Running motivation: how to make the habit stick

a photo of Caroline Wood
Head of Behavioural Insights and Research at Bupa UK
13 May 2021
Next review due May 2024

For millions of people, running is a way to keep fit, maintain a healthy weight, and even meet new people. It boosts your mood, gets you outside in the fresh air and improves your fitness. But like lots of habits, many of us struggle to stay on track after a few weeks. Here we look at how to make running a habit you’ll keep for the long run.

woman running in the park wearing headscarf

Reasons to run

Research shows that seven million people turned to running during the pandemic. This helped them look after their mental wellbeing. And, during the first three months of the first lockdown there were over a million downloads of the Couch to 5k app. Fitness app, Strava, reported that they have seen walking, cycling and running increase by 82 per cent over the last year.

Graham, who confesses to having an on-off relationship with running has started running again. “Now that I work from home, I’ve realised how sedentary my routine has become. I’ve particularly noticed that I don’t sleep as well on days when I’m less active.

“I love the feeling after a run, when you feel nicely tired. For the rest of the day and the evening, you feel a sense of satisfaction from having made the effort to run. My head feels clearer and I feel better able to deal with situations at work or at home that would otherwise probably have felt more stressful.”

Six tips to help you keep running

Try these six science-backed ways that will help you make running a habit that sticks.

1. Try temptation bundling

Temptation bundling involves pairing something that you already enjoy with something you know you should do but may seem less fun. A good example would be taking time out to listen to a podcast (enjoyable) while you go for a run (perhaps less enjoyable).

Doing something you ‘want’ at the same time as something you think you ‘should’ be doing, can be a win-win situation. Firstly, it can reduce feeling guilty for doing something indulgent. Secondly, it will distract you from any discomfort you feel from doing a more effortful task.

Try it!

If you like listening to podcasts or music while you run but are finding it hard to stay motivated, switch things up. Try lining up a new playlist or saving up a new episode of your favourite podcast series to increase the indulgence level and entice you back in.

Natalie runs two to three days a week and tends to listen to podcasts instead of music. “I really look forward to listening to the next episode of a podcast. This is what gives me the extra push I need to go out on a run. Once I’m out, I enjoy the run too, but temptation bundling definitely works for me. I’ve been really enjoying the ‘Obsessed with Line of Duty’ podcast!”

Graham has downloaded the app ‘Zombie, Run!’ to keep him on his toes. “Using the app, you listen along to an interactive story that sees you running away from zombies and collecting supplies to build a camp. It’s a lot of fun, and for someone like me who likes computer games, it really appeals. You get the feeling of doing something playful and enjoyable every time you head out for a run.”

2. Piggyback off an existing habit

When trying to build new habits, it can be more effective to ‘piggyback’ a new behaviour on to an existing one. This is easier than trying to replace an old habit with a new one. This is called ‘habit stacking’.

Habit stacking is about ‘stacking’ or ‘chaining’ the behaviours you want to do to your existing daily routines. You stand more of a chance of doing them because one behaviour naturally cues the next.

Try it!

For example, if you already enjoy a refreshing morning walk to kick off the day, try running for the last 10 minutes of that time.

3. Set yourself a challenging yet achievable goal

Keeping things manageable is important when trying to make a new habit stick. This is because starting something new takes more effort and can seem harder to do. If you’re completely new to running, training programmes can be a great place to start. These break down a larger goal into smaller, more manageable goals that get more challenging over time. This can be a great way to start to build running into your normal routine.

Try it!

Try our walk to 5km running programme, it’s got everything you need to set yourself an achievable goal.

Click on the image below to see the full training plan (PDF 0.2 MB, opens in a new window).

Image of Bupa's beginner 5km training plan

4. Be a choice architect

Habits are more likely to stick when you plan and take proactive steps to remove barriers that may prevent you from doing the behaviour. Choice architecture relates to the idea that the choices you make are heavily influenced by your environment. The key is to make your environment work for you, so that it cues the behaviour you want it to.

Try it!

  • Put your trainers by the front door.
  • Lay your running clothes out the night before a morning run.
  • Schedule your runs into your phone’s calendar with a reminder alarm to ‘cue’ you into action.

5. Make it social

At times, it can feel hard to stay motivated when faced with the thought of going out for another solo run. There are multiple habit-building benefits you can enjoy when you build an element of ‘social’ into your running routine.

This could be:

  • running with someone else
  • joining a running group or online community
  • tracking your runs and sharing them with a friend
  • simply just talking about your running with others

Making a commitment like this helps create a sense of accountability. This can boost your motivation to maintain your behaviour. Being part of a like-minded community can help you start to see yourself as a ‘runner’. This shift in how you think about your identity and the social links you make can make it easier for habits to stick.

Try it!

This one has really helped me back into the running habit. I used to be part of a running club. Being part of that community really helped keep motivation up and pushed me to improve my running. After having my son, I struggled to find time to fit in going for a run around childcare and work, let alone to join a club.

When I started running again I joined a virtual community called This Mum Runs which I found to be great. It’s a community specifically for mums who run, there’s an app with a coaching programme built into it and they organise local run groups you can join.

6. Reward yourself with variety

A successful habit happens when you perform the behaviour regularly until it comes naturally. You almost do it without thinking. Planning a mix of rewards, some short-term and others more long-term, will help motivate you to keep lacing your trainers up for a run. It will keep you going while the habit forms.

Try it!

Rewards could include taking the time to enjoy a long stretch or a yoga session after a longer run or perhaps treating yourself to a new running top after completing a challenge.

And good news! As a runner, you might experience a natural immediate reward from the ‘runners high’ after your run. This is a feeling of happiness and relaxation that comes from exercise.

Are you interested in learning more about your health? Discover more about our range of health assessments.

a photo of Caroline Wood
Caroline Wood
Head of Behavioural Insights and Research at Bupa UK

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