Why do people do crazy things (like running ultramarathons)?

Everyone looks at the things they’ve done and wonders “why did I do that?” One of the great things about studying Psychology is that there is a lot of research that is relevant to understanding our motivations. So it turns out even the craziest things that we do can often be explained in relatively straightforward ways.

We all do things that other people think are crazy. You might jump out of planes, or eat hot chillies, or listen to heavy metal. The thing I do that people generally think is crazy is that I run ultramarathons. A marathon is 42.2 km (26.1 miles); an ultramarathon is any race longer than that. But it is not just further; many “ultras” take place on mountain trails and can be done in extreme weather. So for “fun” you might do a race in freezing snow, or you might run 100 miles in Northern California during a heat wave that takes temperatures to about 40°C (105°F). You’d have to be crazy to do that, right?

Surprisingly, I’m not alone. Interest in ultras has jumped exponentially in recent years, and many races have hundreds or even thousands of starters (and even then, often have many more people who would like to enter).

There are a few ways to think about this from a Psychological perspective. If we ask the question of why I choose to do something that I know will cause me pain, we’re asking about my motivation. Psychologists have sophisticated theories to account for what motivates us to do things. One of the most successful is Ryan and Deci’s “Self-Determination Theory”. It argues that activities we do may be intrinsically motivating (they give us pleasure) or extrinsically motivating (we do them for some other purpose). In general, activities that are intrinsically motivating are ones that we are more likely to maintain motivation for. But what could be pleasurable about running all day and all night so that you start hallucinating and developing the worst blisters that medical personnel have ever seen?

Intrinsic motivation generally comes when we get feelings of competence (“hey, I can do that successfully!”), autonomy (“I did that because I wanted to”), and relatedness (“I connect with other people when I do this”). My ultra story is pretty typical – I thought running such long distances was absurd but slowly did events that were longer and longer and gained immense personal satisfaction from achieving goals that a year or two before I thought were impossible (competence). No-one tells me when to train so anything I achieve feels like it really belongs to me (autonomy). And running, while associated with loners, is actually a tremendously social activity, especially when it takes all day to do and there are several hundred other people doing the same thing (relatedness). So actually, ultrarunning is almost guaranteed to be motivating to people who start doing it and find that it is something they can successfully achieve.

Another way of looking at the Psychology of ultrarunning is whether it brings benefits beyond simple motivation. The beneficial effects of exercise on mental health are well known, and so many people run because being fit allows them to enjoy a better life. However ultrarunning, because of the time and distances involved, tests a key psychological process: inhibition. Our lives are spent surrounded by stimuli like cake, TV, sofas, and iPads that are tempting alternatives to the boring things we are currently doing. The trouble is, those boring things might be earning money to support our family or studying to get ahead in life. So for our future benefit we need to be able to inhibit tempting short-term stimuli in order to maximize long-term gains. Studies of education show that one of the best predictors of children’s long-term educational performance is their ability to resist taking candy from a bowl. Ultrarunning requires the development of inhibition, because after running for six hours straight the temptation to stop and sit down becomes almost overwhelming, and successfully pushing against those thoughts in order to complete the race is very taxing. Inhibition helps with emotional modulation as well; people who are good at inhibition tend to be less angry, because they inhibit negative emotional states. As such, there are very few angry ultrarunners!

Many other “crazy” activities can be just as easily explained by Self-Determination Theory, and also lead to the development of other, constructive abilities. So what looks crazy to the rest of us may not be so crazy after all.

POSTSCRIPT: The connection between running and mental health is so strong that I’m pleased to participate in an upcoming fundraising activity for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. Mal Law is an adventurer who has set himself the ridiculous task of running 50 marathons in 50 days in which each day sees him climb a major hill or mountain. I’m only doing one day, which coincides with the Tarawera Ultramarathon in the beautiful Bay of Plenty area of New Zealand, on 7 January 2015. Mal’s aiming to raise $400,000 (and already has almost $300,000) which is fantastic, but also will highlight how physical activity helps our mental health.

To learn more, or sponsor the event, check out these links:

For more information on Self-Determination Theory and its relevance for exercise, see: http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/theory/

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