Momentum to Move: Igniting Motivation To Exercise

Let’s face it: it’s hard to feel motivated to exercise all the time – even if you’re a professional athlete and you’re getting paid to train. Life is busy, with so many things competing for our time – both important and not so much. Meeting a big deadline at work is important, while watching “just one more” episode of a show on Netflix arguably is not. But what about exercise? Like any form of self-care, we often put exercise at the bottom of the list when things get busy…and even when things aren’t so busy?

But don’t feel down on yourself for having days when you just don’t feel like working out. These fluctuations are a part of life. We know that exercise keeps us healthy and active, and training for a goal like a 5K race, an event ride, or a triathlon is the means to getting closer to a significant life achievement.

Assuming your lack of momentum to exercise is mental, not physical (i.e. you’re coming down with something), how do you get going? For me, it’s having a system, or process, that I can execute without having to expend too much mental energy. This system creates motivation, because motivation follows action – not the other way around.

Interestingly, this kind of system – let’s call it a “pre-game ritual”- works really well for all kinds of things we don’t feel motivated to do. It starts a cascade of internal events that pull you into a state of mind that’s ready to succeed at whatever it is you’re doing.

Pre-game rituals are nothing new – they’ve been used by professional athletes, performers, and high performing executives forever. Let’s look at a way you can create your own pre-game ritual for exercise.

1-2-3 Go: The 3 keys to a pre-game routine

One:  Keep it really, really simple.

green wooden chair on white surface

The most important – and hardest – part of doing anything is just getting started. Our minds create all kinds of reasons why not to start, and the root of this is often not knowing what to do or having to decide amongst many choices. Having a pre-exercise routine takes away that indecision, because you’ll know exactly what you will do – no decision making required. That first step should be something so simple, so easy, that you can’t argue with it. You shouldn’t need any motivation to perform this first step in your routine. Here are some ideas for that first step:

  • Put on your shoes and socks
  • Fill your water bottle
  • Put on your earbuds and start a favorite playlist or podcast

So, for example if you don’t feel like exercising when it’s time, say to yourself “Just fill up the water bottle.” Your only goal at that point is to start the routine, then let the mental momentum start to take hold.

Another motivation momentum builder I like to use as a part of my own pre-game ritual is to promise myself that I’ll go for a short period of time (say, 10 minutes) and if I don’t want to keep going, I can stop there. I’ve found this technique to be especially helpful in determining whether my lack of motivation is mental or physical. If I didn’t feel like running before I started, for example, and after 10 minutes of running I still don’t – then it’s likely something physiological is going on and I need to take it easier. But more than likely, I’m ready to keep going.

Two: Your routine should get you moving towards what you’re actually going to do.

Movement creates momentum. Einstein was right: “A body in motion tends to stay in motion.” This ties in with what productivity experts have been saying forever: the less physical movement, the less mental energy. It’s really hard to “think yourself” into getting motivated.

Along with being as easy as possible to start, your routine should gradually transition you into more and more physical movement. Your mind and your motivation will follow.

Your pre-game ritual creates a perfect lead-in to your exercise warm-up, which will vary based on what you’re doing that day. It’s critical to never, ever skip the warm-up. Read this article for more about why.

If you do different types of exercise, it might make sense to have a slightly different pre-game routine for each. For example, as a triathlete I do four different kinds of workouts: running, cycling, swimming, and strength training. I need a different kind of pre-game ritual for each one, because they all require different levels of motivation to get me started. Nevertheless, all of them include that same 10-minute promise to myself that if I don’t want to keep going, I can stop and change course.

Three: Follow the same pattern every single time

A pre-game routine tells your mind “we always do this before we do ___.” Eventually, this pattern will become so associated with exercise that it will pull you into a mental state that sets you up to perform.

As a result, you’ll know exactly what to do next. There’s no internal debating or decision making required – just follow the routine.

It’s critical to do your pre-game routine every time, not just when aren’t feeling motivated. These simple steps actually reinforce good habits and the feeling of achievement you get from accomplishing them. It’s those good feelings that will keep you consistent, even when the going is tough. Not feeling motivated to create a pre-game ritual? Just grab a piece of paper and a pen and write down three simple things you might use as your starting point. Do it right now, before you click out of this article. Give yourself 10 minutes…and see what happens.

Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES is a Fitness and Nutrition Coach who works with clients virtually to help them transform their health and fitness. She takes a holistic approach to her clients’ wellness through strength training, cardiovascular exercise, real life/behavior-based nutrition strategies and recovery techniques. She’ll work with you one-on-one to help you live a healthy and active life and achieve your unique fitness goals. Contact her here or follow her blog at

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