Racing and Social Support Keep Me Running

Racing and Social Support Keep MeOne of the biggest challenges with any new behavior is sustaining it over the long term. When I started running, I knew I needed to do something if I was going to stick with it over time. My winning plan combines frequent races with strong social support around (but not during!) my runs.

Like a nerd, I also thought about how to make whatever strategies I used as motivating as possible. Looking at the levers pushed by motivational design (autonomy, competence, and relatedness), I knew that I was most easily swayed by competence. Autonomy to me felt like a non-starter for long-term sustenance of running behavior; I already have a ton of control over my routes and when I go running, and didn’t see additional control bringing any more motivation for me. Relatedness was the trickiest, since, as I’ll get into, I am particular about how I seek social support for fitness.

The strategy that has worked for me hooks into my high need for competence . I am a very achievement-oriented person, more than most people, and always looking for ways to measure and understand my performance. I’m also terrified of performing badly (even when I have no logical reason to think I might). Therefore, regularly scheduled running “performances” (races) are helpful to keep me going. I track all of my race times and compete with my own personal best.

I also try to mix a few longer races into my plans. I am generally able to run a 10k without special training. Since I hate speed work, you can guess this means I get lazy about training for shorter races. Adding a couple half marathons to the mix means that at least I will keep training on distance and endurance.

Step 1: Sign up for races on a regular basis to feed the need for competence.

I also harnessed the power of relatedness in my personal running strategy. Whereas I have a very strong need for competence, I have a much lower need for relatedness. I don’t like to run with other people and I treasure my alone time on the road. However, I do like talking with other people about running, learning from their experience and sharing my own. By growing my online connections with other runners to chat about training and races, I am able to gain social support without losing the solitude of my actual runs. I can also take the races I sign up for and make them public commitments, so that there are social expectations in addition to my need to perform well.

Making public commitments around running also means that now there is potential for cognitive dissonance if I don’t follow through on my plans. Having openly stated my intentions to run a race or even complete a particular workout, it now looks bad if I fail to do so. I know sometimes I complete a run not because I want to, but because I am thinking of how I would feel if other people knew I’d wussed out (technical term).

Step 2: Seek support, advice, and encouragement from online running buddies.

How do you motivate physical activity over the long term? Which of your motivational needs do you feed first for continued performance?