Internal Versus External Rewards: How to Find Lasting Satisfaction from Running

Woman races and slaps high fives with the crowd

Despite having a low income, my father proposed that for every “A” I earned, he’d give me $20. I interpreted this in two ways:

  1. It had to be important to do well in school if he’d pay me the little money he had for good grades, and
  2. I was more motivated to learn when there was a price attached.

Pay-for-A’s is external motivation. It’s easier to get driven by external motivation whether in school (grades or praise), sports (place or time), relationships (affection or sex), or work (raises, status, or titles). But the sense of achievement you feel from within when internal motivation is what drives you is a harder thing to measure, yet much more long-lasting once felt.

Most runners, it seems, are externally motivated, a constant well unfilled: on to the next goal, the next race, the next stage of fitness.

On a run last week I listened to Michael Gervais’ Finding Mastery PodcastEpisode 042 – Dan Harris: Authenticity, Panic, Mindfulness. If you haven’t listened to Finding Mastery, you must. It is one seriously valuable source of information for the competitive athlete specifically or the evolving human generally. Gervais sums up the tension between being externally motivated, but longing for the satisfaction that only internal motivation can bring.

[It’s] the tension between ambition, restlessness, and being way out of balance – and – at the same time – pushing harder for achievement at the cost of meaning – and at the same time – wanting to have a meaningful and achievement-rich way of living …

Ok, let’s translate this talk about external versus internal rewards in the context of running. It’s common that when we choose a running goal, we’ll ask ourselves, whether knowingly or unknowingly, what external pay-off is available to us before we’ll move forward, or move at all. Is the course fast? Will I get the time I want? Will I be able to finish in the money? Or, those designed to offset risk, as in: Will I look silly? Will I finish? Which really all comes down to this: Will I be secure?

It’s easy to disconnect from ourselves and from what makes us feel truly, deeply good. Somewhere along the way, when it comes to decision making many of us opt for making decisions based on best proffer, best advancement and best success rate over listening to our guts or our hearts. I think often we forget that if we follow dreams motivated by internal rewards, that those external rewards will follow, not the other way around. It is only through taking risks that we can find the meaning we desire. Say yes to sidestepping, to undulations, to two-steps-back-one-step-forward, to emotional rollercoasters, because these movements can motivate us, if only we let them.

When it comes to finding a lasting and real sense of satisfaction from running, seeking internal over external rewards can make the difference. Here are some tools to use in building on more longevous motivation:

1. Focus on today

Often our desire for external validation occurs when we are over-concerned about our future. If we honor what is currently relevant, what our bodies are currently capable of, we will better nourish our internal well.

2. Make sure your baseline expectations are authentic and realistic.

As Harris says, “We’re constantly in the hunt for the next hint of pleasure. We have hedonic adaptation where you can have all this great stuff in your life but you take it for granted very quickly and bake it into your baseline expectations.” One way to help make sure your baseline expectations are authentic would be to focus on realistic feedback. “Being honest with yourself about your own bullshit is easier,” Harris says, but also, having friends, teammates and/or a coach who are honest with you will help you connect with your intrinsic values and develop more authentic goals.

3. Make SMARTER goals.

Using the SMART or SMARTER method of goal-making can help you make goals that are less about achieving external validation and instead internally rewarding. And by SMARTER I mean: are your running goals Specific? Measurable? Attainable? Realistic? Timely? Enthusiastic? Or attached to Rewards?

Dan Harris 4. Regularly write down the things you are grateful for.

“As I’m going to bed I make a list of the things I’m grateful for. Many of which are not new and shiny,” says Harris. If you focus on the things that have served you well, internally, you can tap into developing upon ones that follow in trend.

There is benefit in seeking both internal and external goals in your training, but if you’ve ever felt like something is missing, it’s likely because you’re putting more effort into that which is externally gratifying over that which truly satisfies you internally. Pay-for-A’s, or other such external reward systems can be an incredible first spark, an external validation that can build on internally-satisfying endeavors, like the desire to advance in education. Yet, without your motivational system evolving from extrinsic to internal, seeking external rewards alone will always leave you seeking the next thing, both shiny and new. That is to say, never fully satisfied.

Do you struggle with extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation? Have you struck the right balance?

