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What Motivates Us to Run?

Posted by on Apr 30, 2013 | 10 Comments

Why do we run?

It’s a question runners are asked regularly, especially ultrarunners. In a sedentary society where the average person will circle a parking lot eighteen times to park 15 feet closer to the store, running seems like an unnecessary burden.

Yet millions of us spend hours and hours per week running.

What propels us to do this often-times difficult activity?

I’ve always been fascinated with human motivation. It hits at the fundamental question of why we do what we do. It’s the fuel that ultimately drives all human behavior. Understand motivation and you understand humanity.

As a psychology student, I learned the basics of motivation. As a high school teacher and coach, I applied those lessons through endless experimentation. I focused on the types of motivation that drove different individuals. This deep fascination permeated pretty much every aspect of my life. When I started running, I asked my fellow runners a million questions in an attempt to plumb the depths of their psyche. More importantly, I asked myself the same questions.

Why did I run?

This question came to the forefront after I ran Grindstone this last year. Even though the race went extremely well and I had a great time, my motivation to run basically disappeared. I didn’t start the Chimera 100 a month later. I didn’t make the journey to Across the Years. Shelly and I ran the San Diego Trail Marathon… and it wasn’t enjoyable. The race itself was great… we just weren’t into it. Over the last six months, I’ve run about 100 miles. We’ve joked that we may never run another race again.

So what happened?

I realized pretty early that running slowly became less intrinsically motivating than it was years ago. The inherent challenges of learning how to run barefoot and run ultras were more or less met. There was less discovery. Less territory, both internal and external, to explore. The relative “newness” of running disappeared. It’s been replaced by other activities, most notably jiu jitsu.

Interestingly, my motivation to teach about running is as strong as ever. I published the Squirrel Wipe book, am working on an Interwebz-based running form project, and should be teaching live running classes in the San Diego area within a month or so. It is tempting to attribute this interest to the extrinsic motivation of money (we’re dirt-poor at the moment), but it’s not. I’d do all of this for free if I didn’t have a family to feed. It’s deeper- teaching satisfies a deep intrinsic drive. Since leaving the classroom, my ability to teach has been limited to the occasional running clinic. These new projects take me back to where I’m most happy- teaching others.

That brings me back to the original question- why do we run?

Perhaps more importantly, what happens when we lose that motivation to run?

I’m perfectly content with my present situation. I’m happy focusing on the ‘jits and teaching other about running. I don’t feel a longing to get back to training or running a particular race. In the event a cool casual run in an interesting place (sweet-ass mountains, perhaps?) with good friends materialized, I’d consider it. Otherwise I’m okay with very limited running. All of the positive experiences (learning, exploring, physical exercise, etc.) can be accomplished via other activities.

Maybe I just need to head up to LA and do a few beach runs with Sweeney (hint: it involves topless chicks):

What about others? How many of you have lost the motivation to run? Did it go away forever? Was the running replaced by some other activity? Why do you think you ran (or still run?) What is your motivation?

Share your thoughts in the comments section!


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  1. John Y.
    May 1, 2013

    I have been asked (accused?) why I run more than once…one smart ass even asked me what I was running from. Out of God-knows-how-many people in my (immediate) family, I am the only one that runs with any consistency. It is, for me, less a desire to get that “runner’s high” and more of a desire to get off my ass and not waste time. My wife and I work conflicting shifts (she: 7am-5pm, me: 7pm – 3am) and I don’t want something (such as the “need” to put in a run) to get in our way. Plus, I don’t run as much anymore, maybe 9-15 miles per week tops…and I race maybe 4-8 times per year. I don’t see myself jonesing for an ultramarathon anytime soon as we’re more broke than Jason (we have the mortgage what says we are legally broke for 30 years) and I really am happy doing my measly mileage. I am happy feeling sharp stones poking my feet through my Vibrams, I am happy exploring the farmlands out here in PA. I run because I want to, not because I NEED to.

  2. Bare Lee
    May 1, 2013

    Why?: sweet feeling of self-propelled motion, and the fact that evolution has bestowed upon me the ability to hear soothing elevator music whilst running.

    “Do you know the way to San Jose?”

    • Dave
      May 1, 2013

      I had church hymns in my head throughout a recent long run. The curse of the PK…

      • Bare Lee
        May 1, 2013

        No doubt there’s a good, tautological evolutionary psychology explanation for that too.

