The 2010 European 10,000m silver medallist Chris Thompson explains how to stay motivated even when it’s not all going to plan
We all struggle with motivating ourselves to get out of the door and run sometimes – particularly when we’re coming back from injury or a long way from our peak. Not everyone realises that this affects the elite at least as much.
If anyone should know about the mental process of staying motivated through thick and thin it is Chris Thompson. A highly promising youngster, he was a very close rival of Mo Farah, albeit slightly older, and beat the eventual endurance legend to win the European under-23 title after – as surprising as this may now seem – a sprint finish.
However, since then he has been one of Britain’s unluckiest athletes when it comes to injuries. Time and time again the fragile athlete has seemed to be approaching his best-ever shape and better only to be struck down.
Having the previous summer become the fourth quickest Brit ever at 10,000m, he was building up for the London 2012 Olympics possibly in the shape of life. But this time it was a fractured back in the run-up that saw him lapped by his old friend Mo Farah, who was running towards victory.
Then last year an Achilles problem needed an operation and doctors told him his running career could be over. It took him 12 months to be back racing properly again and in September, on the day he clocked 28:58 – a time run by only one other British athlete in 2015 – to win the Kew Gardens 10k he told Running Monthly how he copes with such setbacks and how he managed to again be on the cusp of his best shape.
“When things get tough, part of that process of rebuilding, physically if it’s an injury, or mentally if it’s a bad race, is that you’ve got to bring it back to why you do this”
The 34-year-old believes that remembering why you began running is at the heart of the matter – and that goes for whether you’re coming back to fitness or whether you’ve lost your mojo.
“When things get tough, part of that process of rebuilding, physically if it’s an injury, or mentally if it’s a bad race, is that you’ve got to bring it back to why you do this,” he said. “For a general runner, they maybe will have got into it for weight loss, which must be an inspiration at the beginning otherwise they wouldn’t do it.”
What made the comeback possible for the Cornwall-based athlete was breaking his goals down into shorter-term ones, taking smaller steps rather than concentrating too much on the ultimate end-goal.
“When I had my Achilles injury I couldn’t set an aim to make an Olympic team or set PBs,” he said. “Obviously that’s in the back of my mind that it’s a dream I’d like to realise. But I’m setting mini goals – getting out of my boot, starting to walk again, run pain-free and then go to bigger goals. But if you don’t set achievable goals, that ends in tears.”
The 2010 European 10,000m silver medallist explained it was necessary to tell himself he had no PBs when racing himself back into shape. And he was keen to stress that no matter how good you are, you can still suffer from severe motivational lows.
“Lots of [elite] athletes talk about motivational lows,” he said. “You saw it after the London Olympics, athletes saying it was hard to motivate themselves to get back into training. When it’s January 1, it’s a cold winter’s day and you know you’ve got six months until a major competition just because it’s your job, it doesn’t make it a given that you just walk out of the door really happy about what you’re about to do.
“People say, ‘you must find it so easy’. Absolutely not – I’m going through the same set of emotions as the next person – that’s what makes running such an interesting sport.”
“People say, ‘you must find it so easy’. Absolutely not – I’m going through the same set of emotions as the next person – that’s what makes running such an interesting sport”
So how does Thompson get over such tough times? “If I’m having a tough time I’ll revert back to a session I enjoy, a venue, anything you have fond experiences of, which remind you why you love it.
“I do a lot of training by myself – but when it’s difficult I’ll make sure I’m training with someone, just to get over that hump. There are many ways to give you that same stimulus, but in a different format. Altering a week’s training is not going to affect the end result.
“Find people to train with, cross-train, do nordic skiing, cycling, or find another stimulus. Sometimes you might say the best way of getting what you want in four weeks’ time is an hour’s cycling because you’re finding what you’re doing (running) quite monotonous. In four weeks’ time your body’s not going to know you cycled rather than ran or that you altered the session – all it’s going to know is that you’re happy and have had a consistent block of training and are ready to go again.”
The bit-by-bit approach continues to see Thompson returning to his best. He showed great form to win the Morrisons Great Birmingham Run half-marathon last month in 63:00, but the humble runner knows it will be a long road to competing in either the marathon or 10,000m at the Olympics next summer.
“I’m exercising the most extreme patience I’ve ever had in my running career, which has been painful,” he said. “At least it’s starting to look somewhere in the realms of where I need be. It’s been an interesting 10 months and it’s only going to get more interesting I think.”
Chris Thompson’s tips for staying motivated and returning from injury
» Remember why you started running
» Set mini goals rather than looking at nothing other than the ultimate target
» You may have to “settle for second best” and forget your PBs at times
» Don’t be afraid to alter your training plan, be it just moving around the days or more drastically such as swapping running for cross-training – just to maintain the enjoyment