The Psychology of Motivation: Turning A Race Day Nightmare Into Running Motivation

Fitness Challenge Failure Spawns Running Motivation

Sept. 1st, 2022 | 6 min read


  • Learn how to pick yourself up after a fitness challenge #fail and use the experience as a source of motivation instead of letting it get you down.

  • Who should read this: Anyone that needs a pick-me-up after a rough race day, or even just feels like they’ve hit a plateau in whatever training it is they’re doing – it feels good to know we’re not alone when we struggle.

  • Takeaways: No matter how hard you train, there will be good days and bad days. Don’t let the bad ones get you down; leverage them as tools to help you learn and get better.

  • Your Next Move: Take your newly found motivation and either join or create a fitness challenge within the Healthy Lifestylers: Fitness Challenges application. Spread your unwavering positivity within the community and help others overcome their own difficult times. You’ll thank yourself once you do.

Just an Easy Peasy Fitness Challenge…. Right?!?

Normally, I associate the about-to-barf feeling with the end of a race, not the moment I pull into the parking lot near the registration tent. 

I saw a Facebook ad for a free 5K a few miles from my house, and I was excited to get back into racing post-COVID. I never stopped running during the pandemic, but I had certainly fallen out of racing shape. I didn’t need to do couch to 5K to prepare to make it to the finish line, but I was far from my former competitive-racing self. 

I figured a free neighbourhood 5K would be the perfect way to get back into the swing of things — after all, there’s no running motivation like focusing on passing the person in front of you.

Oh, how wrong I was…

I figured that a track club or other athletic organisation was putting on the event, and they were there to help with registration before, you know, the regular people (like me) showed up. 


I got out of the car and walked over to the registration table. I listened to the chatter between the Adonis-type and his buddy behind as they organised bibs. 

Buddy: “I couldn’t believe it – it was my first marathon and I think I ran 2:30? And it was just like… effortless.”

Adonis-type: “Nah dude I felt the same way. I think I ran a 2:23?”

I wish I were making this up. 

I smiled, told them I was there for the race and signed my waiver. I glanced around and noticed that everyone seemed to know one another… except me. 

A man with mile-long legs and a body that looked like he ate ground turkey and green beans for 95% of his meals picked up a megaphone and called everyone over to begin the group stretch. 

​​You’ve gotta be flippin’ kidding me.

I took my place in the circle and realised that I was the only one who didn’t know the pre-game routine. I had stumbled into a military track club race that was (for reasons still unbeknownst to me) open to the public. And it was too late to back out. 

Megaphone man began to corral everyone over to the starting line. I tried to take my place toward the back of the pack, and, much to my dismay, Megaphone Man called me out. 

Megaphone Man: “Excuse me! Miss! Your bib is green, so you’re in the first corral! Go ahead to the front!”

As if this could get any worse. 

I squeezed my way between the Olympic-athlete-look-alikes and took my place, fiddling with my headphones and pretending that this was just a regular race for me. I glanced around and noticed that, of the 40 or so people at the starting line, I was one of only five (5!!!) women. 

*Someone is running with a dog. At least I’ll beat the girl and the golden retriever.*

Then, the gun went off. 

I started running with the pack. I glanced at my Runkeeper app after an incredibly breathtaking first few minutes and noticed that I was running at a 6:40 pace. On a great day, I can run a 7-minute mile — and then I congratulate myself, walk one more mile, and call it a day. 

I quickly began to fall away from the group, one sad step at a time. I wish I could say I found a burst of energy and motivation and ran my best 5km time ever… but that’s absolutely not what happened. 

The race went on, and I fell further and further back from the rest of the group. 

I got passed by the golden retriever.

After about a mile and a half, I heard the unmistakable putt-putt-putt of the golf cart that brings up the rear in case 
anyone gets injured. I looked behind me, and yep — it happened — I was in last place. 

I debated calling someone to come to pick me up. I debated ducking between some tall buildings, hoping that the golf cart medics wouldn’t notice that I was done. I debated faking an injury. 

Instead, I trudged on. Eventually, one person got hurt and decided to walk the rest of the way, so while I didn’t technically come in last… I might as well have. 

When I crossed the finish line (in a totally respectable — for me — 31 minutes), I didn’t want to look anyone in the eye. I crept off to my car without making eye contact, called my dad (also a runner), made some jokes, and then… the awful thoughts began. 

Maybe I’m not cut out to run. 

I’ve been running for decades, and I never thought this would happen. 

Should I even bother racing again? This is pointless. 

I’m not just getting older, I’m getting worse.

I’m glad to say that these thoughts didn’t stick around (for long) but they did get me thinking about what motivates us to keep going after a setback. Every race has a runner who comes in last, and I’d be willing to bet that most of us race again at some point.

Why do we keep going after we fail?

Turning Crap Situations Into Motivation: What The Research Says

When we go through a shit-show of a race, it can be tough to figure out how to get motivated again.

Motivation (and not just running motivation) is hugely personal, but there are some overarching themes that apply to most of us when it comes to getting off the couch after failure. 

Self-determination theory, or SDT, shows that people who participate in autonomous exercise (like running, swimming, biking, etc.) are typically motivated by several factors, including: 

  • Intrinsic motivation 👤 : Physical activity makes us feel good, and we know that when we get up off the couch and get moving, we’re in a better mood. We usually don’t think about exactly how our endorphins boost us up when we get a good sweat going — we just know that we feel better after we’re done. Of course, after a particularly awful workout or race, intrinsic motivation can wane — but it usually comes back stronger than ever once we dig back in.

