What Fuels Our Running Mojo? – Those Who Have a Why Can Bare Any How
“I couldn’t think of anything worse, why would you want to get into that?” was the bullish rebuttal I received when talking to a friend about my keen interest in running. Instead of being drawn into an immediate counter I took a measured pause to ponder what was an excellent question. As I write this article, my inner dialogue has already begun to chatter away, weighing up the urge to go for a ‘run’ against tolerating what are now officially ‘freezing’ temperatures and the draw of a warm and comfortable house. More often than not I choose the former over the latter, and by no means am I special or alone in this. In fact many friends, colleagues, and millions of others will make a similar decision on a daily basis, each with their own goals, targets, and motivation that fuels their running ‘mojo’. I wish not to spend time outlining the established benefits of running for our physical health, instead as a sport psychology practitioner, researcher, and running enthusiast I offer a detailed highlights reel based upon my own experiences, observation of others, and scientific evidence into why people run and will continue to do so.
The Lure of the Outdoors and Escaping the Indoors
For humans running had two original purposes, first, to stalk wounded prey and second, to escape from predators. Considering how readily food is available and the distinct lack of roaming sabre tooth tigers our motivation to get out or get away still exists but in a more subtle form. Being around green spaces is associated with mental health and vitality and the colour green itself is proposed to enhance mood when exercising. In addition, by simply exercising irrespective of the workload research has found positive psychological benefits. Therefore, running and surrounding yourself with greenery is a double-edged sword that offers positive benefits for our mental wellbeing. For the roadrunners or city dwellers who do not have as greater access to plush greenery, may then reap different rewards. Running may allow one to ‘get away’, ‘clear your mind’, and ‘get some fresh air’. In those solitary moments away, all commitments are left behind making way for the simple act of running. Whether you run to ‘get out’ or you are running to ‘get away’ running provides a healthy escape acting as a psychological and physical reset, replenishing much of the clarity that has been lost within our busy and sometimes convoluted minds.
The Running Drug
I would bet my favourite pair of trainers that if you were to measure my mood and restlessness before and after a run: my mood would have lifted, the mist surrounding my thoughts to have cleared, and paradoxically I would feel more energised. Luckily for me and my trainers research has shown running positively impacts on our engagement (e.g., happy, unbeat), revitalization (e.g., energetic, refreshed), and tranquillity (e.g., calm, peaceful). Interestingly, more experienced runners seemed to reap greater benefits in their mood compared to in-experienced runners (Szabo & Abraham, 2013). Therefore, the more we do – the better we feel. This said, running (believe it or not) leads to physical exhaustion (e.g., tired, worn-out), therefore a combination of a peaceful mind and worn-out body seems like an obvious cocktail for fruitful sleep. Yes, essentially running is a non-pharmaceutical treatment for stress and mood disorders.
Everyone can be an Accomplished Runner.
The ability to run for long-distances and for short bursts have been crucial for human survival, and as a species we are very good at running, particularly distance running. You only have to look at the marathon world-record set by Dennis Kimeto at 2:02:57. Dennis ran the final 5km of 42.1 km race (kilometre 35-40) in a staggering 14 minutes and 10 seconds. For those familiar with park-runs will be able to appreciate and drool over this feat. However, and most significantly we do not all have to be record breakers to become an accomplished runner. Research shows we assess our achievement in reference to ourselves (e.g., beating a PB) or against others (e.g., beating a competitor). We know both are important to boost our self-confidence, which has a big impact on our motivation, simply, if we are good at something we are more likely to carry on doing what ever it is we are good at. The beauty of running is that it offers both sources of motivation in abundance. For example, when going for a run or lining up for a race, we can measure progress against ourselves and to those around us, providing many forms of motivational yardsticks. For example, runners may set short goals/splits to make it to a checkpoint in a certain time whilst others may also use their nearest runner as a gauge of progress. Essentially, everyone can be successful and that is an extremely powerful driver.
Connecting with Others.
