How To Make Yourself Train (Even When You Don’t Want To)

Woman training in the gym

Training feeling tough? It’s all mind over matter…

Training. Some people love it, some people hate it. Some people love it retrospectively. (I definitely fall into this camp – generally when relaxing with a post-session cup of tea.) But we all have times when we struggle to work up the motivation to go out, or to try as hard as we should during a session.

I was at the climbing wall the other day and noticed a young girl training on the overhanging circuit board. Her Dad was timing her: six minutes on, six minutes off. In the time I was there I saw her do five sets. She was obviously finding it tough. By the last circuit she was crying in pain. But she still stuck on for her six minutes.

This taught me two things. Firstly, many of us (myself included) don’t often put everything we have into our training. Secondly, the reason for this is because it’s hard. You make the biggest gains in training when you really push yourself – push beyond what you think your body you can do – but it IS painful. And psyching up for that sort of training, when you know it’s going to hurt, is pretty mentally demanding.

We may not all be training to the same level as that girl. But we all have times when we don’t feel like training. If you’re anything like me, it’s pretty easy to come up with at least a dozen ‘valid’ reasons why not to head out for a five mile run on a cold, rainy, dark winter night.

But what really separates me (and perhaps you) and the girl at the wall is discipline. It’s all very well beating yourself up about not training but that’s not making up for the fact that you haven’t done it. So if you’re struggling for motivation this winter, try out these tips to encourage you to get out and train.

Remove other alternatives

Commuting is a great one for this. One of the reasons I get up to run in the morning, even when I want to stay curled up in bed, is because I leave my clothes, hairbrush and makeup in work. Which means I can’t get ready at home, even if I wanted to. If you don’t have a suitable commute, an alternative option is to get a partner or friend to drop you off a set distance from home and literally leave you stranded. There’s only one way back.

Another tried and tested technique is to arrange to meet a friend and do your workout together. That way both of you’d feel so hideously guilty about letting the other one down if you cancel, that you’ll put the excuses to bed and turn up to train. Or if it’s sessions in the gym you avoid, then ask someone nicely to take you in their car. If they’ve given up their time to help you out, the least you can do is train hard right?


A technique perfected by athletes, bankers and the mafia for years. Why does bribery work? Because it gives you a reward. And who doesn’t like a reward! Just to be clear, this is about self-bribery – no brown paper envelopes here. Just figure out what works for you.

Here are some examples:

  • I can have that piece of chocolate cake if I go for that five mile run.
  • A fifty mile bike ride earns me the right to watch an entire season of The Wire (back to back).
  • If I – gasp – get to the top of this hill – gasp – I can rest – gasp – for five minutes.

This works best if you get someone else to bribe you, otherwise you may just be soft and give in and give yourself the treat even if you skip training. (Not that I’d ever do this of course. Ahem.) But having to watch your partner tucking into their single portion of chocolate pudding is a pretty good reminder of what you should have been doing earlier that day.

Another good one is the charity challenge. Here people really are bribing you REAL money to achieve your goal. And if you don’t train you’re not just letting yourself down, but all those cute little endangered pandas! Bribery AND guilt: a winning combination.

Remind yourself of the goal

The key with this is visualisation. Don’t just tell yourself, “I’m doing this because I’ve booked on a half-marathon in three weeks”. That’s just words. You need to imagine you’re approaching the finishing line. The crowds are roaring you on and you can taste the saltiness of sweat on your lips. You have to experience the elation of knowing you will complete the race. Then try and hold on to that feeling long enough to get out the door and into the first few miles of your run.

Distract yourself

I normally have an attention span as long as Dory the fish, but when it comes to long runs the reverse happens. By the second hour all I can think about is my aching legs, my aching hips, the twinge in my calf, the rubbing on my back… You get the idea. This is where distraction techniques come in. Even the best multi-tasker can only focus on a few things at a time. So if you can persuade your mind to focus on something else, you’ll find you forget about the aches and pains of training.

This is a very personal thing: what works for one person won’t for another. Some people find focusing on the movement and pace of their training helps, for other people listening to an up-beat sound track keeps them going. For longer sessions, why not try listening to audiobooks or podcasts – especially inspirational ones such as the Tough Girl podcast. If you’re struggling for ideas, here are a few more suggestions.

Have a schedule

Schedules are a personal thing. For the majority of people a structured training plan both optimises your training time and can be a helpful anti-avoidance tool. Your schedule says you swim Tuesday, you swim Tuesday. Schedule says hop like a frog Thursday? You get the picture. It removes the decision-making process around what to do. Fewer decisions equals more action. Honest – Tim Ferriss says so.

But there are some people schedules don’t work so well for, me included. Life is pretty hectic at the moment, so rather than sticking to a strict schedule, I have target sessions for the week and fit them in around my other commitments. This is more flexible, but it’s also easier to deviate from, so you need extra willpower.

When is it OK not to train?

Taking into account all of the above, there are times when not training is the best option. But before you breathe a sigh of relief, remember – these times are few and far between. SO LACE YOUR TRAINERS BACK UP AND GET OUT THERE NOW.

Seriously, please don’t train if any of the following apply:

  • You’re injured. This may stop you from doing your chosen activity, but don’t forget about the benefits of cross training!
  • You’re ill. By this I mean properly ill, not just hungover. It’s sometimes a fine line to judge, but generally if you feel that training will make your illness worse and your recovery shorter, it’s probably best to skip it and focus on getting better.
  • Your house is going to burn down if you do. Not literally, obviously. (Or at least, I hope not. You did check the iron was off before leaving this morning, right?) But realistically there are always times when something important and urgent has to take priority. Your kid being sent home sick from school or your boss telling you you’re fired unless you get that paper on his desk tomorrow morning. Just make sure they are genuinely urgent and are the exception and not the rule. The latest episode of the Great British Bake Off does not count (in this context) as either important or urgent.

The key to deciding when not to train is being honest with yourself around your decisions. Really honest. Is that sniffle really the start of a cold, or is it just a GBBO-withdrawal symptom? Only you can decide, but remember this. Your mind will quit a thousand times before your body will. Happy training!

  6 comments for “How To Make Yourself Train (Even When You Don’t Want To)

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