  • Extrinsic motivation 📸 🤳🏻 : Let’s be real — for most of us, looking hot is a major motivational factor that pushes us to stay fit. Wanting to improve our looks, get the attention of someone special, or even show improved numbers at our next doctor’s appointment are all examples of extrinsic motivation. <Did someone say, #selfietime!?> Extrinsic motivation can backfire — in my sob story of a race, for example, my desire to cross the finish line with a social-media-brag-worthy time backfired, and my motivation tanked when I realised I wasn’t going to hit my goal.

  • Basic psychological needs 🧠  : In order to feel psychologically healthy, we need to have a sense of control over our own lives, a sense of relating to others, and a sense of competence. Taking part in a fitness challenge or just working out (and getting progressively better at our chosen method of movement over time) can help boost our mental health. Many of us notice the negative effect that a few days off from working out (even when they’re much-needed) can have on our mood, and it makes sense that our psychological health gets a boost when we get moving again.

  • Goal contents 🎯🎯 : Goals matter. Whether you’re participating in a fitness challenge for motivation or you’re keeping your running motivation up by working toward a personal best at your next race, keeping your goals in mind can help you overcome setbacks. It provides positive motivation. After a hard setback, it may be time to reevaluate your goals so that you have something achievable in mind. This doesn’t mean that those big fitness goals need to disappear, but you may want to reconsider the amount of time it will take you to, for example, get back to your high school track team mile time.

  • Causality orientations 📅 : It can seem like motivation comes and goes out of nowhere, but we actually have a decent amount of control over how motivated we feel from day to day. Setting up our lives so that we’re more inclined to feel motivated can have a positive effect on how often we exercise. Organising your schedule and home in ways that make it easy for you to get moving can be motivating in itself, and make it more likely that you’ll keep honing your athletic craft. 

Getting Back Into Racing After A Setback: Five Steps To Make It Work

If you’ve gone through a major setback (like I did at that God-forsaken race), we’ve got good news: you can come back stronger than ever. Follow these steps to get back to the starting line of your next race without wanting to barf all over your running shoes:

1. Take a minute to wallow.

The worst happened. It sucked. It’s ok to feel embarrassed, upset, and like maybe this whole running/swimming/biking thing just isn’t for you. Take some time to feel your feelings, and remember that a bad day isn’t representative of your entire athletic career. 

2. When you’re ready, figure out where you went wrong.

After you’ve taken some time to sulk, you’ve got to get to work on figuring out what went wrong. This can be really difficult, especially if you tend to make excuses – such as a lack of motivation – when things don’t quite go your way (totally calling myself out here, btw). 

Some tough questions to ask yourself after a big setback include: 

  • Did my training plan really prepare me for this race?
  • Did I stick to my training plan?
  • Were other factors (like a poor diet or lack of sleep) a likely cause of poor performance?
  • Did I go out too fast?
  • Was my goal too ambitious?

Only you can know how honest you’re being when you answer these questions. The more you can get real with yourself, the easier it will be to create a plan and set new motivational / fitness goals that help you move forward. 

3. Get to work.

Now that you know what went wrong, it’s time to get to work and set yourself up to rise again. Maybe you need to focus on some new areas, like cleaning up your nutrition or increasing the number of easy miles you’re getting in each week.  Perhaps you need to try a new approach to training that will make injuries less likely. Think of realistic goals that will get you on the move with less effort – or adopt performance goals where you focus solely on doing better than your peers.

No matter how you decide to get back into the swing of things, enjoy the surge of fitness motivation that comes with the start of a new plan. This will help to reinforce positive outcomes.

4. Sign up for a new event.

You know how you’re going to move forward — now, it’s time to sign up for a new race or fitness challenge so that you can face your fears head-on. You don’t necessarily need to sign up for the same distance as your disaster race, but doing so can help push away the fear that hot-mess-express-race could happen again. 

Once you sign up, tweak your training plan (if necessary) so that you’re as prepared as possible for race day.

5. Embrace the fear of failure.

Failing fucking blows. There’s no way around it. But here’s the thing: once you fail, you realise that you don’t just survive failure — it helps you grow

Whatever your definition of failure — a DNS, a DNF, or just an awful 5km run time — experiencing your worst fear makes racing a little less scary. When you know that your worst racing nightmare has already happened (and you made it through to tell the tale), your confidence begins to grow. 

Failure doesn’t have to set you back — it can push you forward (if you let it). 

Time to Wrap It Up

Let’s face it, bad things happen to everyone. 

But so do good things. 

Sometimes we need to create our own good things when presented with an opportunity to do so. 

Sometimes the difference between an opportunity and a shitty situation is not all that obvious.

But if you can maintain a clear head and stay positive in tough times, who knows, maybe your abysmal 5K will lead you to a not-so-abysmal 10K.

… by the way, don’t forget to sign up for the Healthy Lifestylers Hits newsletter to ensure you don’t miss out on any of the great content we’ll be pumping out every single week!

The Author

​​Amanda Turner, M.Ed., is a NASM-certified personal trainer, mom, and full-time freelance writer living in Danville, Pennsylvania. She’s been virtually coaching clients since 2015. As a former counsellor, Amanda loves working with clients to help them understand and overcome the issues that are holding them back from becoming their happiest, healthiest selves.

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