Why doing “challenges” and marathon-style events can make you fail when it counts most.

Thinking of starting a 30 day nutrition or fitness “challenge?” Or, are you thinking of signing up for a half marathon or triathlon?

I don’t blame you. It seems like this would be a perfect way to spark motivation. Unfortunately, this approach creates a significant psychological roadblock that I like to call, “Finish Line Syndrome.”

I want to use the story of a client of mine—we’ll call her Karen—to show you how powerful Finish Line Syndrome is.

Karen was in her early 40s and had decided that she was going to make a significant change to her lifestyle. She was a mom of two beautiful girls, about 30 pounds overweight, struggling with roller-coaster energy levels and loved sugar a little too much.

After she joined Total Body Reboot, I did a coaching call with her as I do for all new clients. It was on this first call that she gave me the news. Two weeks earlier she had signed up and paid for a half marathon that was now 12 weeks away. 

Now, I’m not a huge fan of distance running for a myriad of reasons. And I’m certainly not a fan of half marathons. So, you can imagine how the call started. I put a solid effort into convincing her to cancel her half marathon registration.

Needless to say, she didn’t want to cancel it. She acknowledged that it wasn’t the healthiest approach, but stated that it was something she had always wanted to do. And it was something she would love to “cross off her list.” 

This would be the point where some hard-ass coaches or trainers would say, “If you’re not going to cancel this event, I can’t work with you.”

That wouldn’t align with what Total Body Reboot is about though. The program is tool-based, not rule-based. And it’s about working with people wherever they’re at and showing them how to win regardless of the circumstances.

Besides, knowing that she’s going to do this event with or without me, I figured I might as well help her mitigate the damage and do this in the best way possible.

So, long story short we set some terms around her training:

  • We incorporated interval training and other unconventional training approaches that helped her prepare for the event without having to pound the pavement every day
  • She agreed that she wouldn’t do any long distance running unless she got at least 8 hours of sleep the previous night
  • She committed to a daily meditation practice
  • And she committed to the rest of the Total Body Reboot blueprint, the most important part being the real-food nutrition approach.

Karen made a huge amount of progress in a short amount of time. Her dedication to this goal was evident. 12 weeks later she ended up completing the half marathon with a smile on her face.

And that was the worst thing that could have happened for her long-term health and fitness goals. 

The finish line of that half-marathon created a psychological finish line in her head. The buildup to this event was so big in her life that finally “crossing it off the list” switched her mindset into “finished” mode.

But finished with what? This event was a side-show. She had told me all about how she was committed to Total Body Reboot because it was a program that wouldn’t just show her how to GET a body and life she loved, but would give her the tools to KEEP IT—forever.

Now, three months in, she was struggling to engage with any part of it.

Fast forward five months. Five months. That’s how long she fell off for. She binged. She stop exercising altogether. All her old issues returned.

After three failed attempts at reaching out to her, she finally replied back. She felt embarrassed. She was stuck. She was back at square one.

Karen recommitted and ended up becoming a success story, but this event—this stupid half marathon—almost robbed her of the wonderfully healthy years she’s now enjoying.

You have to understand that Karen isn’t the only person I’ve seen this happen to. I’ve seen this time and time again with events like this and especially with 30 day “challenges,” albeit on a smaller scale.

These finish-line-style events upregulate the brain during the preparation and training/doing phase and then promote a complete decompression upon completion. That’s “Finish Line Syndrome.”

It’s during this decompression phase where people completely relapse. Then one of two things usually happens: they stay relapsed for a very long time or they sign up for another challenge/event when they get sick of the relapse period.

Those in the second group basically yo-yo from challenge to challenge or event to event. It’s like a form of health and fitness bipolar disorder. Not only is it not healthy, it’s not enjoyable! It’s not a life you love.

So heed my warning: challenges and finish-line-style events are not a good idea. None of my programs have a finish line for a reason—they’re all programs that encourage life-long engagement and give you the authentic tools to stay consistent no matter what.

You’ve read the book, so you know the outcome: the tortoise always beats the hare. It might not be as sexy as signing up for all these shiny new challenges and events, but you know what’s sexier than those things? Getting and keeping a body and life you love.


  • Kyleanne says:

    OMG! Hit the nail on the head! 7 months since rebooting. A friend invited me to do a 60 day challenge the other day, for a split sec I thought about doing it! Then I remembered the mind games and obsessive behaviour that comes with it! I am still trying beat emotional triggers from challenges! Progress not perfection 🙂

  • Calvin says:

    Very useful post! While some people might find it challenging and motivational to go from challenge to challenge, we all know it’s all about balance and having the right mindset. These finish line approaches are meant to challenge you for a short period of time and then you’re left hanging with no other plan – this is when bad dieting and lack of workout comes into play.

  • Rae76 says:

    Excellent points. I’m doing a Whole 30 AND researching daily. Your website is amazing. I have to say when asked what my first meal after will be, I’m not very interested in going back. My husband isn’t 100% going Whole 30 but is benefitting nonetheless. No acid reflux and no IBS. Out of “support” for me, he got rid of his candy stash. He just got a Fitbit like me.

    Your approach to balance and emphasizing the psychology is so spot on. This article is just a new reinforcement I needed to see. I’d like to do more formal exercise as something fun. You have another article about the importance of sleep. I’m getting there and will give myself another few weeks to sleep more solid. The biggest benefit right now of that Fitbit is the sleep monitoring. So just having long walks and gardening and managing stress for now.

    So thank you for such an excellent site!

  • Lan Tra says:

    Hi Kevin, thanks for the nice post.

  • Jessica Goodman says:

    I’m so incredibly grateful for this article. I’m a fitness & nutrition consultant and I kick myself for some of the dogmatic things I used to tell clients to do. I used to run 30-day challenges and see now that this just feeds our perfectionist and needy desires to do things perfectly for someone else. Not to mention how, as you say above, that it gives us this idea that 30 days of being perfect will lead to a lifetime of success. NOT! My only comment would be that I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing to work towards a “finish line goal” if it’s something you really want – BUT to ask yourself WHY you really want to do it. For example, if Karen wanted to do the marathon because she loved the idea of being outside, joining a community and perhaps training with friends/loved ones, that is GREAT! But if she was doing it to lose weight or “get back on track” or to kick-start a healthy lifestyle, then I don’t think these are whole-hearted or sustainable reasons to do something and is so easy to “fall off the wagon” once the race is done. Bad-ass article, Kevin! 🙂

  • karan says:

    thanks for sharing this amazing posting this will certainly help lot of people.

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