Humans are inherently social creatures and the running community is an excellent example of this. For many being socially connected appears to be a crucial motivator for running. We know that by training with others we are more likely to expend more effort into a task, this is known as the ‘social facilitation theory’. We also know that running alongside others may act as a useful way to distract our brain from the physical discomfort and reduced perceived effort. When running solo the mind may become pre-occupied with our own physical exertion (e.g., physical pain, pace). A study with army males showed those who used dissociative strategies (attention on anything external to the body) walked for 46% longer until exhaustion compared to those who did not disassociate. A running group/club is also a great opportunity to connect with others. Therefore, when you run you not only represent yourself but also the club. This want to run with others is exampled in the popularity of park runs across the country. Not restricted to a club many will also identify as a “runner”, captured in those subtle gestures when passing others in the street. Finally, the rise of exercise apps such as “Strava” have allowed people to stay connected and share progress with like-minded individuals. Here, you can record your training, compliment others, in the form of ‘kudos’ to help reaffirm a sense of accomplishment.
Running is very simple; with the appropriate footwear and some clothing you are able lace-up anywhere and at anytime. It is not by chance that running is extremely popular amongst those who juggle multiple stressors (i.e., work, parenting, and family). All things considered time can become a precious commodity, therefore being able chose when, where, and how long you run is huge tick that allows people to integrate running into their life and not at the expense of others.
Maximizing Pleasure and Minimizing Harm.
Three years ago a colleague was conducting research into the relationship between eating and exercise, I enthusiastically offered my services as an interviewee. At the end, I asked her (off the record) for her thoughts on what we had discussed and quite convincingly she noted I had what are called ‘Compensatory Health Beliefs’. Accordingly, I believed engaging in another healthy behaviour could neutralize the negative effects of my unhealthy behaviour. For example, a weekend of mass eating and drinking with my friends was guilt free and completely limitless (maximizing pleasure) because I knew the following week my exercise habits would compensate for my gluttony (minimizing harm). Although not proposed as a particularly functional form of motivation, ultimately, people may run spurred on by the detoxing and buffering effects of ‘naughty foods” (e.g., guilt, putting on weight) – I certainly do and I know I am not alone in this; the surge in post Christmas exercise demonstrates this point nicely.
Become Ultra Human
Amongst the many forms and subtypes of running lurks the most mentally challenging and gruelling of them all. The ultra marathon is typically anywhere from 50 kilometres up to 200 miles (and beyond) in any climate across any terrain, providing the most extreme example of why people run. It is an extraordinary event completed by very ordinary people where the time becomes insignificant and finishing itself becomes the ultimate achievement. Here, competitors become companions, a relationship built upon shared adversity and mutual respect for one another. Many may question why would anyone want to endure such a race. Runners will experience the ultimate “bonk’, where the bodies glycogen stores are depleted and every step becomes a battle of the mind over body. The ultra-marathon will question a runner’s willingness to carry on even when the body has shutdown and often in complete solitude. It is down to the gravity of the exaggerated highs and lows that runners report a sense of euphoria when crossing the finishing line, here lies the sweetest sense of achievement and glory. In psychological terms this state is called ‘self-actualisation’ – the process of self-fulfilment and reaching one’s ultimate potential.
Running for Others
As you may have seen in the news Ben Smith recently completed the extraordinary feat of running 401 marathons in 401 days to raise awareness and money to tackle bullying. This stemmed from his adolescent experiences of being bullied to the brink of attempted suicide. Most of what has been covered has been self-focussed, yet the notion of running for a greater meaning may present the most powerful motivator of them all. Every year thousands upon thousands will decide to sacrifice time and pain in the aid of raising money for a deserving charity. Here, the motivation to run transcends their own and takes much greater meaning in the memory and/or support of others.
By no means an exhaustive list, it appears that as long as we are attracted by the lure of the outdoors, the need to get out and clear our minds, a drive to accomplish, enjoy connecting with others, maximize our pleasure, fulfil our ultimate potential, and find meaning in something greater than ourselves, people will run and will continue to do, providing the fuel for our running ‘mojo’. As Viktor Frankl powerfully articulates, those who have a why can bare almost any how.
As well as being a running enthusiast, Andrew is a practitioner, researcher, and lecturer in sport and exercise psychology based at Staffordshire University. His research examines the effect of irrational and rational beliefs on athletic performance and is currently working as the lead sport psychologist for the England B1 football team.