How To Keep Running When Your Head Says NO!

Today was a good running day. The sun was out, my legs felt strong, the tunes were spot on and the voice in my head was silent!

We’ve all got that voice haven’t we? The one that pipes up when we’re struggling, when the going gets tough, or sometimes before we’ve even got out of the door. Silently screaming at us to stop, that we can’t do it and basically telling us that we’re rubbish.

In a recent article I wrote for the Huffington Post, I talk about taking control of your inner gremlin; visualising it and giving it a name in order to be the boss of it, but it’s hard! On average I would say that 1 out of every 5 of my runs, I let my gremlin get the better of me and it’s usually at a point when I’m at my most vulnerable. Factors such as: the weather, what I have or haven’t eaten, the time of the month, what kind of a day I’ve had, whether I’m feeling stressed, tired, or if I simply can’t be bothered all help feed my gremlin and give it the strength it needs to throw insult after insult after insult at me. And it sucks!

I only run between 5 and 10k at a time and yet still my gremlin creeps out, so it got me thinking about how on earth those people running longer distances or those training for an event like a marathon, even begin to cope with the mind games and manage to somehow just keep running.

Expert Advice

I needed an expert, so I sought advice from Sue Browne, who is head run leader of the women’s running group Runnyhoneys:

“When your marathon training runs last longer than 3 hours and Bex asks you for tips on this subject, you know you’ve quite a lot to say!

But why is this even a thing?

Surely we just run because we love it?

The clue lies in the type of running that we tend to do. Athletics defines running events in terms of the distance covered and therefore the type of effort required by the athlete. 100 to 400m is a sprint, whereas 800 to 1500m is middle distance and anything above 3000m is endurance. That means that just about every runner who has completed a ‘couch to 5k’ course, or throws on their running shoes for a 30 minute leg stretch, is involved in endurance running.

Interesting word…


The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the ‘ability to withstand prolonged strain’. So, if running a distance depends on your ability to withstand the effort of doing so, we’re starting to see why motivation is so important!

Now, to me, the ability to endure depends upon two things. Firstly, the physical ability. The first thing that we need to build in new runners is endurance, to get their body up to doing the job for any length of time. We need the cardiovascular system to develop, and the strength to grow in muscles, ligaments and tendons. Each time a runner manages to go a little further, their body’s capability to do so is increasing (of course, this needs to be built gradually, in stages, so that your body’s building blocks can keep up with your aspirations to go further!) The second and most powerful component is also developing, and that is your belief in your ability to run.

Believing in yourself and the fact that you CAN do this is, is a vital part of a runner’s motivation to continue running, to overcome the urge to stop and to endure.

So back to those long marathon training runs. Little by little, I can feel the confidence growing in the first time marathoners who are training with me.

“If I could do 16 miles last week, then maybe 18 this week is not too big an ask?!”

The belief and confidence is starting to grow. Actually though, there are still moments in those runs, when self-doubt creeps in. When a wave of tiredness hits you. When you see another hill ahead. When another squall comes through!

To continue, to endure, to not give up, can involve all sorts of tricks and mind games:

Running in a Group Really Helps

The chat is a means of ‘disassociation’ (as sports psychologists call it) or in other words distracting yourself from the pain, tiredness and enormity of your task. It’s also good that when one runner is having a bad time and wants to stop, this usually does not coincide with another. Providing that you all get on, you want to help and support the others in your group and to not let them down by stopping.

Using Music Helps Some Runners

Again, this is disassociation. You distract yourself and enjoy your music. The beat of the music can match your running cadence and you use songs that are uplifting and make you feel good to be alive. This is not a time for Joy Division! The Run to the Beat Half Marathon in London was founded on this principle with bands blasting out music at 180 bpm at points around the course.

Dividing and Conquering

If you partition a run into sections and just focus on the current section, this is a great way of keeping your mind relaxed. Tell yourself “I’ve just got to get to the whatever”. When I run a marathon, I divide it into 5 mile pieces and don’t allow myself to think beyond each one. I then assign someone that I love, or something that I care about to each 5 miles. You cannot give up when this part is for your children!

