Leiden Psychology Blog

Can your social circle motivate you to run a marathon?

Can your social circle motivate you to run a marathon? by Pixabay

Running a marathon: 26.2 miles of sweat, tears, and possibly chafed legs, blisters, dehydration and injuries. This does not sound very appealing, yet increasing numbers of people take part in marathons. What are their reasons for doing so?

For many enthusiastic amateur runners the marathon (a race of 42.194988 km) is seen as the ultimate distance. In recent years, there has been a huge increase in marathon runners. Take the New York City marathon, for instance: when it was first organized in 1970, 127 runners participated and 55 actually reached the finish. In contrast, last year’s event had a record number of finishers (51,394), and a long waiting list of enthusiastic runners who were denied the chance to take part because space was limited. The average finishing time of this group of runners was just over 4.5 hours. That’s a full four-and-a-half hours of sore muscles, lack of breath, and general struggle. That raises the question why people would voluntarily sign up for such an event!

Why start running in the first place?
It is well known that running releases endogenous forms of morphine and cannabis (for more information see an earlier blog). In short, this means that engaging in exercise makes you feel happy! Some people indicate that going for a run is a nice way to “clear their head” or “let off steam”, which also improves their mental well-being. Another study has shown that many people start running because they are aware of the benefits it will have for their health. Not only does a regular run help in maintaining a healthy weight, it also improves your overall fitness and can have beneficial effects on your stress levels. However, these effects apply to running any distance, and these findings do not necessarily explain why some runners want to go all those extra miles.

Running as a social event
Apart from these health-related effects, research so far has not provided a clear answer to the question why people run marathons. One possible option is the effect that running can have on your social life. Most runners enjoy the peace and solitude of solo runs, but they also enjoy swapping stories about their achievements with other runners. Participating in races (i.e. running events that will give you a nice, shiny medal) provides a perfect opportunity to meet likeminded people and share stories. Interestingly, it is often the stories of other runners that form the inspiration to participate in a marathon. In most cases, it is the comparison with friends that motivates people to start training for a marathon. They may be inspired by someone else’s performance (i.e. “If they can do it, then I can too!”) or someone may offer to train with them (i.e. “If I can finish it, I can help you to do it too!”). Having a friend with you during all those long training sessions not only makes the experience more fun, but it may also give you some extra quality time together, which will make your friendship even better.

Running towards higher self-esteem
Although people may start training for a marathon because they compare themselves to others, they will surely focus on themselves as they cross that finish line. Imagine completing such a huge physical challenge and living to tell the tale: you’ll feel on top of the world! This positive feeling will contribute to your self-esteem, your confidence in your own abilities. Although this sounds like a more egocentric outcome, high self-esteem is also thought to be a sign of feeling included in your social circle. Therefore, this increase in self-esteem also further contributes to the positive relationships that you built during those long training sessions with your friend.

Feeling inspired?
To conclude, not only does running have a positive effect on your mental and physical health, but participating in a marathon can also increase the social ties with your fellow runners and strengthen your position in your social circle. So if you’re looking for something challenging, why not allow your social circle to motivate you!

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