I think a lot about motivational design in the context of my own health behaviors, and probably never more than when I just trained for and ran my very first marathon. Although it can be dangerous to take a case study too seriously (as I learned from one of my mentors at the University of Michigan, Chris Peterson), since any one person is unique, there’s definitely value in using case studies to think about how principles might work out in real life.
The self-determination theory of motivation says that people are motivated when their underlying needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are met. I saw all three of these play out in my training, but in a quirky way that fits my personality.
Autonomy is about having control over your own activity and being able to make your own choices. Frankly, training for a marathon has some pretty intense basic requirements. You have to run regularly for many weeks leading up to the race to be in good shape for it, and there’s not a lot of choice about that. However, I was able to choose a specific training plan that I thought would work with my schedule: the Hal Higdon Novice 2 plan. This plan required me to run three times during the week, cross-train once, and do a long run on the weekend. I was able to balance the mid-week running by working from home sometimes so I could run at lunch and finding new paths through the city that are safe at night (since my normal river routes aren’t). I also had some fun shopping around for cross-training activities and settled on spinning, at both Flywheel Sports and Velo-City. That was a pretty good amount of choice for me, especially since I tend to get crazy-focused on rules and lists and become a bit rigid.
Competence is about seeing progress as you work toward a goal. Most running plans have that built in, as the length of the runs grows longer each week. I also log all my runs in MapMyRun, so I can maintain a historical database of my progress over the years. Every now and then I actually flip through those logs and feel good about how many more miles I can run now (both at a time and over a month) than when I started running a couple years ago.
The final piece is relatedness, or feeling connected to other people. I tend to be more of an introvert. I asked a good friend who runs for advice about marathon training and much of what she emphasized had to do with social support. I found out my needs were totally different. I actually really liked doing my very long runs alone! It was great time to think and just focus on myself. Then one night I did a run in very, very cold weather and saw only one other runner over 8 miles, which is unheard of in Boston. I realized then how much I do enjoy seeing the other runners on the road, exchanging a nod or a wave, and feeling like part of a group even though we’re not running “together.” I also got my social support outside of my actual runs, by talking with other runners about training.
My big takeaway, as much as I knew it to be true, was that even though we all share underlying needs, we also have different preferences on how to have those needs met. It’s important to remember that there’s no one way to motivate everyone. The challenge is to help matchmake people with the right tools for their personal motivational style.
The good news is that when you do find a match between person and motivator, great things can happen. I honestly thought for many years that I would never be able to run any appreciable distance at all. But now, I can always look back and say I ran a freaking marathon!