Children are often asked what they want to be when they grow up. Similarly, they are told with emphatic confidence that they can be anything they imagine, and they can be the best. While it is important to encourage every youngster to dream and pursue goals, it is also false that every one of us will become legendary figures of greatness. Many pundits will have you think uniform prowess is possible if we unearth the right tools, but in truth, we just aren’t created equal. It’s an uncomfortable fact that has spurred contention in every branch of the social institutions; genetics, luck, and opportunity shape different levels of competence and talent. Though impending professional mediocrity sounds like bad news, however, it isn’t necessarily a reflection of one’s character or happiness, and, moreover, an aspiring athlete/actor/chess master has much to gain from the process of chasing an aspiration. But what is it that separates the exceptional from the average? In the realm of ultra-endurance sports, where drive and grit is the only way to succeed, what motivates us and fosters perseverance? And in a world dominated by competition, from workplace rivalry to the Olympics, how does behavior change when we win or lose?Professional athletes are not only exciting to observe but they also offer a wellspring of insight regarding incentive, diligence, achievement, and cheating. One of the most popular psychological principles is the 10,000 Hour Rule, which states that, in any given domain, ten thousand hours of deliberate practice is required for anyone to become world-class. Despite there having been some recent debate about whether or not this idea is durable, as it seems to only contribute to 12% of performance variation, it is a convenient way to illustrate the necessity of effort and training all sports demand. As we all know, elite athletes cannot forgo conditioning if they wish to see the finish line first, but for most of us training for even just one hour per day feels excessive and taxing, so how can ultra-endurance competitors put in so much time being uncomfortable? By learning to enjoy pain. Psychologists are now exploring the experience of something called “benign masochism”, defined as a “safe threat” as well as embracing temporal suffering in exchange for subsequent gain. Grinding out a hard hill workout or track session wouldn’t be the same without sweat and screaming muscles; high intensity work delivers the feeling we are taking steps toward progress. Not only does exercise trigger the central nervous system to respond to the discomfort by churning out adrenaline, endorphins, and anandamide–hormones and neurotransmitters (biochemicals) which blunt the sensation of pain–there is also a psychological adaptation which aids in tolerating extensive, deliberate sessions of physical distress. Athletes often come to appreciate the ache of working hard and associate the feeling with being strong; they almost believe they are immediately gaining from the workout. Training has become such a habit that their perceived exertion lowers for any given output, and ultra-endurance athletes, who know what it’s really like to dig deep, exhibit some of the highest pain tolerance ability compared to other sports, much of it being mental instead of solely a physical adaptation. This is why it is imperative to establish consistency and implement rules regarding activity and goal scheduling.
Keeping a calendar and sticking to a plan reinforces our sense of purpose. When a scheduled task has been completed we feel proud and stable, productive and capable, and once a routine has been created it is easier to stay with it. It takes around three weeks to form a habit, but once it’s woven into the fabric of everyday life, acceptance replaces struggle and procrastination, and there is less self-debate about getting it done. Setting a lofty goal can be intimidating, and if there are setbacks the chances of abandoning the program are substantial, just look at the number of gym memberships at the beginning of the year and how many continue to visit come December. Instead, it is better to hold onto the dream but design smaller, more realistic goals that can be measured often, the results offering some instant gratification. Wearing a training device, such as a Garmin or FitBit, which provide real-time feedback, help runners stay on track and create a visual log of their activity.The running and cycling data sharing website, Strava, is a great example of retrieving progress immediately and has the additional benefit of other users following and giving appreciation to uploaded workouts. Research has shown that people try harder and become more accountable when others are watching, so whenever a run is liked or given credit from others, it feels like it counts more. Interacting with other people doing the same things we are doing forms a unified community and participating within that community supports our efforts and makes us feel acknowledged. Training with a coach or running club has the same effect, as there is the fear of letting them down if you miss a workout and the pressure to look good. Receiving positive reinforcement produces greater confidence and feelings of competence which help people of all abilities believe in the process and excited to practice, and the more they practice they better they get, forming a constructive cycle of work and advancement.
There is no doubt that self-discipline is necessary to rise to the top of any field, and the only way to maintain consistency and endure challenges is with strong motivation. There are two primary types of motivation that contribute to success: intrinsic and extrinsic. Some individuals are more driven by internal rewards, like pure enjoyment or identifying with the interest, while others are motivated by awards, money, glory, and other external pressures. Those who are intrinsically motivated can still appreciate winning and attention, however, coming in first isn’t enough to get them to work diligently or follow a plan. They continue to engage in their endeavor because of what it means to them, how much value it holds, and how it relates to their life. When a runner invests a significant amount of time in training because they relish the feeling, it creates an emotional response about who they are and a positive experience that makes them want to keep doing it. It becomes part of their personal narrative which they use to maintain coherence in their world. Bribing someone who uses internal incentives to devote hours of time to something that does not interest them with fame or power isn’t satisfactory; pursuit without autonomy or meaning yields lackluster performances and increased stress levels.
