What Really Drives You to Run?
If you are a runner, you likely have a friend or family member who has asked the age-old question, “Why?” As you retire early, citing the reason for going to bed as an early morning long run; or as you recover from a season-ending stress fracture, proclaiming your impatience to start running again, you may be asked, “Why? Why do you run?” For many athletes this simple question can be difficult to answer, because for most it is like answering, “Why does a bird fly?”
For me, running started out as a way to relieve stress when I was studying to get into med school. I started training for my first half marathon in my early twenties. That’s when I stepped onto my fears and increased the distances to 100k. One race at a time. I had absolutely no idea running would turn into a great passion of mine and I certainly did not expect for it to become habit-forming. Now it drives me crazy not to run and I go out to pound the pavement even at minus 5°F. I love the thrill, I love the feeling I get after the run and sometimes the incredibly beautiful pain the aching muscles give me.
There are so many people on this planet who go through life with their brakes on. Let’s see what pushes the ones who don’t.
The driving force for many first-time runners is to use running as a way to cope with a difficult time, such as an injury, illness, or death in the family. For instance, 2016 Olympic Trials qualifier Andrea Duke devoted herself to running as a way to cope with the numerous stresses in her life, including a young son with a broken femur who was told he may never walk normally again. Over the course of 47 marathons, she went from being an “average” runner, with a 4 hour+ marathon PR, to one of the best female marathoners in the country. Other runners have found that running is their “me” time, and are motivated to get out the door as an opportunity to unplug and be one with their thoughts, having the ability to deal with any stressors that are thrown their way.
Once a runner starts to develop a running routine, the release of hormones that are experienced as a result of vigorous activity – often termed a “runner’s high” – is enough to form an addiction to running. For athletes who are already prone to addiction, such as Wes Trueblood who replaced a severe addiction to heroin with an addiction to running, running can be a healthy alternative to an otherwise destructive lifestyle. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1, the “feel good” chemicals that are released during a run are not only endorphins, as previously thought, but also endocannabinoids, which are relatives to the chemicals found in marijuana. For runners who are already prone to having an addictive personality or being “Type-A,” this runner’s high can be a main motivating factor, keeping an athlete returning daily to his or her favorite way to get high.
For other runners, the drive to lace up their shoes every day is secondary to a greater motivation: competition. There are generally two kinds of runners: those who are able to run every day, no matter what, with little external motivation; and those who can only find motivation to run when they have a race on the schedule. What makes training for a race and running for the sake of running different? Competition has an altogether different set of motivating factors, often driven by the athlete’s drive to “prove” him or herself on a local, regional, national or international stage. Competitive runners may also enjoy the thrill of pushing limits and transcending personal bests in a way that only a race can truly provide. For these athletes, running is simply a means to an end that is rooted in a competitive nature.
© Big Stock Photo
For some athletes, running is a way to support families or even entire villages. For instance, runners from certain third-world countries, such as Kenya, are not primarily motivated to run for the love of running, the quest for fitness or to tackle personal demons; rather, they run as an escape from poverty. For instance, Wesley Korir, who used his running ability as a way to leave Kenya and pursue higher education in the United States at the University of Louisville, now uses his success as a runner to help his countrymen. Through his organization, Kenyan Kids Foundation, he donates a portion of his winnings to children in his home country so that they can pursue an education. Running in many of these underdeveloped countries offers a way to escape political turmoil and unrest, or to provide a life for a family that may otherwise suffer. In addition, runners from African countries are often so well-revered that many have gone on to have successful political careers long after retirement.
For other runners, running is a means of leading a socially enriching lifestyle. If running is a drug, runners themselves are among the strongest of enablers, constantly asking others to join them in their quest to get high. Weekday and weekend run groups, the chance to meet others at races and the support that is received via online communities is often enough motivation not only to get a person to start running, but also to continue running. For people who lead a busy lifestyle with little free time for both exercise and socialization, running is one activity that can easily allow someone to fill both needs. Indeed, it can be difficult to turn down exercise when friends ask you to join them!
Running is also a way for individuals to tackle personal demons they may be experiencing. A lack of confidence, self esteem and self worth can all be destroyed when someone takes up a new exercise regimen. Since running is an activity that requires a lot of motivation, but little else (except for a pair of properly fitting running shoes), people are left with a profound sense of accomplishment when they complete their daily run, no matter how difficult it initially may have been to get out of bed. For many, the confidence that is gained from sticking to an exercise program and living the dedicated lifestyle of a runner can make this healthy activity a habit that is hard to break.
Finally, perhaps one of the biggest reasons that people continue to run is because, as humans, we are creatures of habit. We are naturally drawn to patterns, rhythms and routines. Breaking these routines can lead our bodies to sub-consciously send out stress signals that something has changed, and that we may be in danger. Indeed, this is one reason why taper (i.e. periods of limited running and rest before a big race, such as a marathon) can be so emotionally agonizing for a runner, leading to anxiety and crankiness. This phenomenon should also be a good indication for a beginner runner – who may be struggling with daily motivation – that once running becomes a dedicated habit, it will become increasingly difficult not to run, as run “streakers” will attest. Take, for instance, Mike Calvert, who did not miss a single day of running for 45 years and has the record for longest known running streak!
How do you sabotage your brain to run?
The brain wants us to conserve energy. It has not adapted to the technology around us and it doesn’t know we don’t hunt deer for a living. It is purely resourceful. That is because humanity went through a mind-shattering progress lately and our allocortex remained the same. The brain tricks you every second when you choose to take the elevator, sleep an additional 10 minutes in the morning and postpone that run because…you have more comfortable choices. Alternatives that conserve energy.
The entire world is divided into runners and non-runners. People who understand running and are capable of mental talk during the actual run (aka they don’t get bored and push through pain) and people who don’t. Since Mark Zuckerberg created the group A Year of Running, I get to see everyday people from India, China, Africa and other developing countries posting pictures from their runs. It’s incredible how the Internet connected us and the way people react to this new habit. I see humans happy for their first 5k and other, more competitive runners, bragging about their new 10k time.
In a nutshell, it is amazing how that group inspires thousands of people to go out for a run. However, I believe you have to be willing to push beyond your level of comfort in order to understand the value of running. You have to embrace the pain and just see where it goes. There’s a threshold most people just never reach, that’s why they don’t make running a habit. There is nothing as powerful as a flexible mind.
In my opinion, the only thing that will make you happy is to step up. You have to raise the standards, raise the distances and find the incredible power of pushing through. That is what running is all about. Push yourself to go on. That is when something happens for you. And, as Tony Robbins says, “people are rewarded in public for what they practice for years in private”. Those runners who are able to run extreme ultra-marathons have gotten there by pushing hard and training daily to achieve those goals. Start running now. One step at the time. There’s greatness in you. You just have to go and find it.
1. Johannes Fuss, Jörg Steinle, Laura Bindila, Matthias K. Auer, Hartmut Kirchherr, Beat Lutz, and Peter Gass; A runner’s high depends on cannabinoid receptors in mice, PNAS 2015 112 (42) 13105-13108; published ahead of print October 5, 2015, doi:10.1073/pnas.1514996112 (link)