5 Things We Can Learn About the Science of Motivation from Jeff Galloway

The running legend digs deep into the science of motivation in 'Mental Training for Runners'

“Rehearsals become patterns of behavior more easily if you don’t think but just move from one action to the next. The power of the rehearsal is that you have formatted your brain for a series of actions so that you don’t have to think as you move from one action to the next. As you repeat the pattern, revising it for real life, you become what you want to be.”

— Jeff Galloway


Good Sunday morning, my friends! ☀️ I hope you don’t mind if I change things up a bit this morning and take a deeper dive into running motivation, which I know many of us are struggling with right now.

(It is winter, the days are short and there’s snow and ice on the ground where many of you live — so I don’t blame you!)

Today, I’m looking back at a book written by one of my heroes, a legend in the running world named Jeff Galloway — or at least he is here in Atlanta where I live. Now 75 and a former Olympic runner, Galloway has owned a chain of running stores here and has been a big ambassador for running in our area for a long, long time.

I even got the chance to run with him several years ago, when I joined one of his famous Galloway groups, which practice the run-walk-run method of training for all race distances. He was such a nice man, very soft-spoken and just very chill, and he and I got the chance to run side-by-side, just the two of us, for roughly a mile or so.

It was one of my personal running highlights, and that little brush with a legend got me looking into his work, which consists of well over a dozen books on the sport.

These five things I’m learning are from his 2016 book Mental Training for Runners, which I’m learning a lot from lately. Here’s the key things I’m finding:

#1) Each of us has two brains

Not really, of course, but in a way we do.

We have our modern, thinking brain — the one we use to work out logic and process everything we experience in our conscious lives — and what Galloway labels our “monkey” brain, or what some scientists call our “lizard” brain.

That’s the brain that takes care of everything our bodies do involuntarily — breathe, keep our hearts pumping, anything involved with stimulus-response:

“The natural tendency when we do something that is habitual is to allow the monkey brain to be in charge. For example, once we have learned how to run and have established a routine route with a regular workout pattern, the subconscious brain usually takes over as we start down the road or trail.”

#2) Our ‘monkey’ — or reflex — brain is really affected by stress

What happens with running — because it’s a non-skill activity, one we don’t have to think much about — is that it’s automatic. We barely even need to think about what our bodies need to do to get out and run.

And because our subconscious brain is at the wheel, it can be more affected by subconscious forces than our modern, conscious brains realize:

“If we default to the subconscious brain, it will monitor stress — and this can affect motivation. A stress increase greater than normal will stimulate the monkey brain to release anxiety hormones so that you are not so sure about getting out the door, doing the workout you planned, or going the full distance.”

#3) You can train your brain

Regular mental training — being intentional about the way we think, in order to bring about longer-lasting changes in the ways our minds work — can work to shift the burden off your “monkey” brain, Galloway writes, and give you control of your motivation again.

#4) Walking isn’t ‘failure’

As Galloway writes, we’re often programmed to think of walking as giving in to our body’s desire to knock it off from running, to give in to our own laziness. That we should want to run and run and run, for miles and miles and miles — that only the people who can do that are “real” runners.

We get that programming early, he adds:

“Many young runners learn in PE class or in high school that they should not walk when they run — that walking is ‘failure.’ This is hardwired in many adults who try to take up running and believe that the only way to be a successful runner is to run continuously. Most will reach a certain distance where they hit a fatigue wall or become injured because of this compulsion to run continuously. They feel like failures because they believed in some counterproductive subconscious programming.”

#5) Your reflex brain doesn’t have to in charge — you can be

The larger point Galloway is trying to make is that through mental strategies like rehearsing our problems, talking them through with ourselves logically, and envisioning what it looks like to successfully reach our goals, we can take control back from our reflex brains — so that we can control our own motivation.

Though it sounds like a lot of effort, it’s not — it’s more about looking at a problem in a different way. (And becoming conscious of the mental messages we send to ourselves, about the things that cause us stress.)

That said, this is only the tip of the iceberg that Galloway writes about when it comes to motivation. My question to you is, would you like more on this topic? (I could’ve written 5,000 words on it, but I didn’t want to clog up your inbox with too much!)

Let me know if you are — thanks in advance! 😃

— Terrell

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P.S.: The thoughts many of you shared in our discussion Friday really touched my heart — they were incredibly brave and powerful, and I’m honored that you did. Just wanted you to know that.


Great running reads

The Psychology of Setting Motivating and Satisfying Goals. It’s easy to set a goal, as we all know — a half marathon, a marathon, an ultra. What’s harder is finding what I like to call “Goldilocks goals,” things to aim for that aren’t too easy and aren’t too hard, they’re just right. The hard part is figuring out what they are, and to do that we have to look deeply at ourselves.

“The best goals are those that are personally relevant, meaningful, and enjoyable — also called self-concordant goals, or ‘want-to’ goals... These are the things that you personally want to do, not because of any pressure or feelings of obligation.”

With Each Run, a City Shaken by Racism Is ‘Finding the Greater Good.’ A running “group” started by a single man running through the streets of his hometown Charlottesville has now blossomed into one that sometimes boasts as many as 75 runners some mornings — all in the name of putting back together what was broken here in August 2017.

“I said, ‘I got to see myself out here… We got to run in our neighborhoods. If I’m not seeing Black people running, then the people who really need to see Black people running are not seeing them either.”

How to Set Goals You’ll Actually Achieve. Our dear friend Amanda Loudin put together this excellent set of suggestions on how to pick a goal, and how to break it down into a set of manageable steps you’ll actually complete and accomplish.

“If it’s too big, it will scare you off; too small, and it won’t motivate you... Each individual must figure out the goal that gets them moving.”

The Science Behind the Runner’s High. I’ve experienced the amazing feeling of a runner’s high only a handful of times in my life — the first time I did, it felt like a psychedelic drug, that’s really the best way I can describe it. This piece takes a look at our biology and the latest attempts to find out exactly how it works, which some scientists think is linked to a class of chemicals called endocannabinoids.

"In truth, the 'runner's high' is not really caused by running, but by persistence."


This week’s running schedule

How did last week’s runs go? We have another relatively light week ahead, considering that we’re very early in this 16-week training schedule:

  • Sunday, Jan. 17 (today) — 3 miles (if you want)

  • Tuesday, Jan. 19 — 3 miles

  • Thursday, Jan. 21 — 3 miles

  • Saturday, Jan. 23 — 5 miles

  • Sunday, Jan. 24 — 3 miles

And with that, I hope you guys go out and have a fantastic run today — enjoy the cooler (or cold!) temperatures where you are, and let me know how it goes. 👍


Nature on Sunday morning

This week of all weeks feels like the perfect time to feature the bald eagle, doesn’t it? Taken in the snow in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho:


Words to run by

“The rain will stop, the night will end, the hurt will fade. Hope is never so lost that it can't be found.”

— Ernest Hemingway

👉 Interested in more things Hemingway? A new Ken Burns documentary on the author will debut this April — which I’m really excited for.