4 Things I've Learned About Running Motivation from James Clear's 'Atomic Habits'

Plus: Race you can run (in person!) in California, Oregon, Montana, Utah + Cape Cod

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”

— James Clear

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing one thing consistently from many of you in emails and comments: it’s really tough to stay motivated right now, especially when most races are cancelled and many of us haven’t been able to get together with the friends we love to run with.

It’s something I struggle with too. Even after all these years of running and the races I’ve finished, my motivation flags sometimes — more often that I’d like, actually!

Why does your brain feel the pull to get out there and give it your all on some days — and simply does not on others? I wish I knew the answer.

This week, I dug up my old copy of James Clear’s 2018 book Atomic Habits (which I’ve written about before here), because I wanted to take another look at some lessons I’d forgotten.

They’re about motivation, creating better habits, and designing how you go about your day so you can bring both of those things into your life. It’s not easy to do any of these things, of course, but what I love is that the author lays out, well, clear ways to do them.

Here’s a few things I learned, which I’m hoping to apply to my own running:

1) Make it obvious — by making a plan to run

Clear tells the story early on in the book of a 2001 study in Great Britain, which worked with a group of nearly 250 people to help them build better exercise habits over the course of two weeks.

The scientists split the people in the study into three groups: a control group that was asked how often they exercised; a second group (called the “motivation” group) that was asked to track their workouts and read articles on the benefits of exercise, which presumably would motivate them to work out more.

The third group was the most interesting. Yes, they were asked to track their workouts, but also to make specific plans for how and when they would exercise over the coming week — with specific dates, times, and places for each workout.

The results? In the first and second groups, just over a third exercised at least once a week. But in the third group, 91 percent exercised at least once a week! As it turns out, getting specific was the key that unlocked building successful habits:

“Being specific about what you want and how you will achieve it helps you say no to things that derail progress, distract your attention, and pull you off course. We often say yes to little requests because we are not clear enough about what we need to be doing instead. When you dreams are vague, it’s easy to rationalize little exceptions all day long and never get around to the specific things you need to do to succeed.”

— From Atomic Habits, page 72

2) Make it attractive — by joining groups that run

Starting as a runner isn’t so hard. You put on your shoes, step out your front door, and go run around the block, or a mile, or a couple of miles. Voilà! You’re a runner!

But it’s very easy to fall out of the running habit if you run only on your own. Though it seems like a simple thing, Clear says there’s a long evolutionary history behind our need to identify with a tribe and the seductive pull of social norms. And both can help you as you strive to develop the running habit.

How? Just join a running group:

“Nothing sustains motivation better than belonging to the tribe. It transforms a personal quest into a shared one. Previously, you were on your own. Your identity was singular... When you join a book club or a band or a cycling group, your identity becomes linked to those around you. Growth and change are no longer an individual pursuit. We are readers. We are cyclists. The shared identity begins to reinforce your personal identity. This is why remaining part of a group after achieving a goal is crucial to maintaining your habits. It’s friendship and community that embed a new identity and help behaviors last over the long run.”

— Page 118

3) Make it easy — by removing obstacles, adding cues to run

Creating a habit strong enough to feel its pull — rather than having to push yourself to do it — takes time. Ironically, Clear writes, habits themselves can be obstacles, because what you really want isn’t the habit, it’s the outcome it delivers. (You don’t necessarily want to run or diet; you want to be fit.)

That’s why it’s crucial to make your habits so easy that you’ll do them when you don’t feel like it — by designing your environment with cues that prompt you to do it, rather than distract you from doing it.

Laying out your running clothes and shoes at the foot of your bed — no matter how simple or silly it may sound — is a cue the next morning that it’s time for a run.

“Certainly, you are capable of doing very hard things. The problem is that some days you feel like doing the hard work and some days you feel like giving in. On the tough days, it’s crucial to have as many things working in your favor as possible so that you can overcome the challenges life naturally throws in your way. The less friction you face, the easier it is for your stronger self to emerge. The idea behind make it easy is not to only do easy things. The idea is to make it as easy as possible in the moment to do things that pay off in the long run.”

— Page 153

4) Make it satisfying — by reward your successes, no matter how small

It’s a safe bet that you know you should eat healthy, drink as little as possible, exercise regularly, and avoid smoking like the plague. But that devil on your shoulder can be awfully persuasive, can’t he?

That’s why, when you’re trying to build healthy habits for the long term, you need to provide yourself with immediate rewards. This helps make the habit satisfying, by associating it with the reward in your mind.

Relying on your own good intentions is a fool’s game, Clear reminds us — nobody’s willpower is that strong over the long term. If you don’t give yourself a reward for doing the thing that pays off over the long term instead of the thing that pays off right now, eventually you’ll give in.

