42K to Couch to 5K – The Training Plan That Got Me Running Less

For three weeks, the following visuals triggered a flash of pure rage in me: running shoes, technical fabrics, my Garmin, shorts, the gym, food with “energy” in its name, emails from the charity I’d run for, and anyone who was out running or might have just been running or was possibly just about to go running, or could have run at some point in their life.  And Top Gear, but that may have been unrelated.

Most infuriating were those smug, leap-out-of-bed-types bounding across Primrose Hill regardless of the weather, too smitten with running to be even remotely bothered to judge those foolish enough not to have caught on to their miracle remedy for the crushing reality of adult life.  What was their problem?  Who the hell did they think they were?  How on earth could I become one of them?

In my last two posts, I wrote about the day I’d scorned running (Not Much Distance Left to Run – How a Marathon Killed My Love of Running) over the course of 42km, and the day I used CBT to reunite with my love six weeks later, swearing I would not take it for granted ever again (Running, I love you. Take Me Back, I’m in it for the Long Run.).  Today I’m going to talk about the bit in between.

The background
Like all great break up fights, I spent the first two quarters of the marathon feeling like I was winning.  The third quarter wore me down and I started to tire of the repetition.  In the final quarter I abdicated myself of all responsibility, blaming not my own insufficient contributions in the preceding months, but rather the other party for unfair standards, faltering support, and for not adequately forewarning me of the tendency to be, quite frankly, a bit boring.

After the race, as the frustration burned low on just the fumes of adrenaline, the blame returned inwards.  In my exhausted state, my body managed to convince me that not only had I failed in my goal, I had pretty much failed at life.  My worth and acceptability as a person were at stake, and so I felt understandably humiliated and hopeless.  And again, like all great break ups, that lasted exactly until my next decent meal, at which point I reignited the fury and pledged never to set foot in a running shoe again.

Emotions are a handy thing.  If we didn’t have them we’d rarely be motivated to do anything, ever.  If we didn’t feel curiosity and excitement, we’d never try anything new (like a marathon).  If we didn’t feel anger, shame and humiliation, we may never leave situations where we are being repeatedly violated or degraded.  Like a marathon.

Unfortunately, sometimes our overprotective body attributes the emotions of a previous experience (like the marathon) to any remotely related situation (like a gentle run).

Enter the battle of competing motivations. In this case, after three weeks I was missing exercising and I was motivated to go for a run, but that was competing with my other motivation not to feel crap about myself.

Competing motivations
Motivation to do something doesn’t just sit on its own scale somewhere between no thanks and totally pumped.  It is relative to other motivations, which are often in competition with one another to direct our behaviour.  Our unconscious, automatic brain is motivated to protect us from danger, find us food and conserve energy by doing whatever comes easiest (habits).  In the deliberate part of our brain we are motivated to do more complex, abstract or novel acts, often with longer term potential benefits, like going to a dinner party because there’s a chance tonight might be the night you meet a woman who introduces you to her brother who knows a dude who shares a flat with a teacher whose colleague just might be your soulmate, even though you quite fancy a night in.

Because the deliberate brain takes a lot more energy than the automatic, when you’re tired or emotional, you’ll feel stronger motivation to fall back on habits than to do what you logically know has a better potential outcome.

Thus, competing against my motivation to run is not just my motivation to protect myself from the residual upsetting motivations of the marathon, but also my unconscious motivation to save energy by doing what comes automatically and easiest to me, i.e. stay on the sofa.

Sofa Vs Running
Sofa Vs Running

Experiment: Shifting the Balance
I was lying on the sofa.  My motivation to stay lying on the sofa was pretty strong.  I also wanted to get out running, and to become one of those runners who bounds out the door first thing every morning.  But from where I was lying, I may as well have been dreaming of becoming a swordfish.  In the battle of motivations, there were simply too many steps between where I was and where I wanted to be for it to be a fair fight.

These are the steps between lying on the sofa and being out running:

  1. Lying on the sofa
  2. Sitting on the sofa
  3. Sitting forward on the sofa
  4. Standing up
  5. Checking the weather outside
  6. Choosing some running clothes
  7. Getting changed
  8. Choosing some running shoes
  9. Putting my shoes on
  10. Finding a hair tie
  11. Tying my hair back
  12. Looking for a clean glass
  13. Washing a glass
  14. Pouring a glass of water
  15. Drinking a glass of water
  16. Setting the alarm
  17. Locking the door
  18. Walking out the gate
  19. Starting to run
  20. Continuing to run

These are the steps to being on the sofa:

  1. Stay on the sofa

Tough call.

I made a deal with myself: all I had to do was ask myself at each step whether I felt like I could do the next step.   There was a big difference between lying on the sofa and going running, but there was not so much between lying on the sofa and sitting on the sofa.  There was also not a lot of difference between sitting on the sofa and moving to the edge of the sofa, and from there I may as well stand up.

