Written by Michael Beisty

“Some people simply aren’t motivated to train and don’t push themselves anywhere near their limits in a race.” (Joe Friel 2015) (1) 

“Everything evolves from the enjoyment. The national titles, international successes, world records and gold medals are signposts along the way. They are not the end of the journey or even the reason for setting off.” (John Walker, 1984) (2)

“Competitive success is the thing that drove me.” (Ron Clarke, 1972) (3) 

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“In 1992, when I started to get better results on the track, I began to feel as if I belonged in the great athletics circus. I had my own rivals and targets and my own agenda. That made a difference.” (Sonia O’Sullivan, 2008) (4)

Today’s article centres on motivation for the competitive mature distance runner. There are many things that I could talk about that hang off motivation that aren’t truly motivation, such as hygiene factors and extrinsic motivation triggers. But when it comes down to it, from all that I have read and experienced, there are only two things that matter to the competitive athlete, training and racing. 

I have included John Walker’s quote as a reminder that everything does stem from the sheer joy of running. This falls in nicely with my first adage that the primary motivation is to feel good. I have that outlook, but even so, at 64 years of age when out on a run I often find my thoughts wandering to how fast I want to race in competition and what race goals I should set myself. It is a subliminal aspect to my daily run, its prominence in my thoughts dependent upon my state of fitness, preparedness for racing and other life events that may be impacting on my emotional health and training capability. 

I write this article based on the assumption that the mature distance runner is totally healthy, and not taking medication or suffering ill health and/or injury. Of course, these things of themselves can be significant demotivating factors. They can also be major motivating forces that provide personal challenges the athlete strives to overcome, with appropriate medical/psychological support and advice. 

  1. Aspects of Hard Motivation

I’ve used the term ‘hard motivation’ as shorthand for the necessary commitment to the grind of training and the grit of racing. I start from the standpoint that you enjoy running for the sake of it. If you don’t enjoy running on a recreational level it is a difficult proposition to achieve your absolute best racing performances. You cannot train under sufferance, as this will sabotage your commitment to structured training in the medium to longer term and poison your outlook on racing.

For the competitive athlete I define motivation simply as racing success, however that may look for the individual, achieved through physical and psychological training. 

In my view, both categories of motivation – to train or to race – rely on the self, an inner drive to get out and do what is required. Nobody is going to do it for you. As soon as you start relying on other people for motivation you know in your own heart that your commitment is starting to fade. That is not to say training partners, squads, technology and coaches can’t help you achieve your goals, but if they become a crutch for your mindset, you will not achieve your absolute best. 

To train, as opposed to ‘just’ enjoying a run each day, demands goals, structure, planning, hopefully variety (sometimes dismissed as irrelevant), discipline and commitment – day in day out, it is the bedrock of performance. It is the vehicle for success, primarily physical, but involving mental strength, a level of keenness and perseverance. 

1.1 Racing Success

Racing success is the goal achieved, the expression of athletic prowess. It is primarily psychological, demands guts, desire, release, tactical awareness, decision making, thinking on your feet, ability to absorb pain – the peak, the pinnacle, the show, where you exhibit what you’ve got to a high level and can be exquisite in artistic terms. 

Herb Elliott leading Mike Rawson, 1958 European 800 metres champion at Stockholm. Elliott was a fierce competitor and had a short but illustrious middle distance racing career. Photographer: H. W. Neale.

Racing success can be defined by a range of outcomes such as finishing position (win, place, top 10, top 1000), time (world best, PB, course best), distance completed (longest run, first marathon or ultra), number of race wins, and who you beat (reigning champions, faster runners, great field, those you have never beaten).

Racing success alone is not enough. Success is married to satisfaction, to give meaning to race performance, a sense of achievement, yes and enjoyment (we keep coming back to this issue). It is laudable to string together a high number of wins in your career, as Herb Elliott and Steve Ovett did, and others of their ilk have done, but if it doesn’t provide a high level of satisfaction, it really does undermine the intrinsic enjoyment of success that delivers longevity in racing. This is where Herb Elliott and Steve Ovett appeared to differ in their philosophical outlooks, the former retiring at a young age undefeated and the latter racing for many years at a very high level.  

A young Steve Ovett, tracking Luciano Susanj in a semi-final of the 1974 European 800 metre Championships in Rome. Ovett won this semi-final but was beaten by Susanj in the final. Ovett was the master middle distance racing tactician of his era and a preeminent racer.  Source: Athletics 75, published 1975, Editor Ron Pickering. Photographer not credited.

Training and racing both generate satisfaction. But for the competitive athlete success in racing is the ultimate goal, the key that unlocks the door to motivation, or it may be its the other way round? In any event they are inextricably linked. 

