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.