Understanding the Psychology and Physiology of Running Motivation

Understanding Running Motivation

Running motivation is an often over-simplified topic. A Google search may reveal dozens of inane quotes, which may only help your motivation for a day (if even). Or, you may find an influencer who doesn’t understand how getting more motivation is as easy as buying some new (affiliated) running gear. Running motivation is individual, complex, and often changing.

This article does provide some examples of how to improve your running motivation. However, easy tips are not the primary focus of this article. Rather, we want to delve into the theories of running motivation, and factors that may affect running motivation from an evidence-based perspective.

Running motivation is not the only driving factor for consistent running. Many runners work hard at creating sustainable habits and learning how to run on low-motivation days. Running motivation is a factor in training and performance. Like many aspects of running, the better you understand the psychology and physiology behind running motivation, the more you can understand how to navigate through the ebbs and flows of motivation.

Understanding Running Motivation: Extrinsic to Intrinsic Spectrum

Exercise psychology outlines two basic types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation means that you engage with a behavior (such as running) because you find enjoyment in the activity itself. Extrinsic motivation occurs when you engage because of an external reward. 

Examples of intrinsic motivation: 

  • Running because you enjoy it
  • Running because racing brings personal fulfillment

Examples of extrinsic motivation:

  • Wanting to do a race for a medal
  • Running because your friends do
  • Wanting to run a goal time so you can share it on social media

It is worth noting that extrinsic motivation is not bad. Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is essential across various points of the self-determination continuum. Often, they are not completely independent of each other. Rather, one may influence motivation more than another at a certain point in the journey. 

The self-determination continuum has various benchmarks (framed for running):

  1. Amotivation: No extrinsic or intrinsic motivation to run
  2. External regulation: Running to avoid punishment (such as lectures about exercise from a physician, criticism from a running coach, or extra laps in sports practice)
  3. Introjected regulation: Running because you feel obligated to and experience guilt if you do not run
  4. Identified regulation: Running because you value its mental and/or physical benefits
  5. Integrated regulation: Running because you freely engage in it and identify as a runner
  6. Internal regulation: Running because you enjoy it during the actual activity

The continuum of motivation is not static. You can move across various points of the continuum, sometimes even within a relatively short amount of time. For example, I will often see runners shift from integrated or internal to identified or even introjected when they deal with post-race blues or seasonal loss of motivation. 

What Factors Affect Running Motivation?

Even when a runner reaches the point where they enjoy the actual activity, their reasons for enjoying running may vary. Some runners may enjoy the routine of daily runs. Others may savor the camaraderie of their running group. Some may enjoy a sense of adventure and novelty. Still other may enjoy the atmosphere of races and the sensation of pushing their bodies to the limits. Motivation is not universal. 

A 2021 study published in PLoS One surveyed the behaviors and motivations of 1147 runners during the COVID-19 pandemic. A majority of the runners reported lower motivation during the pandemic. Their rationale included the loss of competitive goals and loss of social connections around the sport. Running does not exist within a vacuum, and nor does motivation to run. 

The pandemic was also a highly stressful time for many people. More than likely, high stress also decreased motivation in some runners. It shows a grave misunderstanding of neurotransmitters and basic psychology when social media runners say “running lowers stress!” For so many people, stress can make something even as basic as running feel overwhelming, both from a time and energy cost.

Understanding the factors around motivation and what motivates you individually can help you navigate phases of life with lower motivation. You don’t need cold showers and rigorous workouts to toughen back up your motivation. You need to identify what you enjoy most in the sport and how to build that into different training phases and times of life. 

How to Increase Your Running Motivation

We can understand from the self-determination theory that enjoyment is important for motivation. Psychologically, this makes sense: people are more likely to engage repeatedly in activities they enjoy. 

If you enjoy novelty and adventure: 

If you enjoy the daily routine of running:

  • Save a podcast or audiobook for runs only
  • Walk on the days you do not run to maintain routine

If you enjoy the social aspect of running:

  • Join a running group or find a running friend
  • Sign up as a pacer for a local training group
  • Use runs as times to call family or friends

If you enjoy the challenge of racing:

  • Race a variety of distances often
  • Volunteer as a pacer in races

If you struggle with motivation because runs feel poor often:

  • Assess habits that may be affecting how runs feel
  • Work with a coach with the goal of creating habit and enjoyment in your runs
  • Engage in positive self-talk after runs

How to Run on Low Motivation Days

Even once you find what fosters enjoyment on runs for you, you will have low motivation days. Low motivation happens to every runner! As long as there is nothing serious going on (high stress, illness, injury, etc.), a few steps can help overcome the odd day of low motivation:

  • Put on your clothes to go run. How do you feel now?
  • Find something to listen to (or watch if on the treadmill).
  • Walk for a few minutes and assess how you feel.
  • Start with just a 10-minute run. How does that feel? If you don’t feel good after 10 minutes, it’s okay to head back home and stop.

Do Biological Factors Affect Motivation? 

We tend to view motivation as strictly psychological. However, science indicates that motivation is not strictly related to how “disciplined” or “lazy” a person is. Changing your motivation may not be as simplistic as changing your mindset. 

 Physiology and psychology closely interact with each other. A novel 2022 study published in Nature examined the gut-brain pathway and how the microbiome may influence motivation. This study was conducted using rats. Yes, rats are not humans – which actually removes some confounding variables from this initial study. Rats are not driven by the same psychological or social factors as humans. Additionally, the study involved the researchers depleting and transplanting microbiomes in the rats – not exactly something ethical in human studies. 

The outcome of the Nature study is fascinating. The researchers found that endocannabinoid metabolite production depends on the microbiome and gut activity; the microbiome-driven endocannabinoid production stimulates sensory neurons that upregulate dopamine production. Thus, the microbiomes of the rates influenced their dopamine levels, which in turn affected motivation and performance. (You can read a more thorough discussion of the study here.)

One theoretical mechanism is that because the gut microbiome plays such an important role in energy availability and nutrient uptake, the gut can signal to the brain if the body has enough energy and nutrients for strenuous activity. The more energy it senses, the more it may signal physical activity readiness. (This is similar to how a sudden drop in motivation can be seen in athletes with low energy availability, as we will discuss further down). 

The researchers carefully caveated we don’t know yet how these findings will apply to humans. What we can learn from this study is that motivation is more complex than basic “mindset.” Physiology may be affecting motivation through pathways we do not even fully yet understand.

Treat A Loss of Motivation Seriously

If you suddenly struggle to get out the door, do not dismiss this as simply being unmotivated. Overtraining/under-fueling and mental health issues can affect the desire to train. One of the symptoms of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) is mood alterations, including loss of interest in normally exciting activities like one’s sport. Overtraining syndrome and RED-S share many pathways and symptoms; both low energy availability and excessive training can trigger a loss of motivation.  

Depression and anxiety can also affect an athlete’s motivation. As much as some people may present running as therapy, running is not therapy. Runners can develop anxiety and depression. Mental illnesses are complex and should not be stigmatized. If you are experiencing anxiety/depression and have lost your motivation to run, it is not your fault. Seek out appropriate mental health care, but do not beat yourself up about your running. 

If motivation suddenly drops or if other symptoms such as mood disruptions and fatigue accompany low motivation, please reach out to a medical professional or registered dietitian.

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1 Response

  1. I would just like to say that for me your article is inspirational. I can identify with so much that you say. It has explained a lot and is going to help me and my running very much indeed. THANKYOU.

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