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Study: running a race makes people feel better in all kinds of ways

TC Marathon
MinnPost file photo by Steve Date
During the week of a race, the runners displayed higher scores, on average, for all measures of well-being evaluated in the study.

In addition to the coveted finisher’s medal, the 9,000-plus recreational runners who cross the finish line of the Twin Cities Marathon on Sunday are likely to receive something else of value: a boost in their sense of well-being.

For, as researchers reported in a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology earlier this year, recreational runners’ well-being — measured by such factors as self-esteem, self-confidence and overall life satisfaction — tends to be highest during weeks in which they participate in races.

“It seems that running in a race leads people to feel better about themselves in all kinds of ways,” said Marzena Cypryanska, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of psychology at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw, Poland, in an interview with Runner’s World. “An important reason for this seems to be the sense of accomplishment people have when they finish a race and achieve a goal.”

And it doesn’t matter how well you think you ran the race. Just getting to the finish line is usually enough to bestow psychological benefits, the study found.

How the study was done

For the study, Cypryanska and her co-author, John Nezlek, a professor emeritus of psychology at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, recruited 404 recreational runners living in Poland. Their average age was 34, and slightly more than half (52 percent) were women. They had been running for an average of two to three years, and most (84 percent) had already run in at least one race, mostly 5Ks or 10Ks. A large proportion of the runners (87 percent) said they were training for either a marathon or half marathon. None had ever been a professional runner.

The study took place during spring and summer, when most running races are held. Participants were instructed to log in weekly to a website for three months. At the website, they were asked questions about their running activities, including if they had run in an organized race that week and how pleased they were with their performance in the race. They also answered a series of questions designed to assess various aspects of their psychological well-being.

The researchers then analyzed all that data to see if running in a race was associated with a greater sense of well-being. They found it was. During the week of a race, the runners displayed higher scores, on average, for all measures of well-being evaluated in the study. They expressed more positive emotions and satisfaction with life, had higher self-esteem and self-confidence, and felt that their life had more meaning.

Both long-time and newbie runners experienced this heightened level of well-being during race weeks, although the effect tended to be less intense among the more experienced runners.

“These results suggest that there may be some type of habituation effect,” write Cypryanska and Nezlek. “Finishing one’s 100thrace may not have as much of an influence on well-being as finishing one’s 1strace irrespective of performance. Nevertheless, it appears that the sense of accomplishment people have after completing a mass road race is strong and remains meaningful even for those who have been running for decades.”

Limitations and implications

This study is observational, so it can’t prove that running in an organized race was what gave the participants’ mood a lift. It may be that they decided to run a race during weeks when they were already feeling upbeat.

But, as Cypryanska and Nezlek point out, that explanation is unlikely, given that runners usually sign up for races ahead of time — sometimes weeks ahead.

The researchers believe their findings can be explained by looking at the sense of achievement — the completion of a goal — that comes with finishing an organized race.

“Although some may scoff at the idea that all finishers of these races receive medals, the participants themselves feel and believe that finishing is winning,” Cypryanska and Nelek point out.

“Such feelings and beliefs seem to have important implications for participants’ well-being,” they add.

FMI:  You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Journal of Positive Psychology’s website, but the full study is behind a paywall.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/04/2019 - 08:33 pm.

    Long distance running is not a healthful activity, & it should not be encouraged.

    The human body was not designed to run continuously for 26 miles.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 10/09/2019 - 11:52 am.

      Perhaps the important distinction is that the human body was not designed to run on pavement for 26 miles.

      And, anecdotally, my experience matches the conclusions of the study. In my experience, it’s also reasonable to extrapolate beyond the limited activity of running. I’ve felt similar boosts for completing triathlons, or long bike rides. Worth further study, in my view, is whether there are mental benefits merely for sticking with an exercise goal? I suspect so. But also suspect there can be an inverse effect if I fail to achieve the goal. Like, if I skip my winter workout regimen for a week or two, it’s a real downer, not just from less exercise, but disappointment in myself too.

  2. Submitted by Ed Day on 10/06/2019 - 01:12 pm.

    As a runner whose body was not designed to run 26 miles, I respectfully disagree.

    Running all day was a common activity for hunter-gatherers, a significant percentage of our ancestors.

    Today most marathon training programs have people gradually build up the intensity and duration of running, allowing the human body to adapt to the activity, which the human body was designed to do.

    Running is also a more natural activity than any other athletic endeavor (football, soccer, basketball, tennis, golf, etc.) or standing at a cash register for 10 hours straight for that matter.

    The physical and psychological benefits of running outweigh the negatives.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/07/2019 - 06:10 pm.

      No. Hunters did not run all day. They ran in short bursts, stopped, then more short bursts. a lot like hockey players, who skate hard, coast, skate hard, coast, etc.

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