Why do we love to run? Not just to relieve stress – it’s about freedom, achievement and competition, too
- Research suggests a lot of the pressures in ordinary life are also experienced in endurance running, meaning it is not as much of an escape as many think
- Three factors motivate runners to compete, the research shows
Runners often express a romanticised notion of taking to the trails to escape the stress of contemporary life.
People who go one step further to compete in endurance events such as ultra-marathons, obstacle races and triathlons describe a feeling of total, immersive freedom.
But this is only part of the picture, according to a new thesis by doctoral student Carys Egan-Wyer from Lund University in Sweden.
“Most runners say that they run because it is a way to get away from the demands and stresses of their regular life. But my research shows that this is only one side of the story; there are also a lot of demands in ordinary life that are actually reproduced in endurance running. For example, the pressure to be productive, efficient and to measure your achievements are recurring themes,” said Egan-Wyer.
Egan-Wyer’s research is based on interviews and diary analysis from 33 endurance runners (triathletes, ultra-distance and obstacle adventure race runners) from seven countries across America, Europe and Australasia. She identified three motivating factors that the runners themselves used when they spoke about their running: freedom, achievement and competition.
“Endurance running is one example where we, on one hand, understand ourselves to be free from the stress of everyday life, but in fact our bodies and brains might understand this as work. We need to understand if this is contributing to stress, burnout and anxiety,” concludes Egan-Wyer.
“I moved to Hong Kong from India when I was 33, and decided to go from smoking 10 cigarettes a day to running 10km a day. It was a direct path to injury, so instead I ended up running three times a week for an hour or so, and it had such a positive impact on my body, on how relaxed I was and how well I slept.”
Joining forces with friends, he signed up for an Olympic-distance triathlon (1,500-metre swim, 40km bike ride, 10km run) before competing in middle-distance events, also known as a half Ironman or 70.3 (1,900-metre swim, 90km bike ride, 21.1km run).
Now aged 37, Noraz has competed in middle-distance Ironman races around the world including China, Vietnam and France.
But the father-of-three is aware that he has to differentiate between performance and enjoyment during different periods of the training season.
“When I sign up for a race, it is about achieving a certain time. I train for three or four months leading up to a race and the focus is on performance. The few weeks leading up to a race are very tense. I am a project programme manager so I can’t help but deal with it like a project.”
Once race season is over, Noraz makes a concerted effort to relax and enjoy his sport – without pressure to perform.
“I really try to make it enjoyable, I am not timing anything and I am making it social. The performance part is about going beyond what you thought you could do. But the rest of it is about a community of people. I sign up to races that are family friendly and are well known for the scenery. I am super happy to see a race is coming up if it is just for fun.”
For Wright, running ultras was the obvious next step after competing in half- and full marathons and reaching her performance peak.
“I ran a sub-three-hour 30-minute marathon [in 2002] and thought ‘I am never going to get faster than this’. I wanted my next challenge and started doing ultras. Endurance running is about a state of mind, commitment and dedication. A lot of long distance runners are not naturally very good at it. But you can excel on sheer determination.”
Wright does admit that endurance running can become all-consuming, taking over your free time, diet – and even conversations. “All of your circle of friends become runners because no one else is interested in you talking about running all the time,” she laughed.
Egan-Wyer’s research also found that underlying motivating factors for competing in endurance events included improving personal brands and social image.
But Wright believes that endurance racing is not about performance or social image but about a personal journey.
“For most of the endurance runners I have met, it is about proving something to themselves. When I did the Marathon Des Sables, it was the hardest thing in the world at the time but I proved to myself that I could do it. I was disciplined enough to train for something and I didn’t give up. Afterwards, I felt like I could conquer the world.
“Rather than being a form of work, it is a way for people to empower themselves. When you do non-endurance races it is against the people around you and the clock. But for ultras, it is for long periods of time and multiple days. It is about yourself, not about competing against the people around you.”