There are days when even fitness professionals would rather curl up on the couch than head to the gym.
"Sometimes life just gets in the way and it's hard to cut out the time, or you are tired," says Garret Seacat, CSCS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and professional cycling coach at Absolute Endurance, in Manhattan, Kansas.
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"There are definitely days where I miss a workout," he says. "I get caught in life with kids or getting groceries or I just feel off. That happens. But there is always tomorrow."
Seacat and other trainers play with different approaches and practices to make sure a day off doesn't become a week away from training. Keep reading to see how these strategies can work for you, too.
1. Get Your Gear Ready
After a missed training day, Seacat will lay out his workout clothes and cycling gear for the next day's ride alongside his bed before even going to sleep.
"Then, get up and put your gear on," he says. "Don't give yourself a chance to be distracted. Somedays the best thing for your motivation is just to get out the door."
2. Make a Date
Try blocking out time on your calendar like any other meeting, says Michele Kerulis EdD, a certified mental performance consultant and an associate professor of mental health and sport and exercise at Northwestern University.
"My schedule is all over the place. It's important for me to know what I'm going to do and when I'm going to do it," Kerulis says.
She also enjoys group workouts and will build her schedule around them when possible. "When you register for the class and you are paying for it then you have a financial commitment," she explains. "And the exercise doesn't rely on you alone because you have a group around you."
A workout buddy helps too, Kerulis says. "If I plan to meet someone at that group, well, then I can't not go."
3. Plan for Progress
"Walking into the gym with no plan can leave you feeling less motivated because you won't feel like you are making as much progress," she says.
Leavell refers to "the data" — the exercises, reps and weights she used in a previous workout — to create a new plan for the day, one that will move her forward toward her goals. By making a little progress you are more motivated to go the next time, she says.
Or, you can leave the planning to the professionals: Another perk of taking a group fitness class or working with a trainer means your workouts are planned for you — a big help when you are feeling wiped out, Kerulis says.
"The instructors know what they are going to do," Kerulis says. "I plan to get there, and then I do it, and I don't have to think about it."
4. Get Creative
Being flexible and creative with training is key for Brandon Hyatt, CSCS, to get in a workout even when he's pressed for time or doesn't feel like doing it.
Hyatt found he needed to adapt his workouts after he became a father in 2023 to avoid the fatigue and time pressure he often felt when it was time to train. His regular routine wasn't fitting into his life anymore and that was draining his motivation.
Now, instead of spending hours in the gym each week, Hyatt does some strength training and then finds other ways to move during his day. He rides his bike to work and parks it away from his building so he can walk to his office at the University of California, San Diego where he provides personal training through the University's Workstrong program.
"I need to keep it simple," Hyatt says. "I want some sort of movement. That can be punching and kicking on a bag for 20 minutes or just going for a walk, I do not have the energy to overcomplicate it."
Motivation often changes when people push toward a goal, according to a July 2017 study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. Focusing early on the steps that need to be taken to achieve a goal and then adapting later to what needs to be avoided to stay on track helps sustain motivation.
In the study, researchers call this "promotion motivation" and "prevention motivation." It's the shift between the two that can keep people moving forward.
For Hyatt, fitting in fitness throughout the day means he can avoid the later workouts when he feels tired and wants to be home. That flexibility has allowed him to stay on track with his fitness goals, despite the life changes.
5. Know Your 'Why'
"My workouts support my life and my job," Leavell says. And keeping those fundamental things in mind helps her push through. "I need my personal time in the gym or walking to support the classes I teach and the people I train."
Endurance athlete and trainer Seacat uses both short-term and long-term goals to remind him why his training is important. In the short term, having a goal for what you want to accomplish during a specific workout helps you build resilience and strength, he says.
Scheduling a competition or event in the future can give you something to look forward to and keep you training with purpose over the long haul.
6. 'Pump Up the Jam'
On the days when Kerulis feels her motivation lag, she bumps her energy — and the fun — by turning on a workout playlist.
"There are times when I'm running that I want to pump up the jam," Kerulis says with a laugh. She'll plug in a random playlist of rap or pop music or even Broadway show tunes to get her out the door to exercise or keep her pushing forward during a long run.
Music has been shown to improve performance by activating muscles, increasing heart rate and intensifying performance, according to a June 2021 review in the Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology.
Music also packs in plenty of mood-boosting benefits, which functions as another motivation trigger. People are more likely to tackle an important or useful task — even one they don't want to do — when they are already feeling good, according to an August 2016 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Music can get the good vibes rolling.
7. Power Up Your Self-Talk
Leavell uses a playlist to hype herself up, but you might also hear her talking to herself. Positive self-talk and affirmations can fire up motivation by making people feel more competent and capable, according to a November 2015 article in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Seacat repeats phrases like "I am strong. I am powerful," he says. "Put them on your mirror or your bike to trigger your energy. They can help keep you moving forward every day."
8. Find Feel-Good Media
Staying motivated and energetic for a workout is often about overcoming the thoughts, mental fatigue and other barriers that get in the way, Kerulis says. Specially curated social media sites can be an inspiration and a mood boost that will help get you going.
She watches heart-warming videos or clips of people overcoming odds or something else that makes her feel good when she needs a pick-me-up before a workout.
Hyatt also finds new ideas and exercises online from other reputable trainers and sometimes adds them to his workouts as a way to make a routine more interesting and spark motivation. (We like these diverse, inclusive online fitness accounts.)
9. Take a Break
Despite all the planning and professional training, even the most diligent trainers need a day off.
"If my body is truly not feeling it, I change up my workout routine. It is not worth injuring myself just to say that I finished a workout, especially if it could take me out for the rest of the week," Leavell says.
Be sure to cut yourself some slack too, Kerulis says. If you don't have a great workout or you skip a day, don't be too hard on yourself.
Self-compassion during those tough times can help you manage exercise setbacks and ignite motivation for the next time, according to a January 2023 article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
"I think we have to do a better job of teaching self-worth and defining failure and success," Kerulis says. "Beating yourself up is not getting you closer to your goals."
- Journal of Consumer Psychology: "How Goal Progress Influences Regulatory Focus in Goal Pursuit"
- Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology: "The Influence of Music Preference on Exercise Responses and Performance: A Review"
- Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience: Self-affirmation activates brain systems Associated With Self-Related Processing and Reward and is Reinforced by Future Orientation
- PNAS: "Hedonism and the choice of everyday activities"
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "Self-Compassion and Physical Activity: The Underpinning Role of Psychological Distress and Barrier Self-Efficacy"