What’s the motivation in ultrarunning?

As much as ultrarunning is an extreme and strenuous discilpline, the numbers of those who practice it are increasing year by year. In the U.S. over the past 10 years, the number of those who push themselves well beyond the marathon distance (i.e., any “ultra” competition, which precisely exceeds the queen of running races) has grown at a rate of 345 percent annually. So much so that it has interested psychologists who have wondered what is behind it, which is to say, in other words: but who makes them do what they do?
What motivates some people to cover absurd and almost inhuman distances?

To understand this, the psychologists behind the study published in Psychology of Sport & Exercise used the so-called “reversal theory,” a theory that links emotions and motivational states, trying to understand what emotions lead athletes to perform certain feats.

A particular kind of competition

What they first discovered is that generally ultramarathoners conceive competition differently from the rest of the athletes. This does not mean that they are not competitive and have no incentive to challenge each other as much as they conceive competition as a race with themselves.

Of course, they are also driven by times, but given the physical difficulty involved in what they do, the result they often seek is also “simply” to complete the race.

Other motivating factors include: doing it together with others, the sense of camaraderie that is created among the (relatively) few ultrarunners, the benefit of being outdoors, and special care for personal health.

Many ultrarunners then have traits in common: persistence, determination toward a goal, self-confidence, the ability to motivate themselves through inner dialogue, and an uncommon ability to withstand stress and physical fatigue.

Reversal theory applied to ultrarunners

Explained in simple words, this psychological theory explains human motivation, personality, and experience as reactions to internal or external factors that can change even abruptly and that can have even unexpected individual responses. In this sense, “reversal” stands for a set of unexpected psychological states with respect to certain conditions. Complicated? Then think about how you react to a setback or bad news: do you get nervous or depressed? Good: ultrarunners do not necessarily react as one would expect. And this is one possible key to their psychology that experts are investigating.

What did they find out?

As mentioned earlier, those who run ultramarathons conceive of the experience not in terms of competing with others but to live it in a spirit of sharing and participating in the sorrows and joys of others. The aspect that emerges most powerfully among them, however, is the ability to go through so many emotional stages and the search for connection with nature as motivating and resolving in itself. On this point in particular, their vision differs from the common one: many “ordinary” people are motivated by a concrete goal (like working to earn money) while that of ultrarunners may be more translational or philosophical, like “the need to live immersed in contact with nature.” What makes their attitude different in this context is that they do not see these “natural” parentheses as a break but as a very clear goal, capable of creating a mental state of well-being that is as prolonged as possible.

To simplify even further, it can be said that their attitude is more empathetic than that of the average person, which leads them to be more sympathetic to others’ joys and sorrows, always seeking their emotional participation. Therefore, they are not normally driven to compete to beat someone and, understanding others’ difficulties, they are more participatory than the average person. Communities of ultrarunners (because that is what they often are) function as an organism composed by parties that are aware that they are elements of a group. They understand and “feel” other members.
Therefore, for ultrarunners, competition is only to themselves and is achieved through performance and technical perfection, expendable when there is someone in need to help.

It is somewhat as if the greatest satisfaction for them comes from accomplishing important feats within and because of a group and not from pursuing individual goals.

As the very strong ultrarunner Camille Herron says, “I realized that I had to shift my vision as an athlete from the race to enjoying places and people, helping them when they are in trouble. Being people who are able to be grateful and understand the beauty of nature helps a lot. After all, we run for so long that it is better to enjoy the spectacle, especially when it helps overcome the barriers of pain and demotivation.”

(Main image credits: Maridav on DepositPhotos.com – Via Trail Runner Magazine)


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