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The pitfalls of signing up for a race as motivation (and how to avoid them)

The pitfalls of signing up for a race for motivation (and how to avoid them)“Sign up for a race!” is a common piece of advice offered to newbie runners who want to make running a habit or for those who’ve been off for a few weeks or months and are looking for the motivation to get started again.

On the surface, this seems like a perfectly reasonable choice. Having something to train for, look forward to, and be held accountable for, is a great way to motivate yourself to get (back) into the habit of running. Right?

Not necessarily. As Gretchen Rubin, happiness and habits researcher and author of The Happiness Project, points out, there is a significant problem with setting a goal for the purpose of keeping a habit you wish to continue keep after the achievement of that goal.

Once you’ve done it, you’ve done it.

And it can be all too easy to give in to the feeling of accomplishment and put off keeping up with the habit you’ve been trying to cultivate. Anyone who’s ever run a difficult race and kept off running for much longer than the suggested recovery period has experienced this dilemma. Even if you fully intend to keep running, the mental frame you’re in is one of having “finished” and the natural subliminal expectation is you will therefore stop.

The other potential pitfall of signing up for a race as motivation is it actually has the potential to be quite demotivating. What if it’s harder than you expected, and you find yourself hating your training plan? What if you get injured and are not able to run the race? Does that mean you are not a (good) runner? These setbacks, in the context of a concrete goal, will subliminally color your entire perception of running, not just this one isolated race experience. Which means you’re likely to end up being frustrated and disappointed with running in general, not just this specific training period.

Of course, there are plenty of benefits to signing up for races and they can be extremely motivational and rewarding for runners old and new. You don’t have to write them off entirely, you just need to be aware of the potential downfalls.

Here are some tips to mitigate the risks while still enjoying all the benefits:

  • Make a resolution. You keep a resolution; you achieve a goal. Assuming you intend to keep running once you’ve completed your goal race, it can work in your favor if you resolve to run regularly, thinking ahead instead of simply stopping with visualizing yourself finishing the race. This is a small mindset shift but it helps to make you immune against those potential negative effects of setbacks – after all, your performance in the race does not define your performance as a runner.
  • Set a milestone. Viewing and anticipating the race as a key milestone in your progression as a runner enables you to experience all those wonderful positive effects of achievement without any of the overly definitive downsides of seeing it as a single goal. Finishing a race is a significant accomplishment and should not be downplayed – and this reframing helps you to celebrate it, and then keep on being a runner. On to the next milestone.
  • Join a group. Joining a running group has so many incredible benefits, from support to motivation to friendship. So here, joining a running group – whether its dedicated to this particular race or not – can mitigate almost every potential negative effect of training for a specific race. Groups can prevent you from giving up on running altogether when you face setbacks; they can help you to see appreciate the process of training as an incredible, fun process (instead of just looking forward to the completion of the goal); and they can give you ideas and motivation for what to do next, after you finish your goal race. In short, running with a group can help you to have more fun and have a longer-term view of your running progress. It’s especially helpful to those new to running, where immunity against frustration and setbacks is particularly important.

Joining a race has huge potential benefits, but also some potential pitfalls and setbacks for your progress. Use races strategically to your advantage and you’ll reap all of the benefits without the downfalls.

Written by Varia Makagonova.

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