Spikenard is a writer, film librarian, wine P.O.S. artist, Saucony Hurricane and co-founder of Bellingham Distance Project, a post-collegiate competitive women's running team in Bellingham, WA. Outside of drinking copious amounts of wine, she nourishes herself in literature and thrifting. Most of her writing centers on relationships, food and travel. She is training for an eventual Beer Mile and the 2020 Olympic Trials in the Marathon.

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  1. YES! This post! As everyone is probably sick of reading, I went through a terrible running-identity-crisis after having my third child and I found myself constantly asking myself “What are you trying to prove?” or “What hole are you trying to fill with running?” When I start getting THAT feeling (I don’t know how to describe the feeling of wanting to hide behind running or use it for an unhealthy emotional purpose) I ask myself these questions now and it calms me down and helps keep it in perspective. I love the idea of having a gratitude practice and the more honest and accepting we are of ourselves, the better we will all be. Thanks so much for this. Hope it speaks to someone who needs it today!

    1. Totally spoke to me and almost has me in tears at my desk. I think my injury is partly due to focusing too much on external gratification from training and ultimately the race that I now have to postpone, as opposed to training for and running this race for internal gratification. I started this process solely for internal gratification and somehow lost that mindset. I’ve learned a lot this past few weeks and hope that will help me next year.

  2. As I’ve gotten older I am grateful to still be physically able to run. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone so I just go out and enjoy myself and whatever comes along with that enjoyment I’m fine with. Im no longer looking for PR’s – if they happen great but if not then I’m just happy to be strong and healthy. I’m about to go and enjoy a nice long run . I’m happy I read this before taking off.

  3. Great article! I think our American society is just starting to recover from always shooting for extrinsic rewards and slowly starting to see the benefit of the internal rewards. Mindfulness surely helps us learn and pay attention to the internal rewards. We’re so trained to want the instant gratification and avoid discomfort that it is often a slow and painful process but like you say, worth it in the end. Thanks!

  4. A great post. Mark Rowlands wrote a really good book on this – running with the pack – where he says ‘I ran that hill for one reason only: to run it. And that is a clue to the final cause of running. You and I may run for many reasons, but the purpose – the final cause – of running is always the same. At its best, and at its purest, the purpose of running is simply to run.’ We all start for various reasons but to keep going the focus has to be on the intrinsic otherwise it becomes like work! Review here –

  5. Spikenard, I love this! As a kid I always begged my mum for money for good grades (like all my friends) but she never did oblige. I’m not sure that she was intentionally trying to set me up for life, but I think it really taught me to go after things for myself. This internal source of gratification was certainly lost running in college, but now after hitting reset I love it more than ever and am totally in it for the right reasons!
    Also – I might have just had to google spikenard!

  6. I love this and wholeheartedly agree with everything you said. Like you, I was very motivated by “A” grades from elementary to graduate school. I think for me it was a balance of internal and external motivation, but then when I shifted my competitive energies from academia into running, I at first was so focused on times because I thought they would provide both internal and external rewards. Over the past year, I have shifted more to focusing on running smart races, training hard but also in a way I enjoy, and running beautiful races. It’s been such a change – and then my times have improved when I stopped putting the pressure on myself and worrying about the approval of others.

  7. I’m training for NYC but don’t seem to have the time to put in the level of effort I did for my last training cycle with single parenting, new job and travel demands and a ton of personal demands. I decided to focus on the intrinsic more than extrinsic. I Set my NYC Goal time realistic to what I can do not what my full potential supports. I am still trying to get my runs in and do quality work, but the pressure is off to stay on schedule.

    I decided kids and job come first and running second. So, I’m running 5 not 6 or 7 days per week and I’ve (gasped) missed or shortened a few long runs. I’ve let it go and reminded myself I run because I love it, enjoy it and not because I’ve got to get X miles in this week. I’d resent running if I stuck to my original NYC schedule. On Sunday, I just ran a half and blew away my PR by 4 minutes (1:33:01) when I’d set my A goal of a 1 minute improvement and thought that might be a stretch. I’ve had a crazy two days since and barely ran. I was feeling guilty/stressed about getting back to my NYC plan, and reading this post reminded me to refocus on running for me. I may not be fully trained for my best marathon but I’m setting goals I should achieve and yield new PR–but not based anywhere near the half PR. Based on what I think my training supports and what will be a positive experience for me. That’s why we run, right?