Carrots, Sticks and Stops

Psychology shows that while we understand the importance of internal motivation, athletes often have a tendency to focus on external rewards.

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This article appeared in our August 2010 issue.

“Focus on the reward.” “Keep your eye on the prize.” Building off the principles made famous by B.F. Skinner, the father of behavioral theory, many business leaders, managers, coaches and teachers employ rewards exclusively to get people moving.

According to Skinner, changing behavior depends on using a stimulus designed to create a new behavior. For those wanting to run faster or longer, the stimulus is often an external reward for completing a long, hard run, such as a huge meal or a rest day. However, studies have shown this method is flawed, and support a different, internal motivational approach.

Stepping Back

Harry F. Harlow, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, was the first to study whether animals and people do things for reasons beyond rewards. In his experiment, Harlow presented rhesus monkeys with a puzzle to solve: a small door with a latch that required removing one pin, sliding another and lifting the latch, a three-step process. Intending to first socialize the monkeys to the puzzle and then present them with small rewards for steps leading to successful solution, something unexpected happened: the monkeys began to solve the puzzles on their own, without reward. Becoming more interested as they got closer to the solution, within 45 minutes every monkey had solved the puzzle.

Fascinated, Harlow presented them with another puzzle. Again, they began to master it, solving it faster than the first—all without a single reward. Concluding that monkeys were motivated by intrinsic motivation to learn, as he put it “to explore our own unique skills and abilities, find creative solutions and learn new information,” Harlow found that when rewards were used, the monkeys solved the puzzles less quickly. At the time, 1949, unfortunately, Harlow was admonished for his ideas and gave up the research.

Not until 1969 were Harlow’s ideas rehashed when Edward Deci, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, used Rubix-cube puzzles to explore motivation. Asking participants to re-create puzzles, while offering the distraction of magazines and the promise and subsequent withdrawal of rewards, Deci discovered that when rewards were mentioned, people first worked longer on the puzzles, then quickly lost interest. When rewards were never mentioned, people tended to actually work more on the puzzles over time. The addition, and subsequent withdrawal, of an external reward actually had a negative effect on behavior. From this study, Deci ascertained that the use of extrinsic rewards tend to decrease intrinsic motivation.

Yet runners can quickly fall into the trap of using external rewards almost exclusively. Why? They work in the short term. Promising yourself a huge Starbucks coffee and a croissant is a quick way to get your five miles done. The problem is, as the research has shown, over time, external rewards lose efficacy. The croissant and coffee just don’t work anymore. Or maybe you’ve even tried setting a weekly mileage goal. Again, for the first few weeks it probably worked, but as time went on, this too became tiresome and ineffective. Especially given the schedule that most driven, type-A runners keep, the need to find lasting ways to stay motivated, to find that internal drive, becomes integral.

A Motivating Plan

So if rewards don’t work, look for other reasons to get out the door other than a post-run burger. The key to enhancing motivation is to focus on learning something new each time out—for example, how to run hills, hydrate properly, navigate a rocky trail in Vibram FiveFingers or pace perfectly for a strong finish.

Secondly, feel a sense of autonomy over what you are doing. Discovering your own best pace, training schedule, race fuel or pre-race meal increases motivation. The golden rule of autonomy is to tap into your creativity. Doing this automatically focuses you on solutions to running-related challenges.

Lastly, define the real purpose behind your running, such as a feeling of freedom or a connection with nature. Steve Prefontaine, one of the best distance runners of all time, defined it this way, “Some people create with words, or with music, or with a brush and paints. I like to make something
beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, ‘I’ve never seen anyone run like that before.’ It’s more than a race—it’s a style. It’s doing something better than anyone else. It’s being creative.” And he might have known best that there are a whole lot more reasons to run than simply the prize at the end of the race—oh, wait, there usually isn’t one …

Mapping Out Motivation

Remember these three letters: M for mastery, A for autonomy and P for purpose.

Time for a test: Take on a challenge that requires learning a new skill, for example, registering for your first high-altitude race, ultramarathon or stage race are ways to build motivation through mastery.

Practice what you preach: Teach others what you have learned by starting a running group, volunteering or coaching at a local high school, gym or recreation center. Autonomy soars when you see your tutelage benefit someone else.

Pick up the pen: Start a daily blog, or a column in a magazine, bulletin or newsletter about your running experience, lessons you have learned and tips for other runners will help you clarify the purpose that drives you.

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