Intrinsic or Extrinsic?

When the race gets tough, what do you do?  What keeps you moving? 

As my running and triathlon career have grown over the years, I’ve been faced too often with a hurdle during a race.  An injury.  Lack of training.  Poor nutrition.  Exhaustion.  No doubt you’ve faced similar obstacles as well.

Excellence in this sport is dependent upon our ability to overcome obstacles.  Well, that’s not 100% true – genetics and ability play roles as well.  That said, however, take two athletes with the same fitness levels and abilities, and often you’ll have two different results at a race.  The key differentiator?  How they each approach the race and the difficulties that always appear during an event.  It’s the “mental fitness” of the athlete that separates their performance.

Coincidentally, Lava Magazine has posted two parts of what appears to be a broader series on “mental fitness” here and here.  I won’t ruin the articles for you, but at this point I’m not sure I agree 100% with the thesis presented.  For starters, the articles propose that there are two main types of athletes when it comes to mental fitness.  I agree that there might be two types of athletes, but I disagree on the differentiator.

To me, and perhaps this is based just on my own experiences, it seems that the two types of athletes are those that are intrinsically motivated and those that are extrinsically motivated.

Intrinsically Motivated

By definition, intrinsically motivated folks are motivated by themselves, not external stimuli.  They are their own cheer leader, their own button-pusher, their own harshest critic.  They are motivated to perform better against themselves, against their prior performances.  In my mind, they exercise for the pure joy of exercising.  They tri because of tri.  Poor performances are decomposed, analyzed, and rationalized.  At the same time, intrinsically motivated folks may be apt to toss in the towel when they realize things aren’t going their way.

Extrinsically Motivated

Extrinsically motivated folks seem to be those über competitive folks in the crowd.  They are motivated by the thrill of victory or a podium, regardless of the quality of their performance.  Crowds, location, and other external stimuli are triggers.  A poor performance is viewed as a failure when compared to others.

Why would one’s motivational mindset be important when dealing with obstacles in a race?  While I’m not a psychologist, I suspect that motivational mindset plays a role in how adversity is dealt with.  For example, it seems logical that given a situation where a racer is at mile 18 of a marathon and is really suffering and tired, that an extrinsically motivated athlete might view walking as the ultimate failure, that others might view them as a sub-par athlete.  The intrinsically motivated athlete, on the other hand, might view a two-minute walk as inconsequential in the bigger scope of things.

Here’s why this fascinates me:  I think at times I personally would classify myself under both motivational categories, depending upon the day or event.  My issue is that there are times where I act under both mantras.  As a result of competing motivational factors, I often find that my physical results are mixed.

For example, two weeks ago I had as my long run of the week a 9-miler.  This past weekend, my long run was an 11-miler.  Physically, my fitness is at an acceptable place.  Neither of these runs should have presented a dramatically different experience.  I was recovered well from prior workouts, adequately fueled and hydrated, and had slept well the night before. Environmentally, conditions were fairly similar.  Air temperature was in the same ballpark, it was dry.  The only differences were time of day (the 11 miler was done in the afternoon; the 9 miler in the morning) and relative humidity.  So net/net…almost all aspects of the two runs were similar.

Mentally, the two runs were as different as black and white.

The entire time I was out on my 9-mile run, I felt strong.  I was confident.  I didn’t dwell on being tired.  The Garmin was not checked constantly and fretted over. I ended up having a very solid run that I was pleased with.  I felt good sharing my experience with my family and friends.

My 11-mile run was diametrically different.  From the outset the run was one of those runs.  I probably checked my Garmin 375 times in the first two miles alone.  I worried about my pace.  “Am I going too fast?” “Why is my cadence so slow?” “Why is my breathing out of whack?”  I found myself counting down the time until I was done.  I thought about walking frequently.  I found it hard to keep myself motivated to do the run.  I had to play games with myself to keep moving.

What was so different about the two workouts that caused me to perform so differently?  Of course, that’s the conundrum for not only me, but countless other athletes.  My challenge is how to combine my analytical, loner, intrinsically motivated self with my jovial, friendly, outwardly motivated self.


3 thoughts on “Intrinsic or Extrinsic?

  1. Heee…..I read the title of your post and my Np brain went into action. “Extrnsic or Intrinsic allergies”. “Extrinsic or Intrinsic motivation”. I think it is often a combination…..

  2. I, too, have thought about this while training! I am a very extrinsically motivated person in general, and rely on my environment and others I keep close as a source of inspiration and motivation. I have come to find that following blogs, triathlon sites, and discussion boards has helped stay consistently motivated during my training. I don’t really have any near me that “lives triathlon”, and use these media outlets as a way of staying connected.

    I think the example you gave about walking as the “ultimate” failure fits me to the tee. It is a constant battle sometimes, but when I get to the end, I am that much prouder. Those workouts aren’t typical, but I feel like they are important.

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