Motivational quotes – help or hindrance?

Really? Really?

Really? Really? (Image: Fuel Running)

Am I the only runner on the whole of the Internet who doesn’t like those inspirational quotes and motivational aphorisms I see on my social media timelines all the time?

You know the kind of thing – a stock image of a well-groomed runner (often in silhouette) on a mountain trail or a rain-soaked street, accompanied by a pithy sentence intended to fill you with greater effort and determination.

From my various social media feeds here are a few that I’ve seen posted several times, and which I find typical of the genre:

  • Unleash your inner strong
  • Sweat is weakness leaving the body
  • It’s not the finish line that matters; it’s the struggle that went before

Now, “unleash your inner strong” is bad grammar, and if you wrote like that in an article or job application you’d be ridiculed. Not much success or achievement happening there.

As for “sweat is weakness leaving the body”, that’s bad science. Since, oh, just after we discovered the Earth was round, we know that sweat is actually water and salts leaving the body. If you don’t replace sweat by rehydrating and taking in electrolytes, or if you keep your sweaty clothes on for too long after a run, you’ll find that sweat will actually lead to weakness entering the body. (Even figuratively rather than literally, it’s a meaningless thing to say.)

And “it’s not the finish line that matters; it’s the struggle that went before” is simply bad advice – crossing the finish line in a race (or for any goal) is fairly important if you’ve been working hard for it!

That last one sums up a lot of what makes me uncomfortable about these motivational quotes. They’re usually bland and inane – which they have to be if they are to appeal to a wide number of people. The less they mean, the more people who can read some tenuous meaning into them.

Also, I don’t like them for the same reason that I don’t like the first cousin of these motivational images – those running magazines (you know the ones) whose front covers have models posing as the most sweat-free, perfectly-groomed, implausible runners you’ll never see in real life. I just can’t relate to them, and I wonder if they make some real runners feel inferior or inadequate.

And the language of these motivational quotes tends to be the same vague, pseudo-meaningful jargon of self-help books and corporate culture which replaces a sense of personal responsibility with an air of personal entitlement. You hear the same sort of language in the ‘journey’ and ‘destiny’ of reality TV contestants, the self-justification of politicians, and the advertising pitch of corporations painting their products as character references and lifestyle choices.

So, how do I motivate myself for running?

Well, I run because I enjoy it, so I don’t feel the need to motivate myself for a training run. Others do, though, and that’s perfectly fine – for many people running is a laudable means to an equally laudable end, be it fundraising or personal health.

As for marathons and other races, I do them for the buzz of the race-day experience, the bloodrush of seeing the finish line up ahead, the satisfaction of finishing – and the achievement of a personal best time.

And that concrete objective, that job of work to do, is for me where the most meaningful motivation lies. As marathon runner and goals coach Gerry Duffy would put it, if you want something badly enough, you’ll put in the hard work for it.

Whatever motivational mantras I have in my head are based on concrete evidence and targets, not wishy-washy self-help slogans. After an experience in the 2012 Dublin Marathon, where I thought I was fading badly at mile 20 but afterwards learned from my split times that I was still close to my target race pace, I learned to tell myself: “You’re running faster than you think”. I base this on experience, not aspiration.

In the final miles of the 2013 Dublin Marathon I was struggling on the cusp of a new personal best, and so to drive myself on I focused on working for the thing I wanted – not “the journey matters more than the finish line” or “find your inner strong” but the more prosaic and direct “I want my P.B.”

And I got that new personal best time. If I hadn’t, then telling me the journey was more important, or I was a stronger person for the effort, wouldn’t have consoled me much.

Channeling your inner Veruca Salt probably isn’t a technique that’ll feature in any self-help book. But it does the trick for me. And I try to be a nice person about it, honestly.

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22 Responses to Motivational quotes – help or hindrance?

  1. codeterra says:

    I think its a matter of personal opinion. Some people are wishy washy and need a wishy washy slogan 🙂 On the other hand some are more practical and don’t want to be bothered with it. I find myself in the middle, I don’t care much for the inspirational ones, but I like the funny quotes like “no matter how slow i’m running, i’m still lapping everyone on the couch” and “I run! I am slower than a herd of turtles stampeding through peanut butter, but I run!” Obviously I run slower than the average runner, but I still enjoy running. Good post!

