Motives for Motions: The Psychology Behind Marathons

by Eliza Jane Schaeffer | 11/8/17 2:20am

I have cried during a run on numerous occasions — from frustration, from exhaustion, from pain. But I run most every day, and when asked if I enjoy running, I do not hesitate to reply, “Yes.” The follow-up question to that response is usually, “Why?” Truthfully, I do not have a good answer.

Objectively speaking, running is pretty horrendous, particularly when it comes to running long distances, as is the case with marathons or triathlons. Bridget Dougherty ’18 has run a half marathon and two full marathons and confirmed that they were painful experiences.

“Everything kind of hurts,” she said. “The last six miles [of a marathon] are really brutal. When you finish, you’re just so relieved to be done.”

Emma Rodriguez ’20, a member of Dartmouth’s Triathlon Team, agreed, explaining that during a long run or a long bike ride, “It’s just you and your thoughts, and you have to figure out a way to deal with the pain and boredom and continue to push through.”

So why are marathons so popular? Why — in a town of 11,260 — did 474 people finish the CHaD Hero half marathon a few weeks ago?

This question has inspired an entire body of scientific research, and it appears the answer is multifaceted. Survey data reveals that the reasons marathoners choose to compete vary based on their age and experience level. Those with more experience cited social supports and competitiveness as reasons for competing, while more novice runners cited personal improvement and a feeling of accomplishment as main motivating factors. Those who dropped out of marathons said it was friends or a desire to lose weight which encouraged them to run. Older competitors were also more likely to run for health and social reasons, while younger competitors were more likely to take a more goal-oriented approach.

For Dougherty, it is the sense of accomplishment that comes with completing a race which motivates her to push through the pain.

“I think it’s for the challenge, seeing if you can push yourself to do 26 miles and having it written down,” she said.

Katie Clayton ’18 agreed.

“The feeling of hitting a goal is so, so good,” she said. “Even if it’s one good race out of four, that feeling at the end of knowing you worked really hard for something ... It’s not just that you’ve worked hard in that race, you’ve worked hard before that making it there. It is a really good feeling.”

Not only do racers have to push themselves during the competition itself, they also have to train daily for months. Rodriguez is currently training for an Ironman, a race that consists of a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bicycle ride, followed by a 26.2-mile run. Alone, each of those legs seem unfathomable. Together, they seem suicidal.

Rodriguez trains for about three and a half to four hours every day. For nearly 30 hours every week, she runs, swims, bikes, lifts and stretches, aiming to complete two workouts each day. It is, as she described it, “a part time job.”

Thus, crossing the finish line represents far more than the completion of however many miles are covered by the race course in question. It represents hours of training, adherence to a strict regimen, the defiance of expectations and the defeat of doubts.

“It’s satisfying to see your improvement,” Rodriguez said. “It’s satisfying to finish a race and be like ‘I did that.’”

A feeling of accomplishment is easily perceived and easily defined, but there are other neurological benefits which are harder to pinpoint. These motivating factors — just above the level of conscious awareness but just below the level at which they can be readily identified — come down to a simple increase in blood flow to parts of the brain associated with planning, focus, goal-setting, time management and emotion. In a study in which participants watched 30 minutes of a sad film after either running for 30 minutes or stretching for 30 minutes, those who ran were less likely to report feeling sad 15 minutes later.

The increased activity in these parts of the brain results in a consciously perceivable clarity of mind. On a run, large problems become small and looming goals become achievable.

“I feel like it clears my head,” Clayton said. “I always take it as a study break, whether it’s a hard run or an easy run. It’s really nice to just get fresh air.”

These benefits do not trivialize the sheer pain of pushing your body beyond its limits. To compensate, many runners employ what psychologists call “attention narrowing,” in which they focus on a stopping point in the distance. When walkers were asked to fixate on a water cooler or a cone during a short exercise, they perceived the cones to be 28 percent closer, walked 23 percent faster and reported that the walk required less exertion.

But in a marathon or triathlon, the end is far beyond the reaches of competitors’ fields of vision, and focusing on the finish line would be depressing rather than motivating.

“You can’t think about the mileage,” Dougherty said. “26.2 miles is too long for that.”

Instead, she does “a lot of mental math.”

Rodriguez agreed.

“I for sure do races in fraction,” she explained. “It’s not even like, ‘Oh, I’m done with the swim,’ it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m a third of the way done with the run, and now I’m halfway.’ I do math in my head.”

Rather than focusing on a cone or a water cooler, these runners create their own private checkpoints. In triathlons, Clayton says she considers each leg to be its own race.

“I’m doing a swim, and then I’m doing a bike race, and then I’m doing a run,” she said. “It’s so much easier to think ‘Oh, I’m just going to swim for 45 minutes’ instead of thinking ‘I’m going to be doing stuff for six hours.’”

Breaking up the race like this is motivating in that it allows the runner to celebrate small successes throughout the run, teasing tastes of the sense of accomplishment that will come as they cross the finish line.

Truthfully, running is an exercise in delayed gratification, and — to appropriate Miley Cyrus’s analogy — it is about what’s waiting on the other side rather than the climb itself. The end in question may be different for different individuals: some run for health reasons, some run for the clarity of mind, some run for the reward of achieving a goal, some don’t run because they view it as entirely worthless. But for those who do run, it seems the end justifies the means.