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Fooling Ourselves into Running: Six Of One Mile, Half A Dozen Miles Of The Other

Posted Apr 05 2010 12:00am


Below is an article I wrote about motivational techniques that was originally intended for the premier issue of our running magazine, Running Hoosier, of which I am Managing Editor (and Lead Writer). However, we had more submissions than we could incorporate into the first issue, so I volunteered to omit my article so that more articles from of our writing staff could instead be featured in the premier issue. I felt a little sad that the article wouldn't be published in our premier issue, but was happy that our writing staff, who'd worked so hard to perfect their articles, would be recognized and rewarded for their efforts.
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Fooling Ourselves into Running: Six Of One Mile. A Dozen Miles Of The Other

By Corey Irwin

Let’s face it. No matter what our experience level, we all go through phases in which we’re super-motivated and gleefully trot off to our workouts without a second thought, and also those in which we play mind games with ourselves and struggle to get out the door. So why does it seem so effortless to get going in some instances, and so difficult in others? Whatever the reasons for this internal resistance – stress, the daily demands of a busy schedule, etc. – it’s still essential that we honor the important exercise and health promises we made to ourselves.

Now, if the internal resistance we’re facing is due to overtraining, then it might be time to take a short break and reevaluate our methods, in order to return to our workouts feeling refreshed. However, if there’s another explanation for our low motivation, then it’s time to approach our workouts with a fresh perspective and new strategies.

So, the million-dollar question is this: How do we prolong the high-motivation phases, while, at the same time, minimizing potential obstacles to exercise success?

In my experience as both a runner and a running coach, there is one truism that never fails to produce results: Once the mind is open and willing, the body will follow. This requires the mind to be predisposed towards (increased levels of) physical fitness, and one way to do that is to lower one’s internal barriers of resistance to exercise and to new exercise challenges.

Also, any time we develop new exercise patterns-- whether it be the start of a new exercise routine, the addition of new exercises to our existing routine, or an increased level of difficulty in our exercise challenges-- there is another integral step that we must take to stay motivated, and to reinforce and renew our exercise commitments: We must transform our new patterns into regularly practiced ones, so that they go beyond mere temporary fixations, and instead become integrated into the rhythm of our daily lives.

It doesn’t matter if we’ve been running for years or are just getting started; the process is essentially the same: Prepare the mind for fitness, visualize the steps, and then implement them. It’s as simple as that.

For many, the most challenging part of the process is often the initial step of getting out the door. However, once we get past this part, we are on our way. The process is akin to Newton’s First Law of Motion (also called the ‘Law of Inertia’): “An object at rest or in uniform motion will stay in that state, unless acted upon by a net force.” In other words, a person’s mind is basically the equivalent of that net force: Once we set our minds in motion, by creating purposeful intent, resolve, and a realistic, sustainable plan of action, we set the stage for ‘self-propulsion.’ And then, of course, the rest of the process is about us literally and metaphorically putting one foot in front of the other.

So how does this translate into specific strategies, on practical level?

Clear your mind and stay focused in the present. The most vivid and uplifting exercise experiences happen to us when we occupy each moment in the present tense. We become most effective when we turn our focus to what lies immediately before us, versus what lies far beyond us. This also means that we must let go of any thoughts which keep us tied to the past, or project us too far into the future.

The experience of sports is essentially all about what we can do, and are doing, now. It’s not about whom we were or what we did. That old high school or college track record we set 10 or 20 years ago isn’t going to help us achieve future glory, so it’s best to let it go, and leave it where it belongs – in the past. By doing this, we are essentially granting ourselves our own freedom – the freedom to achieve, without precondition, judgment, or self-reproach. The instant we can accept, acknowledge, and celebrate our current state of being and accomplishments, we allow ourselves to move forward in the present, and also look forward to the future.

Remember to breathe. It might sound funny to say “remember to breathe,” but that’s exactly what we need to do sometimes. When we take a conscious breathe, we remember to slow down and focus on what’s immediately in front of us. We become aware. We pay attention, and things become clearer to us.

The metaphoric act of “remembering to breathe” is a powerful way to revitalize the fitness process – because fitness is, in fact, a process. When we reground ourselves in the oh-so-obvious basics -- i.e., the precepts that used to grab our attention at the outset of our fitness programs but have now been overlooked in the hubbub of activity, perhaps in favor of more complex ideas -- we once again become conscious of what we are doing right now, and how it is affecting our fitness progress. We reflect and retrace our steps, and in the process, often remind ourselves of the reasons why we run.

Such reflection can be particularly helpful during times when we might catch ourselves veering off-track: By simply “remembering to breathe,” we press the ‘mental reset button,’ get back to basics, reassess our goals and plans, and begin to realign them with our current realities.

This function becomes all the more crucial during those moments in which we begin to feel like ‘exercise robots’ – Maybe we’ve been running for months on end without cross-training, or perhaps our current exercise programs no longer suit our current needs, but whatever the case, it’s important to keep the spark of motivation alive. While it’s certainly laudable to establish a regular exercise pattern, it’s still essential to remain consciously engaged in the process. This is why the oft-used expression, “Make exercise a habit,” which implies that one is performing an activity which has become rote and mindless, should probably be replaced by the expression, “Make exercise a conscious lifestyle choice.”

Think small and simple, and just put one foot in front of the other. When motivation is low, we can lower our internal resistance to exercise by simplifying the process, and thereby eliminate the mental clutter that’s blocking the pathway to exercise.

So, make it easier on the mind; give it simple tasks that it can easily accept. Literally, think about first steps – like changing into fitness apparel, lacing up the sneakers, and then walking out the door, in that order -- and focus solely upon their execution. Then, once these initial steps have been completed, then shift focus to the next activity.

Now is not the time to think ‘big-picture’ thoughts or to announce our daily fitness intentions before the exercise itself has been completed, which can sometimes add unnecessary pressure and ultimately overwhelm a person right out of exercising. Start with zero expectations and leave the process open-ended.

A useful trick is to adopt a “let’s-wait-and-see” attitude toward exercise, which quite ironically, will often result in the development of consistent exercise patterns. The reason this approach works so well is that it releases us from any initial expectations, helps us to stay focused in the present, and keeps us honest and realistic about what we can do on any given day. Or, put another way, it helps us to only “bite off what we can chew.”

Don’t feel like running? Start out by walking. Chances are that your attitude will change once you get moving. This method is simple and yet, surprisingly effective. By keeping our minds open, we are ‘stacking the cards’ in our favor.

Plus, in any case, a warm-up walk is a good idea to warm up the body and prepare it for running. (For injury prevention reasons, stretching exercises are best done as warm stretches during and after running.)

The expression, “You’ve got to walk before you can run” is particularly apt in this instance.

A similar, step-by-step, motivational technique can be used to increase daily and weekly mileage. Let’s say that the goal is to run 6 miles, but for whatever reason, you’re “just not feeling like it today.” Set your GPS or iPod+Nike (or whatever instrument you use to measure your runs) to a very modest distance that you know without a doubt that you can accomplish without any hesitation, say half that distance, i.e., 3 miles.

By giving ourselves a goal we know we can achieve, we are bound to feel good about ourselves. We focus on what we can achieve, and thereby build confidence in our abilities. We are setting our minds towards the possible, and in the process, setting ourselves on the path to progress.

Then, the next step is to start running. Chances are, once we finish the 3 miles, we’ll feel pretty good about accomplishing this goal, and then we focus our minds upon the next goal, i.e., to run the next 3 miles. Once we make it to the half-way point, our immediate goal is well within reach. Also, practically speaking, this technique of configuring our devices for half the distance also gives us the perfect turn-around indicator for our road-running.

It’s really quite easy to do. This method can be used for any distance, from a mile to a marathon.

The key to winning the motivation game is to take small steps, clear unnecessary roadblocks – including self-created ones, stay engaged in the fitness process, and focus on the immediate goals directly in front of us.

And of course, be sure to celebrate each milestone – both big and small.

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"A runner since the tender age of 5, Corey Irwin entered her very first race, a 5-miler, at age 6, and has been passionate about running ever since. A devoted enthusiast of the outdoors, Corey prefers to run outside all year-round. As a running and wellness coach, multi-sport athlete, running club member and volunteer, and the Managing Editor of Running Hoosier magazine, Corey is dedicated to galvanizing the running and endurance sports communities and to encouraging others to reenvision their fitness, health and overall wellbeing, body image, and abilities in new and far-reaching ways. A vocal advocate of social media and new technology, she actively promotes long-range, preventative health and fitness objectives via her running and recipe/nutrition websites, http://seecoreyrun.blogspot.com/  and http://cookingwithcorey.blogspot.com/ , Twitter via @cyberpenguin , @rockitrunning , and @coachpenguin , Facebook via http://facebook.com/cyberpenguin , and her running and wellness coaching business,  Rock It! Running Company™ .
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