5 Psychological Lessons from Marathon Running

The psychology of pushing your limits.

Posted Oct 18, 2015

In 2012, I ran a marathon in coastal New Hampshire (see my blog on the experience, Long May You Run, here). It was painful and difficult – and when I was done, I’d stated to my wife and kids that it was my swansong marathon. It was my 8th marathon and I figured that was plenty.

Today, three years later, I did something that I never like to do – I proved myself wrong. Yup, I completed my 9th marathon today. The Hambletonian Marathon, directed by the formidable and highly organized Kathleen Rifkin, was a real runner’s marathon. It had a small pack of a few hundred at most. When we started, it was less than 30 degrees out. And the hills were intense – with a near-continuous upgrade between miles 13 and 17. This was not billed as a “fun, rocking time!” or as a “flat, relatively easy course.” This race is sort of for die-hards. And it was awesome. Ending with a lap around the historic horse track in Goshen, NY, the 4++ hours I spent today, which capitalized on months of intensive training, was totally worth it.

As a research psychologist, I always am thinking about psychological factors that underlie the world around me. Here are five psychological phenomena that underlie the nature of marathon running:

Glenn Geher
Source: Glenn Geher

5. Marathoners demonstrate a task-oriented approach to life.

People vary from one another on all kinds of psychological dimensions. One way to think about how people differ from one another pertains to how “task-oriented” someone is (see Arana et al. 2009). People who are “task-oriented” as opposed to being “relationship-” or “time-oriented” are primarily motivated to complete goals. When the five o’clock whistle blows, someone who’s primarily “time-oriented” says “I’ll work on it tomorrow.” Someone who is primarily task-oriented, on the other hand, might say “I’m not going home until this is done – regardless of how long it takes.” To be fair, there are costs and benefits to each of these approaches to life. This said, given the extraordinary amount of preparation and diligence needed to successfully train for (and complete) a marathon, marathoners inherently demonstrate a task-oriented approach to life.  

4. Marathoners show all the hallmarks of conscientiousness.

Psychologists who study basic personality traits (e.g., Nettle & Clegg, 2008), have uncovered conscientiousness as a basic dimension on which people vary from one another. Conscientiousness is characterized by a strong tendency to be diligent and reliable – keeping things organized and on-task. Most people are near average on this basic personality dimension – while some are “low in conscientiousness” (generally disorganized) and others are “high in conscientiousness” (hyper-organized and on top of the details). There are costs and benefits to being anywhere on this continuum (not all highly conscientious people are super-easy to get along with, for example). Marathon runners, for better or worse, demonstrate a strong tendency to be high in conscientiousness.

3. Being a marathoner signals all kinds of psychological attributes to others and to oneself.

A significant function of many behaviors pertains to “signaling” – demonstrating qualities of oneself to others as well as to oneself (see Miller, 2000). Marathoning is intense. It’s daunting. The entire idea of running 26.2 miles in one shot demonstrates several qualities. And completing a marathon has the capacity to demonstrate these qualities in a conspicuous fashion. Marathoning signals extraordinary levels of self-sacrifice, dedication, time management, and more. To a large extent, social signaling sits at the core of the psychology of marathon running.

2. Marathoning allows extreme people to connect with similar others.

Marathoning is an inherently extreme endeavor. There are costs and benefits to this fact. This said, running a marathon is a highly social enterprise – and when you’re out on that course, you naturally befriend pretty much anyone who is running at your pace – even if only for a subset of the race. Marathoning is characterized by extraordinary camaraderie – and as we marathoners are, as described above, sometimes a “little bit special” (in a good way, I think!), an organized marathon provides a great opportunity for those among us who have “marathoning tendencies” to connect with similar others. And connecting with similar others is a basic part of human social behavior (see Tversky, 1997).

1. Marathon running betrays the human tendency to never be satisfied.

Needs and drives sit near the core of human psychology. A person who is always satisfied is unlikely to seek the things that we all need to survive. As such, humans (like all animals) evolved to work toward satisfying needs – but not necessarily to be all Buddha-like and permanently satisfied with everything (see Hill & Buss, 2007). Humans are motivated creatures, and our drives to complete goals of all kinds characterize constant features of our psychology. Completing a marathon is satisfying. You get a medal, you get to tell your friends, and you get that internal reward of knowing that you’re capable of something extraordinary. But I’ll tell you, I’ve run nine marathons, and have pretty much said “that’s enough for me” after each and every one of them. And I know I’m not alone. Marathoners are motivated individuals. And the desire – or, in some cases, the NEED to complete a marathon plays a major role in shaping one’s behavior. And the outcome leads to extreme satisfaction with one’s accomplishment. But based on the number of marathons that some folks tend to run (I ran today with one really cool guy who has run over 300!), it’s clear that the satisfaction associated with completing a single marathon is often short-lived. Welcome to being human …

And by the way, in case you’re wondering, yeah, at this point, I really do think I’m done with marathons. While my 26.2-mile run in the Hudson Valley today was pretty awesome, I think I’ll focus on other things in the future. The race was long and arduous - and the training took hundreds of hours of my time over several months. Let’s see if I can keep myself honest on this point moving forward …

References (and link to my Why We Run - Al Jazeera Correspondent - featuring interviews on long-distance running with Glenn Geher; awesome footage of Andrew Richardson training for and completing his first marathon)

Why We Run (2013). Richardson, A. Al Jazeera Correspondent. (YouTube)

Arana, J. M.; Chambel, M. J.; Curral, L.; Tabernero, C. (2009). The role of task-oriented versus relationship-oriented leadership on normative contract and group performance. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 37 (10): 1391

Hill, S. E. & Buss, D. M. (2007). Evolutionary theories of subjective well being. M. Eid & R. Larsen (Eds.) The Science of Subjective Well-Being (pp. 62-79). Guilford: New York.

Miller G. F. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. London, Heineman.

Nettle, D., & Clegg, H. (2008). Personality, mating strategies, and mating intelligence. In G. Geher & G. F. Miller (Eds.), Mating intelligence: Sex, relationships, and the mind's reproductive system. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Tversky, A. (1977). Features of similarity. Psychological Review, 84 (4), 327–352.