Training through the coronavirus pandemic – how to stay motivated and come out a mentally stronger runner

 In Mental Training, Motivational, Ultramarathons

Saying things are a little crazy right now is an understatement, with more than half the world either in lockdown or just coming out of it and the vast majority of the other half under some restrictions, life as we know it has been turned upside down. 

Some runners have found that remaining motivated to keep training in these times has been a struggle. With no races on the horizon the drive to get out there and do the hard sessions, or keep consistent in training, can be lacking. For a few though the lack of races hasn’t really changed anything in terms of motivation. It’s business as usual as far as training goes.

So what’s the difference between these two athletes and how can we be more like the latter? 

In essence, it’s the difference between the climber who only climbs the mountain for the view at the top and the climber who climbs it for the experience of the climb – the view at the top is nice to have but not an essential part of their journey. 

If, for instance, the weather is bad when the climbers reach the peak and the view is taken away the first climber is disappointed and struggles to justify the effort required to get to the top, whereas the second climber is barely affected by the lack of view at the top. Their goal was to climb the mountain and that has been achieved.

Running is much the same. Some of us need the pressure of signing up to a race to help motivate us to be consistent with training and to do the hard sessions whereas for others racing is the icing on the cake.

Phsycologists have defined this difference in motivation as the difference between extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic is when you do an activity to earn a reward – in our case that might be a race finish, a strava segment  etc. Intrinsic is doing an activity  because the activity itself is rewarding.  Relating back to our mountain climber the first climber is extrinsically motivated – ie they want the reward of the view at the top and the second climber is intrinsically motivated and enjoys activity of climbing itself. 

Both forms of motivation are useful and necessary to achieve optimal performance but in times like these when races have been cancelled  if you are predominately extrinsically motivated it may be time to start exploring your intrinsic motivation. 

To do this we need to explore the reasons you run.  

Step 1. Define your relationship with running 

Why do you run? What does running give you? How would not running for a sustained period affect you? I am not talking about the reasons for running stupid distances but why do you run at all? You can ask this in a number of ways – eg if you could only run maximum 10kms three to five times a week would you still run and if so why? In what ways does running improve your life and why is that important?  Think of all the physical and mental benefits running may give you. Defining your why will help give you a foundation to fall back on when motivation starts to wane. 


Step 2. Why ultra? 

Now you have a good understanding of why you run then next step is identifying why you like to run long distances.  It’s likely that many of the benefits of running can be enjoyed from a lot less running than some of us like to do. So why do we run for longer? What’s the difference between running 3-4 x 5-10km per week and 70-80km++ per week? Why do 3-4 hour long runs when we could do 1-2 hours? 

Try to avoid using phrases like, “ it challenges me”. Ask why does it challenge you more and why is that important to you? 

Step 3. What do you enjoy whilst running? 

This time instead of thinking about the benefits you may gain after a run (increased fitness, better mental health, increased immune system etc etc) think about what you enjoy whilst you are actually running. For sure we all have some runs where the best part of them is when we stop, but ignore them, think of those runs that feel great. What do you enjoy about those runs? 

The answers to the above don’t have  to be anything super philosophical.  Here are some common answers to the above questions: 

Why do I run? 

I feel better about myself after a run. 
It helps keep me fit and healthy. 
I feel like I am a better person when I am running consistently. 
I enjoy some alone time when running whilst doing something positive for myself. 

Why ultra? 

I enjoy working towards a bigger goal that seems slightly out of my comfort zone. 
I enjoy the challenge of training sessions that get me out of my comfort zone – it gives me a feeling of achievement. 
I enjoy running for long periods of time as it takes me to places both physically and mentally that can’t be achieved in shorter runs. 

What do I enjoy when running? 

I enjoy finding flow state when the kms tick along without any effort.
I enjoy the feeling of my body working efficiently, of the all the different parts of my body working together, to generate efficient movement. 
I enjoy the mental headspace – the time to let my thoughts run free without any other stimulation to distract my mind. 
When my legs don’t feel great I enjoy the mental challenge of keeping them moving. 

Of course you can probably go even deeper into many of the above but hopefully, that gives you some ideas on working out your own whys. 

Hopefully by now you have seen that running has a lot more benefits to it than preparing you for a race. That’s not to say that race goals, attempting FKTs, taking on an iso challenge or having a crack at a Strava segment isn’t a worthwhile endeavour. 

The fact that virtual races like the Race across Tennessee are so popular indicates many of you are looking  for some extrinsic motivation in your training.   I am not suggesting for a second that this is a bad idea but your running experience will be a lot more fulfilling if you can work through the above steps  developing your intrinsic motivation and understand why you run.

Become the climber that loves the experience of climbing and not just the view at the top. 

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