Steal These Tips on How to Make Running Fun Again When You’ve Lost Motivation

Boost the joyful factor of your next run with these five strategies from experts and Runner’s World editors.

happy runners on the street

Recently, my two daughters asked me to drive them to our local track so they could get in some kilometres ahead of their upcoming cross-country season. I was also planning on running at the track that morning, but when we arrived, they asked if I could run elsewhere. (Teenagers!) So off I went, in another direction so as to not embarrass them.

That unexpected run off the track turned out to be an adventure of sorts. I found myself in neighbourhoods of our small town that I had never run through before. I didn’t have a set route so I just ran in the direction that looked most interesting. I felt like I was dropped somewhere new, even though it was the same zip code, and I became engrossed in the classic Victorian and bungalow-style homes I ran past, while soaking in the summer morning under a canopy of old trees. Before I knew it, I had clocked eight kilometres  in what felt like just one.

Turns out, being uninvited to the track due to teenage embarrassment paid off. I found my new favourite route, and it reminded me how I love exploring new places by foot. It also got me thinking about how we can get ourselves in a rut with our running routines.

Let’s be honest, we all have those days with running when we’d rather stay in bed the extra hour or run for the couch rather than the road after work. Adding a sense of adventure to your runs can help with that. It also fits the recent social media trend of creating “dopamenus.” This basically comes down to adding hits of happiness to your otherwise mundane day to up the feel-good factor—and you can easily apply it to your runs.

Running itself can increase your dopamine, as the pleasure hormone plays a key role in movement—but running can also get monotonous after a while. Creating a dopamenu to add to your running calendar can offer a great way to get that joy back, and bring you out of a potential rut with the sport.

All About Dopamine and How It Can Affect Your Joy of Running

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in your brain, often called the pleasure hormone. “It’s a chemical that brings pleasurable feelings. We have it circulating in our system,” says Holly Serrao, Ph.D., a Clifton Park, New York-based sports psychologist.

If you’re a runner, you likely enjoy the sport, so you’ve probably felt that surge of dopamine when clocking kilometres. However, “if you keep doing [the same thing continually] you kind of acclimate to it and it doesn’t give you that surge anymore,” Serrao explains.

One thing that can also take away the pleasurable feeling of running: only focusing on future outcomes. The less you’re in tune with your sensory and emotional experiences— which triggers the reward centre in our brains and makes us feel good—the lower the dopamine release, Serrao says. This is why focusing on the process of running is so important, as paying attention only to the end results can often lead to burnout, stress, and anxiety, she adds.

So, to focus on the joy of putting one foot in front of the other, think of your running dopamenu as your personal go-to pleasure guide that you can pull from when you’re feeling less than thrilled to go out for a run. It’s essentially a to-do list of things that only bring you joy!

How to Create Your Own Dopamenu Recipe for Running

Serrao suggests sitting down with a journal, uninterrupted, and asking yourself a few questions: What are the things that I know get me out of a rut? What are the things I know make me happy that feel pleasurable? Jot them down.

You might link these items to running, or these activities might work well after your run, like getting an iced coffee or relaxing with a book outside. When the time comes and you feel like you’re lacking motivation, or dealing with a lot of stress, Serrao says you then have this list ready to go.

5 Ways to Make Running More Fun When You Need Inspiration

1. Ditch the Watch and Practice Mindfulness

If you’re too often focused on pace or distance it’s easy to lose sight of the process of running, which requires mindfulness, Serrao says. As she mentioned, the more we focus on the future outcome and get in our heads about it, the less we’re in tune with our senses and emotions and therefore, the less we trigger the reward centre and a dopamine release.

To kick off your run in a more mindful state, start with being still for a few minutes before you start moving and focus on your breathing. Close your eyes or take in the scenery—whatever feels right to you—and place a hand over your heart and stomach. Aim for five to 10 deep inhalations, followed by slow exhalations, and tune into what your body needs that day, whether its light strides or a slower pace.

The more you pay attention to how you’re feeling in the moment, the more likely you’ll enjoy the experience. The idea is to not set expectations that lead to a specific outcome.

Staying present in how you feel and the process of a run is best achieved without a watch, Serrao says. That way, instead of constantly checking time or distance, you can focus on your senses—the sights, sounds, and smells around you, as well as your emotional experience in the moment. Start by asking questions like: How do I feel moving right now? What am I noticing around me?

2. Switch Up the Terrain

Switching up the terrain of a run, like rotating from the road, trail, track, bike path, or even a treadmill is a great way to help your body adapt to different stresses and minimises overloading your joints and muscles in the same way, says Megan James, D.P.T., USATF level 2 certified coach, of Charlton, New York.

Running in different locations can also prevent burnout and monotony. “I encourage my athletes to do something different whenever possible,” James says.

Running in a new locale can also boost dopamine. “It gets boring running the same six-kilometre loop in my neighbourhood. By venturing onto a nearby trail, I rediscover my sense of adventure. It’s a lot of fun to hop over logs and bound off rocks—and maybe even splash through a little stream. It takes me out of ‘training’ mode and turns running into ‘play,’” says Runner’s World director of testing, Jeff Dengate.

Consider jotting down new places in your region you want to try running, research some local parks, or think about where you had your last good run and head back to that spot.

3. Ask someone new out—on a run that is

Somedays you might crave that alone time that running perfectly affords, but there are times when having someone hold you accountable is beneficial—and fun for that matter.

James says during the school year, she schedules twice weekly runs with others—one with two local friends, and another with an organized group to keep her motivated and accountable. Serrao also says she looks forward to her weekly time running with a local group of women, as it gives her a break from solo running. Plus, she looks forward to the coffee they share afterward.

“Sometimes when I’m in a new city, I’ll run with someone new that knows the area better than me. Usually, I’m introduced by a mutual friend. That way, I get to find the good running spots and keep busy with get-to-know-you conversation. Sometimes they become a new friend, or in the worst case, I never see them again,” says Runner’s World news editor, Theo Kahler.

4. Play With Speed, But Don’t Commit to a Speed Workout

Another option to switch things up on your next run: Throw in some different paces on your run. This can prevent boredom, while also helping your body get stronger, fitter, and faster, James says.

For example, add a few one-minute fast surges in the middle of a long run or do a couple 200- or 400-meter intervals on a track, James says.

The key is doing what feels right and fun for you that day. Remember, it shouldn’t be a perfectly executed speed workout, in which you aim to hit a specific pace for a set amount of time. This is all about a novel way to kick it up a notch. Picking up the pace whenever you feel like it can make you feel like a kid again, and that can always boost the mood.

5. Buy some new threads

Sometimes it helps to lift your spirits and make you feel fresh and happy if you’re running in those new shorts or funky socks. Runner’s World gear editor, Amanda Furrer says it works for her. “I color coordinate my new and old threads, from my hat down to my shoes and socks. It’s true how what you wear kind of makes you feel brand new,” she says.

Mallory Creveling, deputy health and fitness editor, agrees: “Whenever I buy a fresh pair of leggings or running shorts, I can’t wait to try them out,” she says. “I feel a sense of happiness when the gear arrives at my doorstep and an extra boost of motivation to get out the door.”

How to Know You Actually Need Rest

If you continually feel burnt out, excessively tired, or that your training has hit a brick wall, you may be experiencing a nutritional deficiency, low energy availability, or overtraining syndrome, James says. And that means instead of trying to up the joy factor of your runs, you actually need some time off.

Chat with a doctor, coach, and/or nutritionist as they can support you and safely help you find your groove again, James says.

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