  1. Considerations for the Mature Aged 

In his book Fast after 50 (2015), Friel includes an inset article by Lisa Rainsberger (nee Weidenbach) advising senior athletes to be mindful of “What can I do?” rather than “What I used to do” when setting goals. (5) Rainsberger, now 61 and a coach, was a sub 2:30 marathon runner who won Boston in 1985 and a Hall of Famer with the University of Michigan Track and Field and Road Runners of America. Of interest she was fourth in the USA Olympic marathon trials of 1984, 1988 and 1992, an accomplished but unlucky athlete. (6) 

Friel provides a range of useful insights about motivation and goal setting for the mature aged distance runner that should resonate with those who want to 

achieve high performance. For the readers benefit I have listed some of them below (7)

“Be realistic and honest with yourself. I’d rather see you set a goal you know is achievable and then, later on, once imminent success becomes apparent, take it up another notch. That’s far better than starting too high and later on losing motivation to continue toward the impossible.” He then continues to say not to dumb down your expectations unnecessarily, purely based on age. 

“For most athletes, regardless of age, the greatest obstacle to better performance is psychological, not physiological.” 

“Being 50 or 60 or 70 doesn’t mean you have a free pass to train more easily and yet perform well.” 

“You aren’t old until age becomes your excuse.” 

“If you refuse to accept age as an excuse for mediocrity, you won’t be mediocre.” 

“High performance has been and always will be based on hard work.” 

Friel is saying the mature competitive distance runner can achieve high performance levels with commitment, hard work, and realistic stretching goals, with a mindset focussed on their ability in the here and now. Age is not to be used as an excuse to not apply yourself to the task at hand.

Friel’s comments reflect a combined intuitive wisdom expressed by practical philosophers such as Reaburn, Fee, Noakes, and Utzschneider. Though scientific in their approach, and reliant on evidence-based information, they exhibit a nuanced understanding in their interpretations of how things work in the real world for the mature runner. For they are practitioners first and foremost, the doers. And if you cannot trust the advice of the doers, who can you trust?

I believe in what Friel says. I guess the issue can be, at least in my lived experience, that age sometimes throws a curve ball your way. As we age, we can suffer a greater level of inconsistency in performance outcomes, ups and downs, as our body continues to adapt to the stresses of training that intersect with biological changes that naturally occur. Our bodies may not always respond as expected to training, even if we are taking adequate recovery. It requires a level of faith to persist and not become disheartened or demotivated.  

Tim Noakes MD Lore of Running (2001, 4th ed) provides an insight about why this level of inconsistency could occur, and I think this may explain why in some instances mature athletes, particularly those who are highly motivated, don’t even realise that they are overtraining. He states that “a general rule is that older runners perform better on less training since the margin between optimum training and overtraining is much less, which makes it easier to overstress the older body and to perform poorly as a result.” (8) He also indicates that those runners at greatest risk of this behaviour are long standing competitive athletes who have run throughout their lives. 

Though success is married to satisfaction, a competitive runner’s natural state is to never be satisfied with their performance even if it’s a world best, for we are always striving for something better. Motivation is about a search for near perfection as opposed to absolute perfection, the latter breeding anxiety. 

For the mature distance runner goals and racing success are washed through age grade calculations to provide a range of comparisons, no less youth, that allow us to continue to strive. Age grade races are another avenue for competitive success, the win remaining paramount, and the performance instinctive, as it should be. Though there exists nothing better for a master’s athlete than to win an open race outright, without the baggage of age grade calculations hanging from his/her coat tails.

  1. The Main Demotivators

I have found the two biggest demotivators to be a pining for performances of the past and overtraining. Admittedly, the former only applies to those who had a youthful running career, whereas the latter can apply to any masters’ competitor, no matter when they commenced their running journey.

Just because you have the time to train doesn’t mean you make the time. If you are retired from employment, you would think this gives you free rein to train yourself silly. But that’s not what always happens. You still have to make the time from your day to day living activities to run hard and long. What can happen is you become super-motivated and train yourself ragged, eventually running out of steam, or you become lost in a world without routine that causes a lackadaisical attitude to completion of those essential hard sessions that can make the difference to your performance. But ideally, with appropriate planning and thoughtfulness, many can find an appropriate balance of something in between. 

I have found training as a retiree is like attending university on a perpetual basis, without having to take exams to pass a curriculum. There is no pressure, so you can fall into that lazy pattern of easy runs, because hey, who cares what a 64 year old father, or mother, of two can run for a marathon? You have to care. It comes from within. 

