An increasing number of people are taking up recreational running. It often starts with a slow, painful canter around the block, followed by a wheezy vow to get into better shape. Maybe this was you, and you’ve since marshaled enough grit to complete runs of a sufficient length and frequency that you’re now comfortable telling people that you’re an actual, real-life runner. Do you leave it there, or is it time to train for and take part in a proper, organised race?
A recent study suggests it’s worth a go – Marzena Cypryańska and John Nezlek report in The Journal of Positive Psychology that recreational runners were happier and more satisfied with life during weeks in which they had taken part in an organised race. The pair believe this is because the main aim for most people who take part in (non-elite) organised races is simply to complete the course (which virtually all entrants do). Therefore “no one loses, no matter how long they take to finish” and finishers usually get some kind of medal or award and come away with a powerful sense of camaraderie and achievement. The researchers add that “In this sense, mass road races, however unwittingly, potentially represent a positive psychology intervention.”
Cypryańska and Nezlek recruited hundreds of regular, but non-elite, runners via running websites and magazines and asked them to complete a weekly diary for three months. Each week they recorded whether they’d taken part in an organised race that week (these ranged from 5K runs all the way to full marathons) and also answered numerous questions about their state of wellbeing during the week.
Just over 400 runners (average age 34; 52 per cent women) provided sufficient diary data – at least four weeks’ worth – and among these, 340 ran in at least one race during the study. The results were clear: during weeks that they’d competed in an organised race, the runners on average scored higher on virtually all the wellbeing measures, including experiencing more positive emotions, having higher self-esteem and confidence, feeling more satisfied with life, and that their life had more meaning.
This relationship was still present, but not as comprehensively, for participants who had been a runner for longer. Among more experienced runners, some aspects of wellbeing were no longer correlated with having taking part in a run, perhaps indicative of a habituation effect – the buzz of achievement wearing off a little, but not entirely.
Unsurprisingly, how pleased the runners were with their race performance was also reflected in their wellbeing scores. Focusing on just those weeks that they’d run a race, the participants’ wellbeing was higher when they felt they had performed better.
Overall, the researchers think their results show how competing in organised running races provides an (almost) fail-safe opportunity for personal goal-attainment, with all the psychological reward that that entails, including all-important boosts to feelings of competence and autonomy.
An obvious criticism of this interpretation is the old “correlation doesn’t mean causation” chestnut. It’s possible that during weeks that the runners were feeling more positive, they were simply more likely to enter themselves into a race. Cypryańska and Nezlek acknowledge this possibility, though they think it unlikely – apart from anything, many races require pre-registration and planning many weeks or months in advance.
The next step for this line of research is to use a more fine-grained assessment of runners’ mood states and wellbeing before and after organised races, and to continue measuring for longer afterwards. “For example,” Cypryańska and Nezlek ponder, “can being able to say ‘I ran NY’ imbue an individual with a sense of pride years after the race, and if so, does this sense of pride have implications for well-being?” The pair add that “The present study was not designed to answer such questions, but the present results suggest that such questions may be worth asking.”
Meanwhile, if you’re already a regular runner and wondering whether it’s worth progressing to taking part in organised runs and races, these findings certainly suggest it’s worth a try – you may find the warm glow of achievement gives you a psychological boost.