    • Run and Jump says:

      Yes, I have more tolerance for witty quotes too, even if I don’t find them motivational!

      • WalkToRio says:

        I like the witty quotes better too.

      • Run and Jump says:

        Now that I think of it, I wonder if there might be as much zealotry and self-justification about some of those ‘witty’ quotes as in the more serious memes. Those ones along the lines of “I’m slow but at least I run” needlessly pick on people who don’t run. Many people have no interest in running and that’s fine by me – I’m not looking to convert anyone!

      • WalkToRio says:

        Yeah, some memes can even get offensive, depending on how sensitive you are.
        This is the kind of memes that I like:

  2. Gareth says:

    Our circuits trainer told us that pain was weakness leaving your body.

  3. Sam says:

    I don’t really go for motivational quotes. But someone must be getting something out of them. I think I am more intrinsically motivated though.

  4. Aidan says:

    There is a closely related theme of inspiration porn, a real term used in disability circles for those motivational memes abounding on the net. Its a real bug bear of many disability advocates. You know the stuff, guy has no legs finishing a triathlon, what’s your excuse. That kind of thing. The problem? They rely in large part on a shame response in the reader. Poor guy, no legs puts able bodied me to shame. Shame here comes from pity, poor guy no legs. Promoting pity of disability is not positive. Also it paints those with disabilities that prevent them from doing anything remotely like it as lazy etc. Finally its dehumanising because what’s extraordinary about a guy finishing a race? Nothing, but a disabled guy, wow hats off! You see what I mean, its still a person doing a race. Also its the idea that disability is something to overcome rather than live with. Weir chose not to pursue treatments to overcome his disability but rather to live with it and use a chair for example.

  5. Jill says:

    We should be best friends…I thought I was the only one that was annoyed by those “motivational” quote.

  6. I agree with a lot of what you are saying, although I personally like motivational quotes. Just because sometimes, they do something for me.
    However there’s a fine line between something pushing you and making you feel stronger, and something giving the message that you have to look a certain way or weigh a certain weight or do whatever in a specific way/amount of time, and of course I’m against that.

    • Run and Jump says:

      Yes, the message in some of them can be unrealistic or downright discouraging, especially those that exert the same type of body-image pressure as magazine covers.

      Happily, there are more and more funny memes out there that are ridiculing and subverting the more po-faced motivational quotes. (Edit: As long as they don’t resort to unnecessarily sneering at people who don’t run.)

  7. Most of these “motivational” sayings are inane and I don’t pay any attention to them. They do reflect that Tony Robbins motivational self help crap that no one really follows.
    Most runners I know are middle aged and don’t look anything at all like those models. I’m not sure they’d want to put me on the cover of Runner’s World!

  8. Swav says:

    Hi guys, In America most of them works like trigger of specific marketing channel or call to action 🙂 From the perspective of natural willingness to running, walking or any other activity, motivation is always external factor while inspiration comes from within. We all have specific thing that drives us, for myself it must be connected to fun and enjoyment and also go for it attitude. A friend of mine said the other day, that whenever he puts the runners on, he’s getting a feeling of born to run song inside his stomach, so there’s no need for motivational quotes 🙂

    • Run and Jump says:

      I wonder if Bruce Springsteen ever meant ‘Born To Run’ literally: “I just gotta do a few laps of Asbury Park, New Jersey, then a long run in the darkness at the edge of town.”

      • Swav says:

        He’s fit enough to be the runner, so probably yes 🙂

      • alis_davidson says:

        Incredibly fit. Saw him in concert November 2012. Man doesn’t need to run for aerobic fitness after doing a show like that every night!
        I ran a pb in the same marathon as you and my motivation was that my arms and legs had gone numb and there was probably an ambulance at the finish line (I didn’t need it in the end, luckily).

      • Run and Jump says:

        All those decades of 5-hour shows must be like a nightly workout for Springsteen. He could probably knock out a decent half-marathon in his sleep.

        I’d have thought that simply running in the same marathon would be motivation enough for most people. At least I presume that’s why so many runners were following me that day!

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