Why Some Runners Quit and Others Become Lifelong Devotees

Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan revolutionized the study of motivation when they developed the Self-Determination Theory, which looks at what people need to be driven to take on certain tasks. They concluded that intrinsic motivation could only be harnessed if a person feels:

Competence: You won't be motivated to run if you trip over your own feet or bust a lung every time you step out the door. This isn't about speed or pace, but rather, mastering the skills necessary to feel like you're a competent runner.

Relatedness: If you don't feel some sense of belonging, finding that internal drive to run can be difficult. Even if you prefer to run on your own, feeling like a part of the greater running community is important.

More: How New Runners Can Engage With the Running Community

Autonomy: You need to know that going out for a run is a choice. If someone is forcing you to hit the road, it's going to be difficult to cultivate intrinsic motivations to run.

It is important to keep in mind that while the latest research shows runners are likely to continue training into old age when they are driven by intrinsic factors, it doesn't mean there isn't a place for extrinsic motivations. Jennifer Gill, an RRCA-certified running coach and sports nutritionist in San Diego, California, points out that many of the new runners she coaches are motivated initially by external rewards, but as they become more experienced, they develop deeper motivations.

"For the beginning runner, extrinsic motivation is what starts it—they often want to lose weight, run with a friend, or get a medal," she explains. "As they develop as a runner, they really begin to enjoy it and that's where the intrinsic motivation helps them stick with it over time."

More: 5 Ways to Go From Running Motivation to Implementation

Underhill agrees, saying that even the most experienced runners draw from external motivations sometimes.

More: On Running and Life: How Running Shapes Who We Are

"The extrinsic reward of wearing the Boston Marathon jacket, achieving a qualifying time, and getting to run the Boston Marathon challenges many runners to shoot for times they may not have ever dreamed of," she says. "However, most qualifiers are also intrinsically motivated. They most likely won't win any awards on the way to qualifying, but the personal satisfaction is immeasurable."

Whether you're a newbie or a Boston Marathon regular, every runner has multiple reasons to run. From special jackets to the love of the outdoors to the feeling of being healthy and fit, striking a balance is necessary. While the medals pile up and your dresser drawers begin to overflow with race T-shirts, it is enjoyment that ultimately will keep you up and running through the years.

"If you love running, it will always be a priority in some form or fashion," says Underhill. "You repeatedly do the things you love. Loving something takes passion and you have to have passion for something if you are in it for the long haul."

More: Bust Out of a Rut and Find New Motivation

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About the Author

Mackenzie Lobby

Mackenzie Lobby is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and photographer with a Master's in Kinesiology from the University of Minnesota. She has run 10 marathons and is a USATF certified coach. When she's not writing, she's out swimming, biking, and running the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes. Check out her website at mackenzielobby.com.
Mackenzie Lobby is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and photographer with a Master's in Kinesiology from the University of Minnesota. She has run 10 marathons and is a USATF certified coach. When she's not writing, she's out swimming, biking, and running the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes. Check out her website at mackenzielobby.com.

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