The Two Questions: Needs and Motivations Affecting Running Health and Success

Joe Uhan writes about psychologically healthy approaches to trail and ultrarunning.

By on November 14, 2017 | Comments

Stay the CourseIt’s November, and for the ultramarathon trail runner, it’s already time to plan for next year. Lotteries for major 100-mile races like the Hardrock 100 and Western States are in full force and the fates (or at least the racing schedules) of thousands of runners will soon be decided.

As a coach, it’s also time to develop training plans for my athletes, and developing a comprehensive strategy toward goal achievement is a lot more than optimizing mileage and workouts. How a person will respond to training and how they will perform is rooted not only in the nuts and bolts of exercise physiology, but also the deeper needs and motivations of the individual runner.

A funny thing happened when I began coaching high-school runners this year. For the first time, I found myself constantly asking, Why should anyone care about running? Why is this important? And while those motivations might seem self-evident to long-time runners, as an adult now charged with guiding and nurturing children, I strongly feel that having a compelling and healthy answer to those questions is vitally important. Here’s why. Those answers will dictate whether running is a positive, healthy energy in one’s life or potentially a negative, self-destructive force.

This is also true amongst the population of trail ultrarunners. People are drawn to ultrarunning not only for the scenery and challenge, but also for how it makes us feel. We’re attracted to the supercharged energy of these epic events that strip us all bare, yet fill us with energy and strength. We seek experiences that create powerful emotional bonds among everyone involved. Indeed running, the solitary activity and the community of runners, can create a lifeforce that can nourish us.

But ultrarunning has real risks. Severe injury–not only from the demands of the race distance itself, but also from exposure to harsh environmental hazards–looms much larger in trail ultras than in road running. So, too, is the risk and potential (and sometimes chronic) damage of overtraining syndrome and its myriad effects on health. And while thankfully rare, death during ultramarathon training and racing is a real risk.

Thus, like in any situation wrought with such powerful benefits and dangerous risks, it’s vitally important to approach ultrarunning with a balanced, if not dispassionate, perspective. Conversely, running more and more to get that physical and emotional high can be intoxicating, addictive, and dangerous. In the process, harmful and dangerous training and racing decisions can have grave consequences, including injury, burnout, and long-term health effects.

As such, targeting these potential self-destructive motivations should play one of the biggest roles in the prevention of injury and burnout, and toward the planning of successful and sustainable training and racing strategies.

The Two Questions

A lot of runners, including my high-school kids, are surprised to find out that I have a degree in sport psychology and, while I value my physical medicine and biomechanics background, it’s the brain that interests me most. Indeed, it’s the brain that decides everything we do and how we respond to it.

As such, getting to the heart of our needs and desires is so crucial for runners and their coaches in understanding the motivations to run. For me, this is easily done by asking ‘The Two Questions:’

  1. What are you running from?
  2. What are you running toward?

Within those deep, honest answers lie everything one needs to optimize running as a healthy, joyful, and successful activity, and to avoid a great deal of pain, injury, and anguish.

That’s the key: honesty. To find the real answer, you have to be willing to look inside. For both those questions, there are potentially negative and self-destructive or positive and empowering answers and motivations. The goal for the runner and coach is to determine those needs, identify any possible self-destructive motivations, and reframe them in a positive, healthy, and constructive direction.

Running as Medicine: The Healing Effects of Running and Potential for Overuse

The stress-relieving, restorative, and strengthening properties of exercise are well known, and running is as therapeutic–and as simple and pure–as any medicine out there. Indeed, running can be a beacon to a troubling and ailing body and soul, and most of us (myself included) are drawn to it (and the running community) for its powerful nourishment of body and soul.

But like any medicine, running–especially ultramarathon running and racing–can be overused or used inappropriately. Such ‘abuse’ can have starkly negative and consequential effects. Unfortunately such overuse ‘abuse’ is pervasive in ultramarathon running. There are far too many ultrarunners–be it local friends, or internationally known competitors–who accomplish tremendous running feats, only to self-destruct a short time later to injury, illness, or burnout. Why? And what is the difference between those runners who fail versus those who are able to strike balance in the sport and perform at a high level for years (if not decades) on end?

It’s not pure physiology. It often comes down to decision-making, which in turn is often influenced by emotional sensitivities and needs (wounds that need healing) that in turn drive unhealthy and self-destructive motivations. Runners who push too hard in training, race too frequently, or are willing to push themselves to the brink time and again in races might be driven to do so based on deep-seeded emotional drive and needs that may be difficult to pinpoint.

As community leaders–namely us coaches and mentors in the sport–it should be our goal to help support a holistic, supportive community that can provide that nourishment to its members as well as guidance on how to best engage in the sport in a healthy, sustainable way. But it helps to first understand what those needs and desire might be.

Possible answers to ‘The Two Questions’ that may reveal emotional needs and desires might include:

What are you running away from?

