As a group, runners are acutely aware of their performances over time. In many other sports, such as football and tennis, participants are less aware of their declining abilities. Significant numbers of runners stop running in their late 20s when they realize their race times are no longer improving. Participant numbers thin dramatically in the 60s and beyond. By stopping, these runners fail to gain the varied health benefits that running can deliver over a lifetime.
Runners who successfully maintain a running regimen learn to shift their focus from distant, external outcomes like losing weight to positive, internal experiences in the present. They become what are called “intrinsic runners.” Stated simply, intrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from within. Intrinsically motivated individuals engage in activities that interest them, and they engage in them freely, with a full sense of personal control. There is no sense of engaging in the activity for a material reward or motivation. Intrinsic motivation is little more than taking part in an interesting activity simply because of love for the activity. The core concept behind intrinsic running is to run for its own sake. Because if you don’t get something out of each run, you’re likely to cease running. You will need to achieve three specific mental states to develop a mindset powerful enough to motivate you to run—and like it—under any life condition. They are: personal meaning orientation, mastery, and flow.
Personal meaning orientation helps you find running rewarding in and of itself. You use running to explore who you are. Intrinsic runners articulate why they are running and what they hope to get from it. Only when running becomes personally meaningful will you be motivated to do it regularly.
Next, you learn to monitor improvements in your own performance, a concept known as mastery. Intrinsic runners focus on challenging themselves and meeting personal goals, like beating a P.R., instead of comparing themselves with other runners, which can be frustrating and intimidating. A mastery focus keeps you motivated.
Perhaps the best way to stay intrinsically motivated during exercise is to reach “flow,” an optimal psychological state involving total absorption in an activity. Consider it psychology’s version of “The Zone.” If you can reach it, you’ll want to run again and again to attain that positive state of mind. Flow is all about staying in the moment. There are several strategies for finding flow in physical activity. Here are some:
Set clear goals. With flow, it’s not achieving an endpoint that’s important; it’s the process of achieving. But without a clear, specific goal for every run, it is difficult to concentrate on your actions and avoid distractions.
Tune in to feedback. Learn to gauge feedback that the mind and body provide during exercise. Staying aware of your progress during your workout keeps you connected to what your body is doing and how it’s feeling.
Balance perceived challenge and skill. You must create new challenges for yourself, setting goals that make you work harder. If you are challenging yourself beyond your skill level, you will also become frustrated and may avoid running. In this case, you must set more realistic goals.
To run regularly for the rest of your life, you need to work from the inside out. As you begin to run for the inner rewards of the activity itself, you will find yourself going for a run not because you have to but because you want to.