From my years of competing at a national and international level, I’ve concluded that elite runners usually possess one of a few distinct personality types. In addition, they have different motivations for training hard and making it to the top (or trying to).
Runners who are not as successful competitively as elite runners but share their dedication to training and their addiction and/or love for the sport can also fall into these personality types. Sub-elite runners don’t have the genetic material essential to becoming amongst the best in the world, so by necessity their major motivation can’t be financial gain or fame (at least not when reality sets in). But even the most physically gifted won’t make it to the top on ability alone—so what are all the motivators that drive both elite runners and dedicated sub-elite runners to train so hard?
I can identify the following “types” of serious runners. *
* Caveat: I’m not a trained psychiatrist or psychologist, so this is based on an amateur’s observations.
Type 1: The natural jock: physically gifted; psychologically healthy
The first type might be the one most often seen amongst successful athletes. This person is psychologically healthy. He or she is usually involved in sports from a young age, and athletic giftedness is apparent. Such an athlete might love running more than other sports, or a parent or coach might identify the young person’s potential to excel in running or even a particular running distance. At some point that athlete makes a decision to focus on one sport and train to the elite level.
This runner loves both training and competing. They are very focused on the sport. They usually aren’t ambivalent about making the choice to put running first. They give it their all while they put off having another career and possibly a family. They are “good sports”—they want to win, but they can be gracious in defeat and learn from it.
This runner usually gives up a competitive running career after a number of years of international competition, when physical ability begins to diminish or their competitive fire is satisfied. Often this person moves on successfully to a running-related career such as coaching, motivational speaking, sports administration, or establishing a sports-related business like a running store.
Type two: The superachiever: genetically gifted, both physically and intellectually; psychologically healthy.
This person is genetically gifted physically, intellectually, and creatively. In addition to being an elite runner, he or she makes significant contributions to other fields, either simultaneously with a competitive life or with a new career following running. This person has the energy, passion, and perspective to “do it all.” This type is inspirational but also intimidating to many of us!
Type three: The addictive personality: often athletically gifted; may be psychologically fragile.
The elite or fanatical runner with an addictive personality has become obsessed with running, sometimes to the point of losing perspective and neglecting other areas of life, such as relationships, studying, or another career. Running may have benefited this person by replacing a “negative” addition such as drug or alcohol use, or other thrill-seeking behaviours.
This athlete may have a successful running career if they are physically talented. However, in psychological and practical terms he or she is in a precarious position because life is completely structured around running with no back-up routines or goals. Such a person is often driven to overtrain. Injuries are devastating psychologically. The athlete may continue to run while injured and inflict permanent damage.
I’ve known several elite female athletes whose obsessive running went hand in hand with anorexia. Eating, like running mileage, becomes something that the athlete tries to control and quantify obsessively. Anorexia is a serious psychological and physical problem that can end a runner’s career.
A successful athlete who has focused on running to the exclusion of everything else must eventually face the question, “What about life after running?” The transition can be very difficult. However, some runners with an addictive personality type can satisfy their running addiction while simultaneously handling a “normal” job; they aren’t completely dependent on running.
Type four: The escape artist: often athletically gifted; may be psychologically fragile.
This athlete uses their running talent to escape from a difficult or abusive family situation. Running can serve as a “rescue” for this kind of person; it may offer a literal escape and a way to find healthy mentors and peers. Also, it may allow the development of high sense of self-worth that otherwise would not have happened.
However, the person who is running to escape is subject to the same vulnerabilities as the obsessive runner; what happens if injury or other circumstances cause running to be taken away? Is there a back-up plan?
Type five: The default runner: physically talented but running is not their main passion; psychologically conflicted.
This runner is partially motivated by others (friends, parents, and especially coaches), and in fact their athletic talent may be discovered accidentally because they don’t begin running as part of a natural affinity for sports. Such an athlete can become self-motivated and be willing to work hard to get to the top, because for a talented athlete the rewards are great and may include money, recognition, and exciting travel opportunities.
However, this athlete often feels conflicted, knowing that their energy and drive could equally have been directed to another career. If education is neglected or the choice to start another career after running is put off too late, this person might feel regret about “the road not taken.” Unlike the “natural jock” type of athlete, the “default” athlete lacks the desire and ability to take up a running-related career like coaching or sports administration after their competitive career is over.
Which of these types will have the most athletic success?
I would expect that the natural jock and the superachiever would be the ones who most often make it to the top, because being psychologically strong is an important component of athletic success.
Yet people may be driven by their psychological torments, and there are certainly winners amongst all these personality types.
Three-time US Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton’s story is a disturbing example of a person who was (possibly) ill with bipolar disease, suffered from bulimia and extreme anxiety, and was using running partly as a way of compensating for a painful family situation. Yet for years she was a huge running star.
(You can watch ABC’s 20/20 show here to get one version of Suzy’s shocking story. My full analysis of this show would require a separate article. Briefly, though, I found the interview sensationalistic and manipulative. The exposure of Suzy and her husband’s private life made me uncomfortable, and I questioned Suzy’s motives and her credibility. Surely this show was only done to generate publicity for her upcoming book.)
Do you recognize these personality types among athletes you know?
If you are an elite or fanatical runner, how would you classify yourself?
Those who know me well will figure out that I would classify myself as the “default runner.” The conflict and ambiguity I sometimes feel about making running the main focus of my life for so many years is reflected in many of my posts, especially “Who wins the race? Shining a spotlight on the dark side of the winner’s personality,” my runners’ obsessions articles, and “Reasons you don’t want to be an elite runner.”
One of my experiences as a “default runner” was a sense, sometimes, of not fully belonging on athletic teams that I was a part of. This began in high school, where my teammates respected me and were excited by my performances, yet didn’t include me in the parties that all the popular “natural jocks” were invited to. Even on the 1988 Olympic team, I felt as though I didn’t fit in. Because of chronic injuries, I had to replace a lot of my running with other activities, and instead of doing easy social runs with the other distance runners, I would head alone to the training pool or the gym. Most people did their hard track workouts in the evening; I always wanted to do my main workout first thing in the morning.
I was always happiest being part of cross country teams, which seemed to include more introverts and offbeat characters than track and field teams. Or maybe it was just that I always loved cross country because it was where I started in running. It was there that I first experienced being any kind of athlete at all. I had no conflicting feelings about the great gifts cross country gave me: the thrills and camaraderie of being part of a good team, the joy of being active outside in all seasons, and an appreciation for the distance runner’s body that genetics had given me.