Why We Run: The Personaity Traits of Trail & Ultrarunners

By Crista Tappan - May 13, 2014

       It's no secret that trail & Ultrarunning requires some serious dedication, mental toughness, and physical stamina.  Even though the 5K is the most popular racing distance, Ultrarunning is growing exponentially in both races and participants in the last ten years. And it is so much more than just being a recreational activity.  

      In Why We Run (2002), author Bernd Heinrich writes, “A race is like a chase. Finishing a marathon, setting a record, making a scientific discovery, creating a great work of art-- all, I believe, are substitute chases we submit to that require, and exhibit, the psychological tools of an endurance predator, both to do and evaluate. When fifty thousand people line up to race a marathon, or two dozen high schoolers to the line for a cross-country race, they are enacting a symbolic communal hunt, to be first at the kill, or at least take part in it” (p. 186). Although Heinrich accurately describes the evolutionary perspective on why we run, he, and many others, forget to take into account a huge factor in a person's decision to run an Ultramarathon: personality. 

Research on extreme sports has shown that those who push their own limits, take risks and seek out the most challenging experiences for themselves actually have different personality traits than those who choose other (read: safer) activities. In one study examining the personality characteristics of endurance runners, researchers found that the longer the distance, the more extroverted the athletes were. Interestingly, the researchers also compared runners to cyclists, who on average were more introvertedThe social aspect of Ultrarunning is something that many credit to their love of the sport. This is especially interesting considering the fact that many run by themselves for hours alone on a trail. Extroverts tend to socialize more than introverts, and when a group of extroverts get together, it actually makes them happier. Also, long-distance trail runners are more extroverted and less competitive than shorter-distance road runners (surprisesurprise!). This explains why the starting line of an Ultramarathon might feel more like a party with all of your favorite people instead of a competitive race. Ultrarunners have figured out what makes them happy and who makes them happy, and have combined the two in epic proportions.

In my research, I also found an interesting tidbit: Ultrarunners were more neurotic than non-Ultrarunners.  Neuroticism is linked to avoidance of negative events and affect. Instead of looking at these findings as a sign of some emotional problems within Ultrarunners, it's actually quite the opposite. Ultrarunners know exactly what they need to do to make themselves happier: go for a long run, get out on a trail, and decompress from a stressful day. It's possible that Ultrarunners may be using long-distance running as a way to improve their well-being. Additionally, neuroticism is linked with persistence, which in trail & Ultrarunning, is a huge factor in both training for and completing an Ultramarathon.  Ultrarunners' also scored higher on conscientiousness and openness compared to shorter distance runners.  Conscientiousness is related to goal orientation and dedication.  Those who are goal oriented and hardworking are more likely to put in the training necessary for running longer distances.  Simply put, those who are open are more likely to seek out new experiences, such as a long-distance trail run.

As much as the research might explain a large amount of the reasons as to why we trail run, personality similarities is just one way of calling it what it already is: a tribe. A return to our ancestral lineage and maybe, just maybe, it's a biologically-ingrained belief about what is important in life. The growing number of individuals who push themselves to their limits and seek out new horizons inspires me on a daily basis to do the same. In my previous post, I talk about the friendships formed through trail running, and how being outside, surrounded by your friends with nothing but the dirt and the sky, can be life-changing. If you feel like you're missing something huge from your life, take a look at the friendships you have and the activities that you do. If you're an extrovert, thrill-seeker, and adventurer, like me, you might just benefit from the adrenaline of trail and Ultrarunning with a bunch of other like-minded individuals. 

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