“It’s worth noting that it is important to select short-term rewards that reinforce your [healthy] identity rather than ones that conflict with it...

If your reward for exercising is eating a bowl of ice cream, then you’re casting votes for conflicting identities, and it ends up being a wash. Instead, maybe your reward is a massage, which is both a luxury and a way of taking care of your body. Now the short-term reward is aligned with your long-term vision of being a healthy person.”

— Page 192

How are you handling (or struggling with) motivation during this time we’re all living through? What helps you — or holds you back? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

As always, keep in touch!

Your friend,

— Terrell

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Note: I know many of you are eager to get back to in-person races, so this week I’ve looked for events practicing proper social distancing by spacing runners out in small groups. — Terrell

Angel Island Half Marathon

Angel Island State Park, Calif. | Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020

You’ll run a looping trail around California’s Angel Island State Park, where you can see some of the most stunning views of San Francisco, the Marin Headlands and the rest of the Bay Area. (And you may see other runners, cyclists, hikers and riders on horseback, as the course won’t be closed for the race — so let them know you’re passing by with an “on the left!” as you run.)

$80 and up | Sign up here

Yellowstone Small Group Half Marathon

West Yellowstone, Mont. | Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020

Thanks to the success of its Zion Small Group Half Marathon earlier this month, Vacation Races is planning a similar race in Yellowstone. “This will be a different course than our usual Yellowstone Half, but in the same gorgeous area outside Yellowstone National Park,” the organizers say, adding: “We'll have groups of 50 starting each half hour from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.”

TBA | Sign up here on Friday, June 26

Zion at Night Small Group Half Marathon

Virgin, Utah | Friday, Sept. 18, 2020

An overnight trail race that will take runners out onto the trails outside Utah’s Zion National Park between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. the next morning. “This course is challenging, but is not exclusive to experienced runners. Keep in mind, this is a trail race, and you'll be running in the dark, so don your headlamp and get ready to run under the full moon,” organizers say, adding that this sequel to its successful June counterpart will see groups of 50 starting each half hour.

TBA | Sign up here

Zooma Cape Cod Half Marathon

Falmouth, Mass. | Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020

A run through this historic Cape Cod town starting from the Sea Crest Beach Hotel, which lies just a stone’s throw from both the waves rolling in along the beaches here as well as the quaint, cottage-lined streets of the nearby villages of West Falmouth, North Falmouth and Woods Hole. This race offers what it calls “stress free” registration — if you can’t make it due to Covid-19 or any other reason, you can switch to the virtual race or defer until 2021.

$95 and up | Sign up here

Bridge of the Gods Run Half Marathon

Cascade Locks, Ore. | Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020

Spectacular views of the Columbia River (and the mountains all around) are what this scenic race is known for — and is going forward with an in-person event this year, after being moved from August to October. After you make your way across the famed “Bridge of the Gods,” you’ll run a long stretch along the Historic Columbia River Highway State Park Trail, into the foothills of the Cascades.

$85 and up | Sign up here

Great running reads

Pikes Peak Marathon Making 2020 a ‘Retro Race’ After Coronavirus Alters Plans. This year’s marathon — which takes runners to the top of Colorado’s famed mountain — will be a throwback to decades past. Organizers have cancelled the event’s half marathon and 10K, and say participants will be sent out in smaller waves to allow for more space between runners on the trail. And, they won’t have to break their streak of 65 consecutive years with a Pikes Peak Marathon.

“It’s really what the race was back in the ‘80s and ‘90s where it was basically you got your bib, you ran the race, got your stuff, got rested and went home.”

👉 Dig deeper: Fargo Marathon Could Be One of the Few in the U.S. for the Rest of 2020

‘People Found My Voice and Connected With It.’ The Rise of In-App Running Coaches. Cory Wharton-Malcolm is a running coach based out of southeast London. But his growing legion of fans know him as “Beefy,” from the sound of his pre-recorded voice they listen to in the Nike Run Club app. “I definitely have received some expressions of love,” he said. “I am definitely flattered by it. But I have a missus.”

“People say they didn’t touch running with a bargepole prior to the pandemic, but because they’ve been locked inside, they’re up for it... They say since finding your voice and a little bit of calm, they’ve started to enjoy it. I think people are in search of human connection.”

How to Pee in the Woods. This is more of an issue now than it’s ever been in most of our lives, right? Because who wants to use a public restroom now? Here’s a funny guide with some great tips that’ll help you pick your spot, especially if you find yourself on a long trail run — and you really need to go.

A song to run to today

Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars