run. In my case, it was a combination of wanting to feel more energized, get fitter and stronger, and lose some weight. Becoming clear on the end result you’re aiming for will help you to “face the direction you’re going”.
  2. Once you’ve determined your “why,” write down how it will feel once you’ve reached that end result. And make the decision to read this description whenever the smallest resistance or doubt pops into your head — before it builds into a convincing argument for quitting!
  3. The day before you’re going to run, think about running the next day. Think about putting your running clothes on in the morning, about your morning routine, and then about the feeling of having gone on a run. What will you do after you’ve run? Then, lay your running clothes out, ready to put on, when you get up. Note: If your plan is to go running later in the day — after work, for example — lay your running clothes out anyway, so they’re ready to put on as soon as you get home.
  4. Whether you’re running in the morning, or later in the day, as soon as you’re aware you’re awake, that morning, start thinking about the running. Think about the audiobook you’re looking forward to listening to, and think about what you’ll do after you’ve run. Your shower, and whatever it is you’ll do after that. In my case it was my first cup of coffee; for you it might be breakfast, dinner, a smoothie, playing with your dog, watching TV, or reading your emails. Make sure that when your mind wanders to what you’re not looking forward to, or reasons for skipping it, you immediately redirect to where you want to end up — the end result and what you are looking forward to!
  5. If you’re running in the morning, put your running clothes on as soon as you get up. Then, drink some water, do some stretching, watch some comedy — all while thinking about how much you’re looking forward to that audiobook, and how wonderful it will feel to get back from the run, have a shower, and enjoy that treat or activity. If you’re running later in the day, while you’re going about the rest of your day, keep thinking about the audiobook, the feeling you’ll have after you’ve run, and the treat or activity you’re looking forward to once the run is done.
  6. Only ever listen to that particular audiobook during your run. That is, have something queued up for your run that you know you will enjoy, and resolve not to indulge in it other than during your run. This will create a link in your brain between the anticipation and enjoyment of the book and running.
  7. When you really feel too tired, or you feel ill, give yourself a break without “beating yourself up” and without taking that as a sign of failure. The difference between quitting and being kind to yourself by taking a short recovery break is — again — where you put your focus. I found that instead of forcing myself to go out and run when I was injured or ill — and then finally deciding that it “wasn’t working out” — it was better to take an extra day off while still keeping my focus on the end result. That meant I stuck to the program long-term.
  8. Give yourself permission to repeat any previous weeks, until you feel comfortable and inspired to move forward. As long as you’re focusing on: a) that audiobook you’re looking forward to getting back to, and b) the feeling of achievement and whatever it is you do after your run, you will stay on course in an enjoyable, gentle way — without struggle and without forcing yourself or giving up.
  9. During the day, every day, whenever you’re not running, remind yourself how thrilled you are with yourself that you ran. In other words, on a day you’ve run, keep thinking about the fact that you ran and how good it feels to have done it. On a recovery day, keep thinking about how good it feels to have run the day before, and how lovely it is to have a day off — and how much you’re looking forward to running the next day. This will make all the difference to your ability to stick to the program as well as your enjoyment of it. It’s not just where you put your focus before you run, but also where you put your focus between runs, that makes the difference to your success!

When the Going Gets Tough

While you’re actually running, there will be times you’re tempted to stop. I found two things helped me get through this:

Expecting it

Knowing that I was probably going to be tempted to stop helped me to keep going. If you’re not expecting to want to stop, and then you want to stop, you’re more likely to “buy into” the apparently perfectly logical reasoning (in the moment, anyway) your mind will come up with, like: “I think that’s enough for today” or “Well, I really need to get back and water the plants or there won’t be time” or “I could start this properly tomorrow”. But, if you’re expecting it, and you know it’s perfectly normal, you will be more likely to recognize it, acknowledge it as a little resistance, and then continue running anyway.

Making it a choice

I told myself I could stop if I really wanted to, but I’ll just go for a bit longer. Just another minute, just another two minutes, or just another five minutes — depending on where I was in the program. Just another few minutes, and then if I still really want to stop, I will. And then, back to focusing on listening to the audiobook.


Resistance to Resistance Creates Fortitude

Photo by Bill Jelen on Unsplash

Any significant change comes with some resistance. We need resistance to move forward. If you have nothing to push against, you can’t move forward. You need heavier weights than you’re comfortable with in order to build stronger muscles. You need to run for longer than you’re comfortable with in order to build stamina and strengthen your lungs.

The discomfort of resistance causes a natural and automatic resistance to doing the activity. It’s part of being human to want to avoid discomfort. But the more you resist that resistance, the harder you’ll find it to… resist.

Instead of the harsh attitude of refusing and denying, use a compassionate attitude of accepting and allowing. This is to your advantage in two specific ways:

  1. Recognize that it’s perfectly natural to want to stop, especially in the beginning of each run. The first five or ten minutes, I’ve found, are the most difficult. Once I’m past that, it’s much easier to keep going. So, recognize that it’s normal, and to be expected. Just as when you get into a cold swimming pool on a hot summer’s day, you’re expecting it to be cold, and you know that you will eventually acclimatize to the temperature and it won’t feel as cold.
  2. Tell yourself that you can stop. That will remove the automatic instinct to engage in an internal “tug-o-war.” If you argue for why you should keep going, your mind will automatically come up with more reasons for stopping. Whereas if you agree that you can stop, and that if in five or ten minutes, you still really want to stop, you will — your mind won’t need to come up with reasons for why you should stop. You’ve already agreed. And of course, after that five or ten minutes, do the same thing. Eventually, you’ll have just five minutes to go — in which case, you might as well keep running until the end!

The combination of expecting the resistance (and therefore being prepared for it) and keeping your focus on how wonderful it feels after you’ve completed the full run makes it easier for the strategy of deferred quitting to work.

Deferring your “quit” will usually mean you’ll be able to keep going until the very end.


It Doesn’t Need to Be a Struggle

No matter how much you may think you dislike running and aren’t looking forward to it now, if you know you want to benefit from a running routine, and you want to be able to enjoy it, following these steps will automatically result in a complete transformation in how you experience running.

I’m still getting a kick out of the genuine enjoyment and automatic enthusiasm I experience from running now, in addition to the health benefit. It’s a far cry from the struggle I had with the “boot-camp” attitude I used to embody without success.

I’ve found effective ways to keep growing as a runner, too. Since I don’t want to spend more than 40 minutes in total on my time for exercising, instead of increasing the running time, I’ve added hills into my routine — which is strengthening my muscles as well as my stamina.

If someone had told me, three months ago, that I would actually enjoy doing this, I would never have believed them!


Remember:

1. Wherever you put your focus in the moment determines where you’re going — so, keep your focus on the end result and on what you enjoy about the activity, not on the parts you don’t like or the reasons for not doing it.

2. Looking forward to what you enjoy is far more effective than forcing yourself to do something you’re dreading. Build in specific rewards (your audiobook “treat”) and visualize the enjoyment you get from your runs (the enjoyment of a post-run coffee).

3. Give yourself permission to be kind and compassionate to yourself by allowing yourself to repeat steps, or to take a recovery day without seeing it as a failure. This will make all the difference to your results and your enjoyment of your fitness habit.

Happy running!

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Odille Remmert

Written by

Ex-struggler, empowerment coach, writer, brain enthusiast, and effervescent cheerleader of those who choose to find ways to improve themselves and their lives.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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