Why is running fun only for some people?
When runners discuss their favorite activity with friends and family they quickly come to the conclusion that running just isn’t for everyone. What causes running to be fun for some people and miserable for others? There are a number of possible factors discussed here.
What Makes Running Fun?
Before we can discuss why running isn’t fun for some people, here are the factors that make running enjoyable for others. For many people, running is fun because it is challenging. For others, it provides instant gratification in the form of chemical release in the brain. For certain people running is fun due to natural talent. For other athletes, running is enjoyable simply because of the social aspect and the elevation of social status that running can provide.
Body Type and Genetics
We cannot deny that genetics play a large role in everything that we do, from the foods that we enjoy to the types of exercise in which we excel. Much research has gone into the genetic differences1 among sprinters and distance runners. In some instances, people from certain regions of the world (i.e. Jamaica) are naturally predisposed to be better sprinters than people from other areas (i.e. Kenya). Simply put, a Kenyan2 or Eritrean runner will be physically limited when it comes to reaching certain athletic achievements, such as winning a gold medal in the 100 m dash.
Therefore, a person who genetically has more fast twitch muscle fibers may not find long distance running as fun as sprinting because he or she will not have a “natural” inclination towards longer distances. Similarly, a person with more slow twitch muscle fibers will have difficulty enjoying sprinting, because his or her body will not be able to perform the task as easily. Beyond muscle fiber composition there are three main body types (i.e. somatotypes3) which can help determine how naturally inclined you will be to run:
An ectomorph is a person who naturally has a long, lean body. This person has a fast metabolism and difficulty gaining weight. Not surprisingly, this athlete is also naturally predisposed to endurance sports such as running. Activities in which ectomorphs do not naturally excel include weight lifting and explosive activities that require a lot of strength, such as football or basketball. An ectomorph will find running the easiest of the three somatotypes, which may lead to more enjoyment.
An endomorph is the opposite of an ectomorph. He or she has a shorter, stockier body type and struggles to lose weight. This athlete is naturally curvier, with a larger bone structure and thicker joints. Endomorphs excel at sports that require a lot of power, such as weight-lifting and track and field throwing events. Running does not come naturally to endomorphs, which can limit their enjoyment of the sport. (Pro tip: Read more on How Does Weight Affect Your Running Speed)
A mesomorph is a mixture of both an endo- and ectomorph. This person tends to be larger than an ectomorph but also very muscular. When you think of a general athlete (not necessarily a runner), you may automatically picture the mesomorph body build. Mesomorphs gain and lose weight easily, and are the jack-of-all-trades among athletes. They likely won’t beat a true ectomorph at distance running, nor an endomorph in the shot put, but they make great multi-event athletes such as decathletes.
Heterogeneity of Physical Function
Another factor that determines how much “fun” a person has while running is how fast fitness is gained. For instance, this factor can be measured by how quickly running begins to feel easier; the speed at which running pace decreases, or how frequently a personal best is recorded. However, for some people, only marginal gains in fitness are observed. A team of scientists4 placed overweight and obese individuals on a five-month, four-day per week exercise regimen of aerobic training or resistance training and measured subsequent changes in peak aerobic capacity, knee extensor strength, 400 m walk time, and a global measure of lower extremity function. While the vast majority of participants improved their fitness throughout the study, 13% of the study’s participants showed no change or a decrease in peak aerobic capacity.
Additionally, the magnitude of improvement in aerobic capacity among participants varied considerably, leading researchers to conclude that individuals respond to exercise in different ways. It can be reasonably assumed that people who do not gain fitness as easily may find running less enjoyable than those who see marked improvement in a short amount of time.
Another issue that can affect a person’s enjoyment when running is natural biomechanics. An athlete’s natural gait and efficiency are two factors that determine how much energy a person expends while running.
Biomechanics are part genetic and part environmental. For instance, a person with poor hip strength and a natural tendency to heel-strike will have a more difficult time running than a person who naturally has adequate lower body strength and is a natural toe- or midfoot-striker. The worse a person’s biomechanics the more energy that will be required in order to run any distance, which will make running less enjoyable, particularly in the beginning. However, for someone with exceptional biomechanics running will feel relatively effortless.
Many people assume that running is a natural fit for someone with a Type A personality; a person who is competitive, ambitious, outgoing, and impatient. On the surface, this assumption is true: Running is a sport that requires discipline, attention to detail (i.e. hydration, nutrition, recovery, sleep, strength, form, etc.), and a desire to reach goals.
However, runners that are too strongly Type-A can quickly feel as though running is a dungeon. For instance, these athletes are most prone to developing eating disorders and low-confidence, and also struggle with constant comparisons to other runners. On the other hand, a person with a Type-B personality (i.e. relaxed, patient, friendly) may actually find running more fun.
This person is less likely to beat him or herself up over injury or a bad run or race. Additionally, a Type-A person might quit running earlier than the Type-B person due to lack of patience with the getting-into-shape process.
In 1966 a study was performed that tested the pain tolerance5 of various groups of athletes and non-athletes. Athletes of contact sports, athletes of non-contact sports, and non-athletes were tested using thermal, pressure, and muscle ischemia techniques to determine the pain tolerance of each group.
Athletes who participated in contact sports had a higher pain tolerance than those who participated in non-contact sports, while the athletes who participated in non-contact sports had a higher pain tolerance than the non-athletes. It can be easily concluded that heterogeneity among individual pain tolerance thresholds might determine how enjoyable running is for each individual.
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies
There is a wide range of variability in the nutrient levels of individuals based on genetics, age, sex, and diet. Vitamin D, iron, magnesium, and zinc all play a role in how an athlete feels during exercise. For instance, menstruating women who run are more likely to have lower ferritin levels6 than men and sedentary women.
When iron levels are low (even the low-range of normal), running can feel relatively more difficult due to decreased oxygen transport. Other symptoms of low iron include fatigue, depression, and lack of motivation. From a biological standpoint, running might be less fun for people whose micronutrient levels are not optimized.
1. Niemi AK, Majamaa K. Mitochondrial DNA and ACTN3 genotypes in Finnish elite endurance and sprint athletes. Eur J Hum Genet. 2005;13(8):965–969. doi: 10.1038/sj.ejhg.5201438. Link
2. Tam, E., Rossi, H., Moia, C., Berardelli, C., Rosa, G., Capelli, C., & Ferretti, G. (2012). Energetics of running in top-level marathon runners from Kenya. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 112(11), 3797-3806. doi:10.1007/s00421-012-2357-1 Link
3. Chaouachi, M. (2005). Effects of dominant somatotype on aerobic capacity trainability. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 39(12), 954-959. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2005.019943 Link
4. Chmelo EA, Crotts CI, Newman JC, Brinkley TE, Lyles MF, Leng X, et al. Heterogeneity of physical function responses to exercise training in older adults. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2015;63:462–9. doi: 10.1111/jgs.13322. Link
5. Ryan, E. D., & Kovacic, C. R. (1966). Pain Tolerance And Athletic Participation. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 22(2), 383-390. doi:10.2466/pms.19188.8.131.523 Link
6. Beard J, Tobin B. Iron status and exercise. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;72:594–597. Link