Using a Mantra Can Help

I don’t usually listen to music, so I can hear the natural rhythm of my feet and breath. These can pat out a beat, to which you can recite a mantra in your head. “Strong and fast and fit and ready” is one of my favourites when racing. This reminds me of all that I’ve done to prepare and train. Sometimes I resort to beating myself up with “how much do you want it bitch?”, which reminds me that I need to keep going for it or I’ll be disappointed in myself later. Paula Radcliffe World Record holder for the marathon distance would keep focused by counting blocks of 100 steps. Or there’s a yoga chant that I once learnt, which means ‘white swan’ in Sanskrit. I can say under my breath “Ham-Sa”, which helps me to feel calm and serene…although I doubt I look it!

Dress Rehearsal

A mental rehearsal of a run or a race can really help you to feel prepared for any eventuality. What if it rains? How does it feel to be on the first lap of many? How will it feel to drive through the tough bits? If you’ve mentally rehearsed these scenarios, then you’ll stay calm and handle it, rather than throw in the towel.

Above all, it’s about keeping the mind happy and calm, so that you can be in the moment, not worrying about past events, just flowing in the rhythm of your feet. It might be ‘withstanding prolonged strain’, but it can be glorious!”

What Do You Suggest?

We put the question out there on our Facebook page asking you lot how you keep on going and this is what you said:

“I tend to sort out all the thoughts in my head and this is one of the things I love about running! Listening to my lovely, cheesy and just favourite songs too! When I’m finding it tough I start thinking I can, I will, and if necessary slow my pace slightly so as not to stop completely or save energy for the rest of the run. I also tell myself that keeping going during the hard parts will make me stronger and it will be easier next time and this seems to help.”

Hannah Jolly

“I definitely think running starts off 80% physical – 20% psychological and soon morphs into 20% physical – 80% psychological. I think about the next milestone/landmark along the route and will myself to get to it without stopping! I tell myself I’ll be able to walk for a bit when I get to that milestone and know I’ll feel so glad I’ve run once it’s over. Running as part of a group has certainly given me the support to keep going. I definitely wouldn’t have run like this on my own.”

Allyson Crew

“It’s more about mentality the further you run, than fitness. I think of people worse off than me that still manage to run and often much better. I also think about how lucky I am that I am healthy and able to run so have nothing to moan about and pain is temporary. I then break the distance down and focus on that bit of distance, then repeat focus on the next. If all else fails I sing and concentrate on that!”


“Once I’ve got the first painful mile out of the way I really enjoy it. The challenge is a) getting out to do it i.e. the motivation and b) if my increasingly dodgy hamstrings can cope. I never listen to music, as I just like the peace and quiet and the chance to reflect on things, but usually it’s more a case of just telling myself to keep going. I also think about how I’ll deserve my next few beers down the pub!”

John Lowe

“If it’s getting tough with the duration, I try to ‘have a word’ with myself. Anything up to an hour you can encourage yourself to just do another 5 mins every 5 mins. After that, you need distractions and I like to do maths sums normally converting km to miles as I’m usually running on the treadmill. I do find music is also a good distraction.”

Eleanor Innes

“Negative thoughts plague me for the first 1k then something happens and I’m more positive. I think about how running has made my clothes look better and the friends I’ve made, and off I go”

Jill Davis

“Running to dance music is my ‘me time’. It de-stresses me and I often work through stuff mentally when I am out running. I still sometimes find it tough to switch off the ‘I can’t do this’ voice though. What keeps me going is imagining I am racing my friends!”

Sarah Turner

“If I’m running and it’s getting tough, I used to tune into negative thoughts about how I couldn’t do it and then I’d stop. I read about The Chimp Paradox by Prof. Steve Peters and something he says is to focus on process instead. Think about technique, what your body’s doing – and that takes you out of your head and away from the doubts. I also sing ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ theme tune over and over again when I’m running up tough hills.”