  3. Tom Peterson
    April 30, 2013

    Evolution does provide us with some motivation. Here is a short write up about my perspective that I published in my local Asheville Track Club newsletter last month. Sorry the formatting for the footnotes doesn’t take when pasted into this space.

    The Biochemistry of the Runner’s High:
    We’re not all stoners, are we?
    By Thomas Peterson, Ph.D.

    As a scientist, my recreational reading tends towards the nerdy.1 I read enough about my field (climate change) at work, so my evening reading is usually quite different. Two topics that have piqued my interest of late are evolutionary psychology2 and the chemistry and physiology of our brains.3 Before I get into what going on in the runner’s brain, let’s first take a side trip into the relevant topic of evolutionary psychology.

    We usually think of evolution as leading to the creation of all the many wonderful and diverse physical forms of animals and plants we see around us. But evolution also guided the creation of our minds4 both in overt (we’re the big-brained, smart apes with smart phones) and in subtle ways.

    To give an example of the latter, have you ever noticed how almost everyone in an elevator turns and faces the door — often even two people continuing the conversation they had as they walked in? Try standing with your back to the elevator door sometime and you’ll likely notice that it feels a little uncomfortable. This could be explained evolutionarily: In our ancestral caveman days, it is likely that some cavemen felt uncomfortable with their backs to the cave door and some felt comfortable. Those that felt comfortable with their backs to the cave door were the ones that got eaten by bears and did not live long enough to become our ancestors. While those that felt uncomfortable passed that psychological trait on to us.

    Last spring, the Journal of Experimental Biology published an article by a team of five scientists from around the U.S. that examined the brain chemistry of humans and a couple other animals with respect to running.5 What they found was that aerobic exercise caused changes in the brain chemistry, specifically an increase in the neurotransmitter called eCB. But this only occurred in cursorial mammals (cursorial being biologists speak for animals that are specifically adapted to run, such as dogs). eCBs did not increase during aerobic exercise in non-cursorial animals (such as ferrets).
    If you think for a moment about what exactly the scientists were doing, evidently in one of their labs they have a special little treadmill for ferrets and take ferret blood samples before and after making them run on the treadmill.6 Of special relevance to us, though, is that the humans they tested had the same changes in biochemistry as dogs, which proves that we too are cursorial mammals with running in our genes.

    While there is a danger in anthropomorphizing evolution, look on this feature from evolution’s point of view: If you wanted to encourage running, what better way than to give the runner’s brain a reward, say a runner’s high? This could be done by creating a chemical to activate the cannabinoid receptors in brain’s reward regions. And indeed, eCBs do just that. The scientists’ hypothesis is that these “neurobiological rewards following moderate and intense aerobic activity, popularly referred to as the ‘runner’s high’ . . . may function to encourage habitual aerobic exercise.”

    It is important to note, particularly when talking with a non-running spouse, that the scientists only found this increase in eCB signaling following high-intensity endurance running whereas low-intensity walking in both humans and dogs did not cause an increase in eCB signaling. The scientists even end their abstract by giving a nod to our potential injuries saying “thus, a neurobiological reward for endurance exercise may explain why humans and other cursorial mammals habitually engage in aerobic exercise despite the higher associated energy costs and injury risks, and why non-cursorial mammals avoid such locomotor behaviors.”

    To give you a little better idea of just what the runner’s high is, I should point out that the full term for eCBs is endocannabinoids. Now, if it seems to you that endocannabinoid neurotransmitters and cannabinoid receptors in the brain have a certain similarity to the word cannabis, which is the scientific name for marijuana, you would be right on target. The active ingredient in marijuana is also involved in endocannabinoid signaling and, among other things, impacts pain perception7.

    While I feel good after a nice run, I’ve never thought of the runner’s high as being remotely similar to smoking marijuana. Though, now that I think about it, I do often join fellow Bent Creek runners Sunday morning at Panera Bread to satisfy our post run munchies.

    What are the implications of this science for the Asheville Track Club? One might be that perhaps the next beginning runners program should undertake outreach to stoners as stoners might have a finally honed appreciation for the runner’s high . . . which is not only legal but good for you as well. Another might be that beginning runners should trust that evolution and biochemistry are on their side to help make their running experience enjoyable.

    1. Also, as a scientist, you’ll notice that I tend to footnote my writing. Sorry about that, it is an occupational hazard.

    2. For example, The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, by Matt Ridley, which I highly recommend.

    3. For example, Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt, a book I don’t particularly recommend because it is just too nerdy, too chockablock full of facts without enough synthesis.