When someone is extrinsically motivated they are more interested in the anticipation of external rewards rather than the actual task. Winning or acquiring social power might mean more to a runner than actually enjoying the trails or workout, but future reward is enough to power them through the training process. Most top tier athletes have some degree of extrinsic motivation, as winning is a component of competition, but some studies show that people exhibit more resilience and commitment when they are intrinsically motivated as opposed to extrinsically motivated. That isn’t to say that a runner motivated by champion title or prize purse is worth less than the carefree spirit who runs 200 mile weeks just because they love their sport, after all, as an animal species, we all have the neural hardware for competitive behavior; competition has helped us become the most intelligent creature in the natural world and continues to facilitate innovation and growth.
Competition can cultivate grandeur and celebrity, which is alluring but also has negative consequences for behavior in both race environments and daily life, and just as there are different types of motivation, there are different types of success. Amos Schurr, a business and management professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Ilana Ritov, a psychologist at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem examined how people behave after winning a competition with either a social comparison framework or a fixed standard. Schurr and Ritov used several models in their study, all of them began with student participants feeling that they’d won a game followed by another game where they were paired off with students who were not primed for winning. In the first experiment, students were given an estimation task and those who performed best were told they were “winners”–winners and losers were randomly assigned–and given earbuds as their award. They then were given two dice and a cup with a hole in the bottom along with 12 coins with which to play over. Students would proceed to shake the cup and report the outcome of the roll while the other, unprimed, student was instructed to watch. The result of the roll–between two and twelve–would dictate how many coins the shaker would take, leaving the rest for the observer. What the researchers found was an over-claiming trend–reporting 8.25 coins on average–in the group who had previously won the estimation task; the control group consistently claimed the expected value (7). What this illustrates is how competition in which someone beats out the rest can inspire cheating. To be sure, not everyone who wins a race will deviate from their morals and become dishonest course cutters; most competitors are proud of their integrity and dedication to clean sportsmanship. But when we excel and establish ourselves as ranking higher than our peer group, a sense of power develops, putting us at risk of feeling entitled and above the rules. Unethical behavior can also be justified by cheaters when prize money is thrown into the mix.As ultra-running becomes more popular, sponsors and big names are investing larger cash prizes in big races and racing teams, and for professional runners whose livelihood depends on the money they receive from their sport, the pressure to perform is huge. Any kind of competitive edge may become appealing if the world is watching and your next meal ticket depends on a great finish. In some cases that edge comes in the form of performance enhancing drugs. Once the initial sensation of having cheated is overcome through rationalization and re-evaluating beliefs about the self, it becomes easier to cheat again and cheat in more severe ways. That is not to say this will happen, but the larger and more mainstream a sport becomes it risks the same damaging consequences as the most popular ones have suffered. The use of PEDs in ultra-running is currently not monitored but has certainly become a hot topic as races receive more recognition and there are more elite athletes joining the sport. The World Anti-Doping Agency’s rules regarding bans after an athlete has tested positive is a polarizing subject, as well, since the long-term effects of doping is unclear. And furthermore, when considering epigenetics–modification to genes based on experience–it is possible that chronic dopers will unfairly give their offspring an advantage, say by turning on genes for big muscles, spurring even more anger among clean athletes.
Distinguished athletes differ from others in their resolute adherence to becoming the best. They put their training first even when it means other areas of their life will atrophy and they tolerate many sacrifices because of their uncompromising quest for the top; they are motivated by the thrill of competition and the powerful feeling of being strong and unique in talent; and they use defeat as an incentive to work harder. And yet, even when highly motivated, organized, and honest, some runners may just never earn the speed of a champion. It may be a genetic limitation, but two often overlooked elements of success is luck and opportunity. You might have the right machinery to win Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc but if you are burdened by a demanding job, schoolwork, or any other time-intensive responsibility, your opportunity to train is reduced, likewise, perhaps it is your race rival’s luck that their life is stress-free and they just happen to live near trails and a supportive running community. Life does not distribute anything fairly, however, everyone can benefit from pursuing their dream because some of us will find gold, and the rest of us will uncover our own greatness, achieving more, learning more, and continually growing to become the best we have ever been.
Written by Tanya Stahler