An issue that is not often mentioned is the overlaying of the natural aging state on a runner’s overall commitment to apply themselves to the task at hand. I would describe this as a lack of energy or wherewithal, or maybe in some instances a general malaise that can creep up on you slowly over time. This is psychological, and I’d suggest physical in nature, where it seems to take an additional effort to commit yourself to disciplined training, particularly the hard sessions that are required from time to time. I think these general feelings are real, and just because you run doesn’t mean you experience it any less than your non-running friends. I have no problem in admitting difficulties in maintaining tough sessions in my sixties (even though at lesser frequency) compared to my fifties. 

To get out and run demands a psychological effort, maybe some extra effort when older. Again, the motivation can only come from within – as a bridge to racing success, if that’s what you want. So, it’s worth asking yourself the question, “is that what I really want? Is that what motivates me or do I need to let it go?” You will know when that time is right.

3.1 Pining

So back to my ‘pining’ comment.  This issue really only applies to those mature distance runners who ran competitively when young, and tend to reference current performance against career bests. With that mindset you are always going to be disappointed. It can eat at you unnecessarily. Better to reset and readjust your goals with age. 

What I personally like to do is use the age grade calculator to reset my master’s performance goals each year with the aim of beating my career bests based on the age grade equivalent. While I don’t always achieve these goals, such an approach provides a stretching target and motivates me to race hard. It is also a useful yardstick about whether my training is targeted appropriately. There are a range of different options and comparisons you can use through age grade calculations to set time-based goals and provide variety in your racing outlook. Carmen Troncoso, a well performed master’s athlete and coach, describes the requisite mindset nicely when she says “Age grading is a beautiful thing. Accept that we get slower with age, but don’t give in to it completely.” (9) 

3.2 Overtraining

I have discussed overtraining in a broad sense in previous articles. However, life routine, other life interests and activities, and common sense are important factors that anchor a mature runner’s outlook and motivation to train. Reaburn and Friel have both talked about the need to have a balanced approach, recognising the reality of the impact of aging on the ability to train and race at high levels. Overall moderation is required to ensure you are getting the best out of your most challenging sessions, and not endangering your health. Don’t be put off, but listen to your body, adjust and readjust training and racing goals as the situation demands – adapt. The successful mature competitive distance runner binds their motivation with common sense, as the secret ingredient, to ensure overtraining does not occur and potential adverse health issues are mitigated. 

Quality of life can influence your level of motivation. If training and competing is the centre of your universe, at the expense of other life interests, that can generate a poor quality of life. The highs and lows of training and racing performance may have an extreme psychological impact. Apart from anything else, it can also result in some insular individuals. It is important to keep things in perspective. There definitely is more to life than training and racing.

I have had some shockers in my time, racing performances that just didn’t make any sense. But I find that I eventually bounce back. Its just another opportunity to analyse my training program and life events more closely to understand why I performed poorly. There is often a reason, one that wasn’t apparent beforehand, but discernible in hindsight. The main thing is to accept the likelihood of a wider range of inconsistency in your racing outcomes from your sixties onwards (some would say fifties). At least, I have found that to be true. It just motivates me to do better next time.   

This is consistent with Reaburn and Friel’s views that those who are truly motivated have to be on guard about overcooking their commitment, confusing ‘more’ (quality and volume) with better. It is prudent to take a step back at regular intervals to prevent the exhaustion that can inevitably arise, resulting in a lack of motivation for anything physical, everything grinding to a halt.  

  1. Concluding Comments

To me, motivation is a fairly simple proposition, especially if we are talking about a competitive mature distance runner. Essentially it is all about the training and racing success, coupled with satisfaction and achievement, while listening to your body. Enjoyment is the base need that can never be foregone, and everything is bound together with common sense.

Motivation comes from within. After all, where else can it come from? I don’t hold much stock in the extrinsic drivers, crutches, ‘enablers’, for they can only get you so far – and they don’t result in any form of longevity in racing outlook. If you need them, either your training isn’t a good fit or racing success isn’t really your goal. 

When all is said and done, only you can decide what motivates you to perform to a high level in mastering mind and body. Don’t blame any lack of success on your age. If anything is to blame, it will be the false limitations you put on yourself, without even trying, as though it is a fait accompli.

References: 

(1) Friel, J, Fast After 50, 2015, p24

(2) Walker, J & Palenski, R, John Walker Champion, 1984, p22 

(3) Hendershott, J, editor for tafnews, Ron Clarke Talks Track, 1972, p16

(4) O’Sullivan, S & Humphries, T, Sonia, My Story, 2008, p29 

(5) Friel, J, p103 

(6) Profile on Lisa Rainsberger, available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lisa_Rainsberger

(7) Friel, J, pp102-105

(8) Noakes, T, Lore of Running, 2001, p601

(9) Utzschneider, C, Mastering Running, 2014, p101

Other Sources:

Reaburn, P, The Masters Athlete, 2009