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What makes us run: the science of motivation

Peter Verwoerd, 62, has been a runner for twenty years but for the past few years his running has been motivated by the death of his 38-year old son, Francisco who passed away following a lengthy battle with cancer. Mr. Verwoerd was photographed in Toronto on March 17, 2011.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Peter Verwoerd knows how to push through any aches or pains he may encounter when he's out on a run.

The 62-year-old underwriter at the Business Development Bank of Canada lost his son, Francisco, when he was 38 to rhabdomyosarcoma, a type of cancer, in the summer of 2009. Mr. Verwoerd now fundraises for - and participates in - the Sporting Life Toronto 10K, an annual event that raises money for Camp Oochigeas, a camp for children with cancer.

The cause, and Mr. Verwoerd's own loss, are powerful motivators that drive him to push through the wall whenever he flags.

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"Whenever I'm thinking, 'Oh, I don't feel good' or 'I have a pain there,' I remember what he went through. The little aches and pains we have are nothing compared to what he went through," says Mr. Verwoerd, who lives in Toronto.

Not all runners have such a powerful reason to run, of course. But anyone who is training for an event needs to clearly understand why they are doing it in the first place, as well as what specific approaches to training will keep them motivated until race day - and beyond, sports psychologists say.

Too often, runners become myopic, focusing exclusively on race day and failing to appreciate the bigger picture, says John Bowman, director of the Mind Plus Muscle Institute for Applied Sport Psychology, in New York.

"That date kind of looms like this huge thing out there they keep looking at," he says. "Instead of having this zoom lens, put wide-angle lenses on and ask what's this whole experience all about?" he says.

A former director of the New Jersey Marathon psyching team, a group that helps runners tackle the mental challenges of an event, Dr. Bowman advises runners to tell a story or imagine they are in a movie. By creating a narrative, runners will not only be able to see the big picture, but better connect with their reasons for running a race.

"It isn't about just putting one foot in front of another and breathing hard for 26 miles," he says. "Training can be very laborious and tedious and fatiguing, and if you leave it isolated [from the big picture]that's what can wear down motivation."

Why a runner is training is a key component of motivation, but so too is how they are training for an event, says Peter Papadogiannis, director of the GoodLife Fitness Toronto Marathon's psyching team.

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For example, some may get a boost out of running with a group, while others might find that group dynamic draining, he says.

"You have to know yourself and really take the time to do an inventory about yourself, how you learn, what you prefer, and you have to work with those strengths," Dr. Papadogiannis says.

It's relatively easy to determine your "motivational personality," he says.

"Where do you get your energy from? If you get energy from groups, it's going to help you run faster, longer and feel better," he says. "But if you're more introverted and get energy on your own, running in a group might be taxing."

Amy Matthews is in the midst of training for the Centaur Subaru Half Marathon in Calgary. The 33-year-old mother of two prefers solitary training.

"I like my alone time," she says. And since the pace of her training runs is sometimes fast and on other days slower, she doesn't want to feel the pressure of having to keep up with a group, she says.

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Although Ms. Matthews hopes to cross the finish line in about two hours, she has one main goal in mind.

"I want to finish strong with a smile on my face," she says.

That is a worthy goal, but an incomplete one, according to Dr. Bowman.

To be best motivated, runners should set three different kinds of goals: outcome goals, based on what result a runner hopes to achieve; performance goals, based on how good you are at what you are doing; and process goals, based on how you are going to achieve your goals.

"Research has shown that athletes are much more effective and are more highly motivated throughout the entire process of training and competition if they employ a goal-setting system that has all three types of goals," Dr. Bowman says.

By creating these goals and tracking progress throughout the weeks leading up to an event, runners will have a "cumulative record" of successes that will provide their training with a sense of momentum, he adds.

Mr. Verwoerd has been running for 20 years now, a cumulative record in itself that keeps him training throughout the week.

"It doesn't take much for me to be motivated. I just don't feel right if I don't get out," he says.

His restlessness may get him out, but it is the big picture that keeps him going, especially knowing that running isn't just a way to stay healthy but also a chance to raise money for a good cause.

"It's really important to have a target," he says.

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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