  • Low self-esteem, -worth, or -efficacy
  • Shame
  • Rejection/neglect
  • History of abuse
  • History of previous addiction

Running away from such pain is a healthy and liberating behavior. However, if taken too far, such emotional needs cause negative, self-destructive decisions and behaviors.

What are you running toward?

  • Self-esteem, -worth, or -efficacy
  • Acceptance
  • Security
  • Adulation
  • Tangible rewards (prize money, sponsorships)
  • Status and recognition (podium finishes, ultrarunner of the year rankings)

These, too, are normal and acceptable motivations that encompass foundational needs of all people. But again, these can also drive runners toward self-destructive running behaviors.

So while these sensitivities and motivations are not inherently negative, it’s the framework in which they’re used that can be self-destructive, especially when a runner associates need fulfillment using a narrow, rigid framework for meeting those needs. Such needs are often only satisfied with strict, unyielding ‘if, then’ associations, such as:

“If I run fast/win, only then I will get [self-esteem, status, adulation].”

Or with strong imperatives, such as:

“If I want to [be accepted, avoid rejection], then I must [race a lot/win races/get sponsors, social-media followers].”

In such cases, only by behaving in a specific way can any of those foundational needs (acceptance, self-esteem, security) and avoidance of negatives (shame, rejection) be met. And for most runners functioning in this system, there are but two ways to satisfy that system:

  • Racing a lot
  • Tangible success (winning races, age-group finishes, podium finishes, social-media impact)

And in such a rigid, unyielding system that requires frequent and intense running is where many self-destructive decisions are made, including:

  • Overtraining
  • Over-racing
  • Failure to adequately rest and recover
  • Failure to heed the warning signs of injury
  • Disordered eating
  • Making risky, dangerous decisions in racing

Reframing the Answers: A Movement Toward Nurturing yet Balanced Running

The solution to this issue isn’t a rigid system of rules and guidelines for runners, or a restrictive training and racing plan from a coach. Imposing strict control on running will do nothing to address the underlying emotional needs and sensitivities that drive a person’s behavior.

Instead, the answers to ‘The Two Questions’ require reframing. By answering, then addressing, those questions in a more healthy way, it allows for a greater number of pathways toward meeting one’s needs, beyond simply running fast and frequently.

Below are examples of ways to reframe emotional needs and desires to ‘The Two Questions:’

What are you running away from?

  • Laziness
  • Selfishness
  • Negativity
  • Apathy
  • Victimization

What are you running toward?

  • Inclusion
  • Empowerment
  • Camaraderie
  • Nurturing
  • Gratitude
  • Joyfulness

Note how similar these answers are to the first list. Very similar needs, but tweaked ever so slightly. The biggest difference between the first set of answers and these is the possibilities to fulfill those needs. Reframing the needs allows for reframing one’s ability to satisfy those needs. That is the key.

Receive by Giving: Meeting Everyone’s Needs Through Community

Once one’s needs and motivations are reframed, so, too, can the pathway of how those needs are met. The running experience is no longer just the run, the race, and the result. Instead, it can be about inclusion, empowerment, and the shared experience.

This is where coaches and mentors come in. It’s vital that we leaders promote not only a positive, nurturing community, but mentor how runners–even the ‘top dogs’–can become involved in the sport in other dimensions, and more importantly, how their strongest needs can be met through these avenues.

Instead, these needs can be satisfied in many ways, including:

  • Volunteerism — trail work, event staffing
  • Leadership — coaching, mentorship, friendship
  • Support — crewing, pacing, training (especially with a runner who might be slower or less physically capable than yourself)

Such ‘servant leadership’ is a two-way street, whereby both the giver and receiver benefit. The former gets that crucial support, nurturing, and empowerment in their endeavors, while the latter fills an important role, feels a strong and powerful sense of inclusion, and in the process of giving receives that acceptance, gratitude, empowerment, and joy that comes from being a useful contributor to a community.

Too often that is a lesson learned only when running (especially far and/or fast) is no longer an option. It’s after a runner has become injured, burned out, or has otherwise drifted away from the sport that they realize that, through giving, they can still receive.

It’s the ultimate job of community leaders to help uncouple that rigid (and false) association of fast and far running and emotional satisfaction. We must instead facilitate inclusion, empowerment, camaraderie, and joy through all aspects of the community, and show how powerful and sustainable it can be for everyone in the community.

And the cool irony is, if he or she is successful in doing so, most athletes–thus unburdened by the often staggering pressure to train and compete at goliath levels–often perform better than ever before. For once a person’s needs are truly, unconditionally, and sustainably met, that’s where the real magic happens.

So, what are your answers to ‘The Two Questions?’

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Joe asked, so how do you answer ‘The Two Questions?’
  • Does the act of giving to your community of trail and ultrarunners help you also receive what you desire from your participation in it?
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Joe Uhan

Joe Uhan is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Auburn, California. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100k Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100k, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at