    4. As the bumper sticker on my car says, “If you can read this, thank an evolutionarily successful hominid.”

    5. See

    6. I wonder if the ferrets also took some blood samples from the scientists after being forced to run on a treadmill?


  4. Rob Y
    April 30, 2013

    Burnout is extremely common among ultra-runners. I’ve seen many friends and fellow runners fade away with time often not because of injury but reduced lack of interest or simply burnout (often the same thing). I was no stranger to burnout either, in fact it’s something I have to face continually. So what got me through? Well first of all the realization that I was racing FAR TOO FREQUENTLY I think that may be the root cause of a lot burnout issues. Is new up and coming ultra runners it’s easy to get the bug and that itch you can’t scratch other than by seeking out more and more events to do. I know this, been there, done that.

    So how did I get through? I reduced the number and frequency of my races and moved on to BIGGER and more challenging goals. I couldn’t care less about all the local or often regional races anymore; even contemplating doing them makes me ill! Instead I’ve taken on organized and my own invented events (multi-day fast packing) that are much bigger than the past. For instance, it was a rush to take on Badwater two years ago because of many factors: longest distance I’ve ever run, 135 miles, longest distance I’ve run on ROADS and the extreme heat. Going in I was SCARED, that’s the thing, after doing so many events in the past I was no longer scared like I was when I was a real Newb. It was awesome to feel scared again because that’s how we grow!

    So that’s it. Choose a challenge that honestly scares you! For me it was taking on bigger challenges. Another approach that would be equally scary is to try and run certain events FASTER, set some pretty tough time goals and train like made to hit them.

    Basically if you want to continue to grow in the sport you must challenge yourself in an honest way. Just going through the motions and checking off the list isn’t good enough IMHO. Dream Big, Go Big!

    • Adam
      May 1, 2013

      I agree. The ultrarunning cult of “finishing at any cost” seems increasingly absurd to me. I’ve only done three 50 milers, and I’ve already gone from simply wanting to finish, to wanting to finish well. So, trying to get faster and more competitive is one way to stay motivated. If you’re simply piling up miles to retain the ability to complete events, I think burnout is pretty inevitable in most people. I don’t need to pay a race entry fee, spend money on travel, and get up at 5:00am to spend all day on the trails. I can do that alone for free. The point of racing, for me, is to race.

      Planning your own outings is another good idea. The groundwork that goes into a backpacking trip is inherently interesting and mentally engaging in a way that showing up at a starting line and then keeping your legs moving as long as possible while following colored ribbons will never be. I also think we could benefit from a wider range of event types, and (as Geoff Roes, Anton Krupicka, and others have suggested) abandoning the absurd notion of standardized race distances, a notion borrowed from road racing which is quite irrelevant when one considers the variations in altitude, climbing, weather, surface type, water crossings, tree cover, and so on, which factor into trail races. Racing courses dictated not by an arbitrary distance but rather by geology and ecology, over terrain that no human being can legitimately run, as in European skyrunning/mountain running seems like one interesting alternative. Factoring in orienteering, bushwacking and camping, as in British fell running seems like another. I know there are events like this here in the US, but they seem like a tiny minority to me. Most races are financially dependent on the heards of people who remain locked into a roadrunning mindset, and want to be able to say they ran 50 or 100 of one of two surveyors’ distance measurements. I know, because that’s how I thought about this stuff when I started a year ago.

  5. Dave
    April 30, 2013

    I first started running as I was motivated by competition, both against others, and against my own PRs. Over time, the hard work involved with this, turning 40, and some injuries has lessened my motivation to do hill repeats, tempo runs, or other such structured training.

    Now, my primary motivation is meditative. After a long day at the office, running gives me some me-time as I completely tune out the world, thinking of everything and nothing at the same time (to steal a phrase from Anton Krupicka).

    Mountain running, with its technical and hilly terrain, forces me to let go of the worries of the outside world, lest I lose my concentration and fall on my face. As I push uphill, my lungs are ready to burst and my legs get a burn I simply cannot achieve on the roads. As I ascend higher, I feel myself shedding the weight of the world, reaching a primal and peaceful state.

    Oh, and runner chicks are hot too.

    • Mark
      May 1, 2013

      Yes, this.

  6. Scott
    April 30, 2013

    My motivations are constantly evolving. I started running for health reasons. I continued to run for stress relief. I pushed the boundaries of distance for the challenge. But beneath all of that, there’s a foundation of simple love. I love being outdoors. I love moving through the landscape. I feel connected to the world.