Get Fired Up

The secret to lasting motivation is burning inside you.
By Ted Spiker
(From the December 2010 issue of Runner's World )

I signed up for the Walt Disney World Marathon in 2006, trained for three weeks—and bailed. Two years later, I did the same thing. This year I'm scheduled to run the New York City Marathon on November 7. I have trained—diligently—for nearly 12 months. Barring disaster, I will finish my first 26.2. So what finally sparked me to stick with the program?

My mind-set changed, says Edward Deci, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. "For your first attempts, running was probably something you thought you should do—to be well thought of by others," Deci says. "Over time, it became something you want to do, rather than thinking it's something you should do."

Bingo. My Disney debacles were born of "should." I wanted to lose weight, and desperately hoped the act of signing up would push my XXL frame to the starting line. This time, I want to make it to the finish line, and so I made my mission public on a blog. If I lose weight, that's a bonus.

According to Deci, our dedication to running won't last if it's fueled primarily by outside or superficial influences, or what researchers call extrinsic motivation. On the flip side, if you run because it's fun or stimulating in some way—like I get a kick out of the reader responses to my blog—you're much more likely to stick with it. Experts call that intrinsic motivation.

Runners who possess this inner drive, experts say, have successfully tapped into three powerful human desires. "We all have innate needs to feel competent, to relate to others, and have a sense of freedom about how we do something," says Jay Kimiecik, Ph.D., a professor of exercise psychology at Miami University in Ohio and author of The Intrinsic Exerciser. For runners, competence is the feeling that you're getting better over time. With relatedness, running makes you feel like you're part of a community. And autonomy is about having control over whether you run—your spouse or doctor isn't forcing you into it.