I re-rated my motivation for the two competing actions at each step.  Here’s what happened.

Competing motivation graph

My motivation to be on the sofa dropped rapidly as soon as I started moving, but it wasn’t really until I was out the door that the motivation to be running shifted from logically wanting to run, to genuinely feeling like running.  After that it was easy.

The difficult part was the process of getting from the sofa to the gate.  In order to give running better odds in the battle of motivations, I would need to make this process easier somehow.  One way to do this is to “automate” parts of it, to make it a habit.  If I could make it a daily habit to put on my running clothes and walk to the gate, then maybe I would find myself more motivated to run regularly.  Perhaps that’s what those carefree, unreasonably beautiful Gazelles in Primrose Hill do every day, just douse themselves in Lululemon and then Find Themselves Running.

Habit is just about repetition.  Think back to any skill you’ve ever stuck with – driving, a second language, musical instruments, finding your way around a new city.  At first, every step you take requires deliberate, concentrated action.  With time and repetition it starts to feel easier, as certain aspects of the skill move into that automatic part of your brain.  Eventually it becomes so automatic that you can do other things at the same time, because you no longer have to think the whole time.

You know that feeling you get when you’re trying to do a U-turn in busy traffic because SOMEONE read the map wrong, and that someone is still trying to tell you about how that bassist from that band now makes cheese?  That’s how life would feel all the time if we didn’t have the ability to form habits.

Experiment: It’s Not About the Run
The aim of the experiment was to see if I could make a habit of getting ready to run.  I would start every morning by getting dressed into my running clothes, regardless of whether I had the time or motivation to run.  It didn’t matter if I went any further than the gate – I would only run if I really felt like it once I was outside.

The Predictions
I expected that over time the act of getting into running gear and out to the gate would become automatic, and therefore easier.  Because of the ongoing motivation to do things that are easier, I predicted that as each step between bed and running got easier, I’d be more motivated to go for a run.  At least I hoped so, because I couldn’t think of a better way to measure this.

Of course, the ultimate goal was to run regularly, and I must admit I harboured a hopeful prediction that I would spontaneously burst into a sprint like those Primrose Gazelles I hated to love.  So I recorded the minutes spent exercising as well.

The results
I rated my motivation to run upon waking, while in my pajamas, once I’d put running clothes on, standing at the gate, and finally once I was on my way (if I did make it out the gate).  Here’s what it looked like. (Click on the graph to make it bigger.)

Two weeks of running clothes - motivation

This is not tidy. Basically, there was no real pattern or change to my motivation to run immediately after I woke up and while I was still in pajamas.  There was also no discernible pattern to my motivation after getting my running clothes on.  This could mean that two weeks wasn’t long enough to properly form this habit.  Or it could mean my theories are just plain wrong.

I did notice that after a couple of days, my motivation to run was almost always high by the time I got to the gate, regardless of my earlier levels of motivation. There were only three days where it didn’t increase between getting dressed to getting to the gate, and two of those were the only two days I did zero exercise.  One thing is clear: the key is in the gate.  If I make the decision based on how I feel in the house, I probably won’t run, but if I can postpone the decision until I’m at the gate in my running gear, I appear to have an 11 in 14 chance of feeling like exercising, and a 12 in 14 chance of actually exercising.

As for the ultimate goal: well, I didn’t run far, but I did run often.  The first two days I needed to introduce an additional motivating factor to get moving – in case you’re wondering, it takes 8 minutes to run around my block and to the nearest café.  It takes 3 minutes if I go direct.  Every morning that I stopped by the café, it was full of contented Gazelles in impeccable athletic apparel. For a brief moment, I was one of them.  I think they might be on to something.

To paraphrase Thoreau, I say, beware of all enterprises that require new running clothes, and not rather a new wearer of running clothes.

© Cognitive Behave Yourself, 2013.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full credit is given to Jane Gregory with a link to the original material.  For CBT in North-West London please visit www.hampsteadcbt.com.

With thanks to Michael Otto and Jasper Smits, whose workshop on exercise for mood and anxiety introduced me to the idea of competing motivations.


  1. I just enjoyed hearing you on the Allusionist. Disposing or disarming harmful words reminded me of a passage I remembered from ‘Zen in the Matial Arts’, attributed to Bruce Lee… He recommended mentally writing down negative or unwanted thoughts on a notepad, examining them, and internalizing them… Then mentally ripping that page out of the notebook and throwing that paper in an actively kindling fireplace… Watching the validity and very ontology literally go away, disarming and hopefully eliminating the hold that word or concept had on the afflicted. I didn’t find that 100% effective – but sure its effect could be amplified with practice and concentration.
    Much thanks again.

    1. Thanks Robert! I think repeated practice is the key. As long as there is a sense of the emotion passing (rather than immediate relief from it), then the technique is probably doing some good. And I think we can trust Bruce Lee when it comes to disarmamant.

      Glad to hear you enjoyed the podcast.

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