Yes, Even Olympians Can Struggle With Motivation—This Boston Marathon Champ Shares Her 5 Strategies for the Toughest Days

Photo: Getty Images/Maddie Meyer
Professional runner Des Linden has a (well-deserved) reputation for being a particularly gritty athlete. After all, she won the Boston Marathon during an epic Nor'easter in 2018, when conditions were so bad that 1,220 runners didn't make it to the finish line, and another 3,030 didn't even show up to start. When COVID-19 shut down all races a couple years later, Linden decided she might as well challenge herself to break the world record in the 50K—a distance she'd never raced before—and then she did just that.

So it's surprising to read in her new memoir Choosing To Run about the times when she's struggled to find the motivation to get after it and complete the workout on her training plan. Realizing that this awe-inspiring athlete is actually, ya know, human, we knew we had to pick her brain to learn her top strategies finding inspiration on days when she'd really just rather not.

"Running is very hard. Getting in shape is really hard," Linden admits. "And then even when you get there, you're trying to push the threshold." Meaning: No, it never does get easier, even for someone who's reached elite athlete status. So how does she keep pushing herself? 

1. Make it routine

Linden points out that because motivation can come and go all too easily, it's not something we can really rely on. "It's more routine than motivation that gets you through quite often," she says. The key is "getting into the habit of doing the thing every day," rather than overthinking  and questioning if you really want to do it. "Discipline is a lot more reliable than motivation," she says.

One reason Linden's earned her reputation for grit is because she's become accustomed to relying on that discipline—rather than letting herself make excuses—during the hardest parts of her runs. "The tough moments in a race where you start to bargain with yourself, it's super easy to take the easier path," she says. "But if you have that discipline to just always pick the hard path, you'll make those choices."

2. Find what gets you fired up

Linden sees the most miserable moments of a really hard workout or race as the biggest learning opportunities. "Those are the moments you find out the most about yourself," she says. "How do you respond?"

She suggests dialing into strategies that help you push through. Working toward a goal you're passionate about can make all the difference; when you really care about hitting a new 10K PR, it's gonna be easier to work through those burning calves. Maybe you think about the people you're doing this for—to inspire your kids, or to honor someone who can't work out. Or maybe you lean into a helpful mantra.

When Linden's really struggling, she finds her body gets incredibly tense, so she repeats to herself in her head, "Calm, calm, calm, relax, relax, relax," she shares. Meanwhile, she does a head-to-toe check: "Loosen your jaw, make sure your teeth aren't clenched, get your shoulders outta your ears, relax your hands. That gives you something to focus on."

3. Just commit to one mile

A major workout can be majorly intimidating—and make you more inclined to come up with excuses to stay home. If you're dreading a particular workout, Linden suggests focusing on just the first steps, rather than the whole shebang.

"Get your gear out, lace up, and promise yourself one mile," she suggests. "Because usually after one mile, once you're out there and you're going, you'll feel great."

Doing one mile, or even just a warm-up is usually something that sounds doable. But once you're going, you're already past what's typically the hardest part, motivation-wise: Getting started. Keep the stakes as low as you need to make that happen.

4. Ask yourself why you're hesitating

If your motivation suddenly dips, it's possible there might be a physiological reason. "Sometimes you also have to listen to the reason why motivation is so low and evaluate if, you know, is this something going wrong? Am I not recovered?" Linden points out. It's always possible that your body might getting sick or injured—so if that's why you're craving a rest day, take it!

Linden herself struggled with a major dip in motivation when she suffered from severe hypothyroidism in 2017. What initially seemed like just fatigue and irritability was actually her body breaking down. "You have to be really cognizant of what's going on in your body, and see if that's connected to the mental side of it," she says.

5. Figure out the balance that works for you

Linden points out that some athletes thrive off of a lopsided lifestyle, where they dive into training with their whole lives for a few months, without thinking about anything else. The rest of us, however, need a bit more balance day-to-day so that we don't burn out.

For Linden, that looks like offsetting the time she spends training by reading, traveling, hanging with her core group of friends, and enjoying her famous bourbon collection (including her beloved Woodford Reserve). "It's kind of counterintuitive to what people think a professional runner would do," she says of her passion for bourbon. But it's just the kind of outlet that reminds her there's self-worth in other things she does, too.

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