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  • Writer's pictureAsh Radford

Use this ultramarathoners simple strategy to overcome low exercise motivation

Imagine running 14,500 km in 195 days....

That's an average of 80 kms a day.

Ultramarathoner Pat Farmer managed that incredible feat in running around Australia in 1999.

It's no surprise he often struggled for motivation, both in training and while running around the continent.

How running around Australia & getting fit are the same challenge

It seems ridiculous to compare running around Australia with simply getting fit. In essence though, both are a numbers game.

To get fit takes frequency and consistency. The number of workouts over months and years matters most. 10 workouts over 6 months won't do much. 150 in a year however will make a difference.

Whether its total kilometres covered or number of strength training repetitions, significant change comes from hundreds and thousands of efforts.

Farmer's battle to run several hundred kilometres a week is essentially the same as your battle to simply exercise regularly . It's just on a different scale. The training, like the circumnavigation itself, takes consistency and frequency, the same ingredients needed to get and stay moderately fit.

It's a battle because we all have days when we just don't feel like it. Motivation to exercise fluctuates, its largely why this blog exists- exercising frequently gets difficult.

While Farmer was clearly highly motivated to run there was also many, many times when his motivation was low. He couldn't wait for motivation to strike- that's a poor strategy. Instead, he used a simple but effective method we can all apply.

Long, straight open road heading toward the horizon
Photo by Meriç Dağlı on Unsplash

Put your shoes on

Pat Farmer would wake at an ungodly hour for 150km training runs. Most often he didn't feel remotely capable of mustering up the motivation to run to just the end of the street. He'd tell himself to simply put on his clothes and running shoes then re-assess.

Having managed that he'd then tell himself to go to the front gate and re-assess again. While still feeling terrible, he'd set himself the task of running to the first telegraph pole. Next step was end of the street. Then repeat the process to the next achievable landmark.

Inevitably he'd find some momentum and flow and be on his way. Any need for chunking the task into such small goals a distant memory.

Starting is often the hardest part

As Woody Allen said, “80 percent of success in life is just showing up.”

That's very applicable to exercise. Although exercise itself is effortful, there's a deceptive level of mental effort required to start.

The more complexity and steps needed to start the harder it'll be. Farmer even took to occasionally sleeping with his running shoes and clothes on, to remove those steps from the process of getting going early in the morning.

Breaking the task down into small steps is a practical and simple way to get workouts going.

Just yesterday I had to employ that tactic to begin a strength training session. I felt really flat and I'm finding my current program very demanding. Plus, it was exceptionally humid here in Sydney yesterday. With all those factors seemingly against me I wasn't sure I could get it done.

One thing I knew I could do though was start.

My only objective being to get through the first 3 exercises. Then re-evaluate if I was capable of doing the whole session.

I'm not going to lie, it sucked.

It was uncomfortable. Not fun.

That feel good state, often referred to as Runners High, certainly wasn't what I was experiencing.

In truth, any feelings of euphoria come from exercising relatively continuously for at least 20 minutes. While I did feel somewhat better after 5 to 10 minutes of toil, I wasn’t exactly jumping out of my skin. This is part of the great challenge with getting started, you know you're not going to feel great immediately and there'll likely be a period of slog.

That's why that simple strategy of setting really short or small goals initially is so useful. Aiming for just a minute or just 1 set of an exercise helps. Think as small as your level of motivation requires.

Another tip for making it easier to start is to begin with a warmup of moderate intensity that's not hard to face up to. An appropriate warm up is as much about psychological preparation as it is physical. Ease into it.

Countering overwhelm

When you consider the sheer number of kilometres, repetitions and workouts needed to either run around Australia or achieve a decent level of fitness, overwhelm is natural.

The old saying "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" is apt. In truth, any journey not only begins with a single step but consists of single steps throughout the middle and the end.

Getting fit, like so many pursuits in life, is ultimately a tale of taking many small steps. Keeping that in mind is helps when just 20 minutes of exercise feels a herculean task.

Breaking it down into the smallest of steps and just focusing on that next step will reduce overwhelm and keep you moving forward. It's so simple yet deceptively effective.

Another way of using this simple strategy with exercise

In most hour long personal training sessions I'll set clients mini circuits or drills which take about 3 to 5 minutes. It's a means of breaking down an hour of exercise into bite sized chunks.

While there's undoubted benefit in 15 minutes of non-stop cardio, it's an awful lot easier when broken into several segments. What's more it keeps it interesting and varied.

It's another approach worth considering which you might find makes your training more enjoyable and achievable, especially when motivation is low.

Such dips in motivation are inevitable if you commit to fitness. Having strategies to overcome them is imperative.

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