The Science of Running Motivation: Why the First Mile is the Worst
What is it about that first mile, or even the first step, that is so difficult? The act of putting on our running clothes, lacing up our shoes, and getting out the door is by far the hardest part of the entire run. With ever-present distractions such as social media, Netflix, cable television, and other procrastination-inducing activities, it is just as easy to spend the time doing other activities instead of running. This can lead to negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves. Yet, when we try again the next day, the same thing happens. Worse yet are the days that we do start to run, only to find that the first mile feels terrible and we want to give up.
Why Sports Science is Important
Sports data has been massively exploited in the last decades to better understand human behavior. The role that huge amounts of pressure can impact outcomes can be measured by studying professional athletes and this can be applied to different systems. Understanding the science of running motivation can help one tackle the negative thoughts and ultimately take control of his or her mindset.
Motivation is a Disease (or the social contagion theory)
I love to ramble on scientific concepts that intrigue me. The first mile is the worst for everyone, but what we do a few moments before that first mile – specifically the time when we are most prone to cancel our workout because “we have other things to do” – is what counts. Friends and family play a huge role in our lives and we often don’t even realize that. As an amateur ultra runner I read plenty of studies, books and articles and tried to understand the process of what I am doing.
Sometimes it’s not about muscle fiber types, peaking, nor training. It’s not about physiology. Instead it is about the ancient realm of science called motivation. The thing is, if you can make it to that first mile, you’re already a winner. You’re out. You’re running. You’re a doer.
Most people get stuck before that first mile because motivation is like a disease. It’s so contagious and really can work its way through our peer group in just the same way as a virus.
Interesting research1 published by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research shows that people who are passionate about getting in their workouts can encourage others to do the same. In the same way, people who slack off and skip workouts can impact others around them. We’ve probably all been there.
This study2 on ‘social contagion’ shows pretty much the same thing. On the same note, the author, Nicholas Christakis says in this TED talk that if a person becomes obese, it increases his or her friend’s risk of obesity by about 57%.
On Getting Out the Door…
From an evolutionary perspective, humans are meant to run for two very important reasons: either to find food or to run from danger. It should be no surprise, then, that our bodies and brains are often at odds when we want to run for fun.
It is easy to blame yourself for lack of willpower or discipline when getting out the door is a challenge. Instead, you should acknowledge that this is simply your brain subconsciously asserting that you are in no present danger that necessitates strenuous physical activity. Once you come to terms with this notion, you will find that it is easier to win the argument with your brain that you do actually want to go running, and that running for fun is just as important to you as running for food or safety.
Just as our ancestors put themselves in environments where finding food and safety were easy, so should you create an environment where running for fun is straightforward. For instance, you can join a running group that meets regularly in order to provide motivation to get out the door. If you schedule a time and place in advance, skipping out on exercise will become much more difficult.
Alternatively, hiring a coach or enlisting the help of a training partner can also provide encouragement to get out the door. If you have a coach to answer to, or someone who is depending on you to show up at a certain place and time, choosing to watch that extra episode of House of Cards on Netflix will be more difficult. Again, this phenomenon has nothing to do with personal willpower nor discipline, but everything to do with the environment you are creating for yourself.
At a very basic level, humans prefer to do the activity that requires the least amount of energy. This trait harkens back to when energy was conserved for the unpredictability of day to day life, when our ancestors would have had to store energy for times of extreme conditions or long treks. As a corollary, however, we feel the most satisfaction after performing the activities that we dread the most.
A second solution for increased motivation to go for a run is to create a community in which you feel you are a part of. To return to the social media example, humans find a lot of motivation in online communities because of the instant gratification they provide. If runners develop Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or blog personas based around their running, they are less likely to fail in their motivation to exercise and then later post about their accomplishments.
On Getting Through the First Mile…
So you’ve gotten out the door, but now the first mile of your run feels terrible. What gives? The biggest contributing factor to your first mile feeling the worst is that the body – and mind – need time to warm up. Often, we choose to run either first thing in the morning before our bodies are fully awake, or immediately after work, when our brains are fried and our bodies have been sitting or standing all day.
Physiologically, it takes the body 7 – 10 minutes to fully transition from a state of rest to a state of athletic readiness, which is conveniently the approximate amount of time that it takes many runners to traverse a mile.
The first mile is so uncomfortable because our heart rate, oxygenation levels, blood vessels, and fuel recruitment systems undergo drastic changes in a short amount of time. Once we acknowledge this fact, we are mentally less likely to assume that the first mile is indicative of how the run at large is going to proceed.
Of course, from a psychological perspective, those first ten minutes can be torture. It is easy to worry that we are out of shape, that a small break from running is responsible for feeling sluggish, or that the rest of the day’s run is going to go poorly. With the prevalence of smart phones and social media, we have evolved into an instant gratification society where our attention is rarely held for more than 5 – 7 minutes if we do not find immediate enjoyment in our activities. Worse yet, it can be easy to convince ourselves that a slow first mile may show up on Strava or negatively affect our overall pace per mile at the end of the day, which could reflect poorly on our fitness as a whole. These negative associations with the first mile of a run can also affect our motivation and the way we feel when we first lace up our running shoes.
On Improving your Mindset…
The best way to improve your mindset in terms of getting out the door and getting through the first mile is to acknowledge how you feel, why you have those feelings, and to accept it as a normal part of exercise. Next is to reframe “the suck” or develop a mantra to help you get past the initial stages of low motivation. For instance, instead of telling yourself that you are dreading having to suffer through a painful first mile, you can reframe the situation by reminding yourself that you get to display your toughness until you are rewarded with decreased discomfort. Similarly, you can create a mantra in your head, such as “embrace the suck” or “this too shall pass” that helps you look past short term pain in favor of a long term goal.
Ultimately, runners must remind themselves that the small wins, such as getting out the door every day or keeping a positive attitude despite a slow first mile, are the building blocks that lead to the big wins, such as personal records and age group awards. Mental training is just as important as physical training, and is something that must be worked towards every day in the same capacity as core strengthening or form drills. Just as it is more difficult to skip a day of running when you develop a run streak (or, how it is easy to avoid running when you develop a non-running streak), you must also teach your brain to develop good habits for sustained motivation.
By simply creating an environment that makes failure difficult, as well as choosing to accept, acknowledge, and reframe your struggles, you can reverse a negative and demotivating mindset towards common issues that plague all runners.
1. Philip S. Babcock, John L. Hartman. Networks and Workouts: Treatment Size and Status Specific Peer Effects in a Randomized Field Experiment, NBER Working Paper No. 16581 (link)
2. Christakis NA, Fowler JH. Social contagion theory: examining dynamic social networks and human behavior. Statistics in medicine. 2013;32(4):10.1002/sim.5408. doi:10.1002/sim.5408. (link)