Naomi Ward

“I’ve never run with music so I don’t know whether I would enjoy it and feel any benefit. It’s great when after about 15-20 mins I can ‘zone out’ and just think freely. I enjoy mulling over a problem. It’s much easier to solve with all that extra oxygen in my brain! If I’m finding a longer run tough, I’ll use a Paula Radcliffe technique and start counting. I often don’t have a route planned and just see how my body feels as I go. That way I don’t feel any pressure and can just enjoy the run.”


“Good music helps with good pace. It helps me focus on dealing with life and keeping my mind clear and happy.”

Susan Pellett

“I think about my pink water bottle. I phase out to music, think about the finish line and think about the buzz I get when I have finished. Oh and I also think I never thought I would secretly like this.”

Alexis Pearce

“I was once asked the question ‘what do you think about when you run?’ by a doctor, and I had to admit that I didn’t really know. Everything and anything I suppose, I used to listen to music, but not anymore. Sometimes it’s a struggle, my chimp wants to stop, go the short route, I on the other hand feel I should push myself further. I don’t run as much these days, but I feel great when I get home after having done one.”


“I find running stops me thinking about work. To be fair I don’t have enough energy to really think, but it clears the mind, especially if the music is good.”

Andy Guest

“I reflect on events that have happened at work and in my personal life. I find this particularly helpful when I am a bit wound up about something or someone. Usually a run helps me put things into perspective and I feel calmer once home. I also have a listen to your body philosophy; so if I feel like stopping and walking I do, but if I feel good I will push myself. By making it a choice, I think it helps it feel like fun.”

Harriet Morley

“It’s more about mentality the further you run than fitness. I think of people worse off than me that still manage to run and often how much better. I also think about how lucky I am that I am healthy and able to run, so have nothing to moan about and the pain is only temporary. I then break the distance down and focus on that bit of distance and then refocus on the next. If all else fails I sing and concentrate on that.”


“As someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, running is one of the few times the negative thoughts leave my head and my mind is clear. Training for an event and having a training plan keeps me going. I know if I cut the run short, I will have to do more miles the next run.”

Jen Harrison

“I think about things around me. I look around at people’s plants to see what’s growing well in the area that I could put in my own garden. I think about just settling into a steady pace. I think about my family and friends and strangers who have sponsored me for the Virgin London Marathon. I think about running up the mall with tears of joy, or seeing my loved ones along the VLM route. I think about where I’ve got to in the route and how my body is feeling and also if I need fluid/fuel. I look at Bella my dog who’s always accompanied me and feel happy and thankful that she’s there – I feel less thankful when she wants to stop to pee when I’m in a nice steady rhythm!


“Mostly I like to have a purpose to my run; it may be something as simple as going out to enjoy the views on a particularly scenic route, social running with my mates or thinking about how I move and getting my legs to go faster. If it’s a long run I’m struggling with then I set mini goals along the route such as ‘I will make it to the next lamp post without collapsing’ and then the next lamp post, a tree etc. and I find I do get there. If all else fails I sing ‘We Will Rock You’ very, very loudly…in my head of course!”

Debbie Band

So it sounds as though we know what we should be doing, we’re just maybe not so good at doing it ALL of the time. One important thing to remember is that it’s completely normal to have an off day, but the main thing is to accept that, to not beat ourselves up about it and to tell that voice to shut the hell up!

I know I for one will be trying out some of these tips next time I need a bit of help getting, and staying, motivated to run. I hope you’ve found this article useful and if you’ve got a big race coming up (marathon runners I’m looking at you!) relax, enjoy it and most of all…


“As I run I tell myself to think of a river. And clouds. But essentially I’m not thinking of a thing. All I do is keep on running in my cosy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.”

Haruki Murakami in ‘What I talk about when I talk about running

Have you got any tips to stay motivated when running?

We’d love to hear from you, so get in touch:

Or leave us a friendly comment below.

More from Becky Stafferton
What Do These Fruit Have In Common?
Hmm so they’re all fruit, that much we know, but what else...
Read More
Join the Conversation


Leave a comment
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *