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Unlocking the “Why”: The Science Behind What Motivates Ultrarunners

Ultrarunning, why? The Diversity of Motivations and Experiences in Ultrarunners

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Ultrarunning has boomed in the last ten years, growing at a staggering 345% globally. Although it remains psychologically unclear why individuals run ultra-distances, recent research on the topic helps uncover explanations about the motivations and experiences of ultrarunners.

Published in Psychology of Sport & Exercise, the study conducted semi-structured interviews with a diverse range of ultrarunners to gain insights into the philosophy behind ultrarunning. The study’s authors utilized a novel psychological approach known as reversal theory. Reversal theory is a theory of motivation with an underlying goal of understanding why people do what they do, and how this changes over time. 

Previous Research on Motivations

Early research on the motivations of ultrarunners reveals themes in the sport. A common motivation is a lack of competition with others. This is not to say that ultrarunners are not competitive but tend to compete with themselves rather than others. Given the required mental and physical exertions of the sport, a plausible explanation rests on the goal of completing the event rather than finishing in a particular position.

“Because ultrarunning events are so difficult simply to complete, it shifts the focus from competition with others to competition against yourself. While racing, it often feels more like a ‘we’re all in this together’ approach rather than me vs. you,” said UTMB winner Katie Schide.  “Of course, those athletes running at the front of the race are truly racing for performance, but there is always some aspect of questioning whether or not they will make it to the finish line.” 

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Other motivations include excitement, life meaning, group affiliation, appreciation and engagement with the natural environment, and health benefits. 

Studies of ultrarunning have established experience in nature as a key motivator. This is exhibited as an increased awareness of nature and appreciation of time spent alone in natural environments.

Research on the experience of ultrarunners is characterized by persistence, goal orientation, self-awareness, positive self-talk, commitment, and the ability to overcome physical fatigue and adversity.

Reversal Theory Applied

In reversal theory, the structural framework consists of specific motivational domains. Eight core states comprise the motivational domains. The states comprise: 1) serious and playful, 2) conformist and rebellious, 3) self-oriented and other-oriented, and 4) mastery and sympathy.

“Reversal theory can be understood as a psychological theory of human motivation, personality, and experience. Reversal theory accommodates moment-to-moment experiences, how this interacts with personality characteristics, and inconsistencies in behavior,” said Dr. Leo Watkins, lead researcher of the study. “Reversal theory establishes changes in psychological states underpinned by motivation as occurring instantly.” 

The theory derives its name from the ability to switch or ‘reverse’ from one motivational state to another motivational state based on something that happens externally or internally. You can go from either serious to playful, rebellious to conforming, and so on. 

Reversals between motivational states are thought to be caused by changes in environmental surroundings, frustration through the inability to satisfy the current situation or satiation experienced after a prolonged time in one state.

What the Study Found

After a series of interviews with ten recreational ultrarunners with an average age of 43, researchers identified the range of motives experienced through the framework of reversal theory. Participants in the study revealed a tendency to experience each of the eight core reversal theory states when running.

“Participants described their ultrarunning experiences through the eight core motivational states of reversal theory, demonstrating their experiences to be underpinned by psychodiversity,” said Dr. Watkins. “Whilst sport is conventionally viewed as an activity that is goal and mastery orientated based on competition against others, participants showed how the sport of ultrarunning is also experienced through playfulness, rebellion, and caring for fellow competitors.” 

Katie Schide
Katie Schide enjoys the natural environment. (Photo Credit: Colin Olivero)

Psychodiversity involves fulfilling each of the eight core motivational states over time. Failure to satisfy each of the eight states regularly is considered harmful to mental health. It’s understood that cognitively healthy individuals switch between different mental states.

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This suggests that the ability to switch between and harness diverse motivational states is an essential ingredient for completing ultramarathons. Participants depicted motivational dexterity through serious and playful states. Experiencing the playful state likely serves as a stress reduction procedure.

An integral part of the experience was the connection felt with the natural environment. Participants described the need to escape urban surroundings and connect with nature. Evidence of this connection reaffirms previous studies citing nature’s role in providing meaning to ultrarunning experiences. 

Excessive time spent exclusively in the serious and severe outcome-orientated state was detrimental to performance and experience. 

Moreover, participants expressed the philosophy behind ultrarunning as one founded on the enjoyment of the experience more than accomplishment. 

The mastery state played a part in participants’ motivation to take part in ultramarathons as a personal challenge was an unquestionable component of ultra running. Rather than being concerned with competition with others, participants tended to express mastery of competition with themselves. 

Participants revealed a culture of care, support, and compassion among fellow ultrarunners, sometimes at the expense of personal performance and self-mastery. This denotes one of the more meaningful conclusions of the study, at odds with traditional notions of competitive sport.

“I’ve learned to shift my mindset to enjoying the experience, the scenery, the people around me, working through every challenge to keep going, and encouraging other runners,” said professional ultrarunner Camille Herron of the findings. “Having an attitude of gratitude really helps. We’re out there so long we might as well find a way to enjoy it to help push through the suffering.”

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