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What Science Says About Your Response to External Motivation on a Run

Missing the fun signs that keep you going at races? Trainers offer some alternatives.

motivational sign
Michael MolzarGetty Images

Ramsey Bergeron has seen plenty of homemade signs along race routes, and always appreciates the ones that made him laugh or feel a bit of a motivational boost.

For instance, during Ironman Vineman 2016, one sign read, “Worst. Parade. Ever.” which snapped him out of some dark thoughts, he tells Runner’s World, lifting him out of the struggles to finish he’d been having.

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But there’s one the certified personal trainer based in Scottsdale, Arizona, will always remember. In 2017, while racing Pelotonia, a three-day bike tour to raise money for cancer research, he passed a man standing in front of his home with a sign that read, “Thank you for saving my wife.” Just thinking about that moment still makes him choke up a little.

“That gratitude in knowing that I was making a difference helped me dig a little deeper that day, and made me feel like a better human being,” he says. “That goes beyond just motivating me to pick up my pace.”

That is one example of a response to external motivation, which can be a powerful way to shift your mindset, dig deeper, and find a fresh store of energy. Also called extrinsic motivation, this type of push comes from factors outside yourself, when you do something to gain an external reward.

On the other hand, internal, or intrinsic, motivation is the pursuit of an activity because you enjoy it or find personal satisfaction from the effort.

One isn’t considered better or more ideal than the other, and they often work together. For example, Bergeron was gunning for that Ironman finish because he appreciates the challenge of that type of race—which is intrinsic motivation—but the reward of finishing and getting external cues, such as signs, along the way is extrinsic motivation (which, by the way, research has shown that one of the major keys to motivation is receiving some type of reward).

Each type affects the brain in different ways, research has noted, and that impacts how you make decisions. When it comes to running or other endurance efforts, these decision-making capabilities can change your perception of effort, according to a study that looked at how people performed with simple external cues of happy or sad faces as well as words describing action or inaction. In that research, both visual and language cues that were more positive led to better endurance performance and higher motivation levels.

But obviously, external prompts are lacking right now. Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many races aren’t being held. And those that are have made the shift to a virtual or closed course, where crowds of people are no longer there to cheer you on.

If you respond best to external motivation, what can you do until COVID-19 is vanquished? Fortunately, there are a few hacks that can help.

1. Recite a Mantra

    Although it might feel cheesy at first, placing a mantra, word, or phrase on a Post-It note and putting it where you’ll see it often—like your bathroom mirror—really does work, Bergeron says. One study found that using mantras creates the kind of repetition your brain craves, and promotes focused attention.

    If a note isn’t enough, Bergeron suggests wearing a bracelet with a personal mantra or one that reminds you of past races. For example, he wears one he got at Ironman New Zealand.

    “It’s a great visual cue of what I’m capable of when I put my mind to something,” he says. “I see it every time I look down at my hands, or even out of the corner of my eye when I’m sitting through yet another online meeting.”

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    2. Find the Right Podcasts

    If you’re struggling to find external motivation when you’re already on a run, switch from your usual playlist to a podcast that’s all about motivation, personal trainer Ben Walker, C.P.T., owner of Anywhere Fitness in Dublin, Ireland, tells Runner’s World.

    “You can listen to any motivational speaker who channels positive energy—it doesn’t have to be an exercise specialist,” he says. “It can be an activist who inspired you to make positive changes. It doesn’t matter where positive emotions come from when giving you that extra boost. Hearing anything positive will give you a lift while running at any particular moment.”

    3. Revisit Your Glory Days

    Another powerful external motivation trick is to tap into the success of your past self. Having finisher medals where you can see them, race photos near your desk or on your fridge, or race-themed background photos on your computer can all serve to boost your motivation, Bergeron says.

    “This can prompt you to maybe go for a jog or do some pushups between Zoom meetings,” he says. “It’s a gentle reminder of what you can look like and can accomplish when you’re dialed in.”

    Visualization of previous and future wins is a well-studied phenomenon, and one study suggested it can even have the same effects on the brain as physical activity. Just imagining yourself nearing a finish line—whether it’s one you’ve actually crossed or not—can boost performance on your next run.

    The Bottom Line: In general, finding what works for you is worth the effort, according to Bergeron. Even four years after the race with that notable sign, he can still picture that man, feel the same wash of gratitude, and re-ignite the energy he found back then.

    In many ways, motivation is like muscle memory. When you discover what strengthens it, and keep practicing that, it can keep you strong until the races return.

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