Here’s a quick “study” I had to do for a sports psychology class in grad school.  It was just a quick thing I had to put together for class, but it’s kind of interesting because I got to look at elite runners, which no one ever does.  So I figured I’d share it for those interested.


PURPOSE: To evaluate what motivates High School (HS) and Elite level distance runners using Self Determination Theory. It was hypothesized that HS and Elite runners motivation be different, levels of amotivation in Elites will be lower, and Elite runners will have lower levels of introjected regulation. METHODS: Thirty five runners were recruited (19 HS and 16 Elite) to take the Sports Motivation Scales survey. Motivation was broken down into 7 sub categories: Amotivation, Extrinsic Motivation (EM) external regulation, EM introjected regulation, EM identified regulation, Intrinsic Motivation (IM) to know, IM to accomplish, and IM stimulation. Results were analyzed using one and two tailed t-tests. RESULTS: There were no significant differences between Elite and HS runners motivation, although several approached significance. Levels of amotivation were not significantly different, although it approached significance (p=.07). Lastly, EM introjected was not significantly different, though it closely approached significance (p=.06). The one significant difference found was that Elites had lower amotivation than low level HS runners.


Running is an activity that requires dealing with a large degree of pain, a high injury risk, and the ability to handle high training loads. Despite these factors, running as an activity continues to grow. According to Running USA’s annual state of the sport report, in 2008 over 14 million people in the United States were considered frequent runners, meaning they ran over 100 times per year (Running USA). This leads to the question of what motivates runners to run?

Literature Review

The motivation of runners has been researched from a variety of different approaches. Clough et al. (1989) took an interesting approach looking at running in terms of other leisure activities. They found that runner’s motivation could be divided into six groups: Well Being, Social, Challenge, Status, Fitness/Health, and Addiction. The most important factors were challenge followed by fitness/health and well being. While the first four factors were similar to those seen in other leisure activities, the last two factors were different. This study set the stage for acknowledging that there was something extra that set running apart from other similar activities.

While studies initially compared runners as a whole group, latter studies pointed to the idea that there are different groups of runners motivated by different factors. One such study was done by Slay et al. (1998) in which they found that obligatory runner’s motivation differed from non-obligatory runners. The obligatory runners were more motivated by negative or external factors such as guilt of stopping, and weight control. In another study on committed runners who ran more than 40 miles per week, it was found that the committed runners were more motivated by mastery, competition, and weight regulation (Scott and Thorton, 1995). Lastly, Ogles and Masters (2003) found that marathon runners could be divided into several groups based on their motivation profiles. These groups were: Running enthusiasts, lifestyle managers, personal goal achievers, personal accomplishers, and competitive achievers. These studies demonstrate that runners’ motivation differs based on their level of running, goals, and experience.

Motivation also tends to vary based on skill level. Although not done with runners, a study by Chantel et al. (1996) looked at the differences in motivation in elite athletes. They looked at motivation in terms of Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory, using the Sports Motivation Scale (SMS) as a way to measure Self Determination. The Self Determination Theory states that there is a continuum of motivation that includes three different levels of internal motivation, three levels of external motivation, and one level of amotivation. Internal motivation refers to participating in the activity for its own satisfaction or pleasure. In other words, it is motivation based on the activity being an end in itself. External motivation includes doing the activity as a means to an end or for some external reason.

Amotivation is a lack of motivation and is first on the continuum. It is followed by the three levels of extrinsic motivation (EM), which are external regulation, introjected regulation, and identified regulation. External regulation refers to motivation based on external sources, such as receiving an award or coercion to participate. Introjected regulation means that pressure from themselves or guilt over not doing the activity. Lastly, identified regulation refers to when an individual begins to identify with the activity and chooses to perform the activity because it has some level of importance to them.

The three levels of Intrinsic motivation (IM) are next on the continuum and include intrinsic motivation to know, to accomplish things, and to experience stimulation. Intrinsic motivation to know looks at the motivation to learn and understand about that activity. Motivation to accomplish things refers to the pleasure of the experience of trying to master a difficult task. And finally, Intrinsic motivation to experience stimulation refers to experiencing the joy of the activity in and of itself.

Chantel et al.(1986) found that the best athletes had higher levels of amotivation and non-self determined extrinsic motivation. Non-self determined refers to external regulation and introjected regulation. It should be noted that this study was on Bulgarian athletes who were likely influenced by communist practices. Looking at what motivates elite Kenyan runners, Onywera et al. (2006) found that they were primarily motivated by economic incentive, followed by talent and tradition. This finding would seem to match up with elites having higher extrinsic motivation.

The goal of this study is to compare motivation of a group of High School (HS) runners and a group of Elite/Professional runners using the SMS. Based on the research above, several hypothesis can be made. I predict that there will be a difference between HS and Elite runners motivation. Since elite runners are more likely to fall into the committed runner categorization, levels of amotivation in Elites will be lower than in HS runners. This will contrast to that seen with elite athletes who have higher levels of amotivation because of the uniqueness of the demands of running. Lastly, elite runners will have lower levels of introjected regulation than HS runners, as was seen in the studies on elite athletes.



There were two groups of subjects used in the present study. The first group was the HS runners who were recruited for participation. These runners came from a HS that the author had connections to and were selected based on their participation in Track and/or Cross-Country. Participants had to regular compete in running events 800m or longer to qualify. Nineteen subjects qualified for participation

The second group of subjects consisted of elite runners who similarly competed in running events 800m or longer. In order to qualify as elite runners, the subjects must have met the 2009 USA Track and Field’s B standard for qualifying for the track and field national championship, or finished in the top 10 at a national road racing championship. Qualified runners were recruited based on their availability to the author. Sixteen subjects qualified for participation in this group.


The measurement tool used was the Sport Motivation Scale (SMS) (Appendix 1). It is a survey that consists of 28 questions that are meant to measure the six different measures of Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory that were previously mentioned. Upon agreeing to take part in this study, subjects were given the consent form to be signed, or if under the age of 18 for the participant’s parents to sign. Upon completing and returning the consent form subjects were given the survey and were told that the survey was looking at their motivation for participating in running competitively and to grade each statement from a 1 to 7 scale on what degree that statement corresponded with why they participant in running competitively. In addition to the measurement, the survey’s included age, event group, and best performance. Event group was defined as either middle, consisting of events 3,000m or shorter, and long distance, consisting of events 5,000m and longer.

Upon completion of all of the studies, they were graded according to Deci and Ryan’s scale and analyzed. Analysis was done using Microsoft Excel and consisted of using average scores for the seven categories of motivation (Amotivation, EM external regulation, EM introjected regulation, EM identified regulation, IM to know, IM to accomplish, and IM stimulation). For data analysis and comparison groups of subjects were split into the following groups:

-HS- consisting of all HS subjects

-Elite- consisting of all Elite subjects

-Top HS- Those HS runners who competed on the Varsity level

-Low HS- Those HS runners who competed at the Junior Varsity level or lower

T-tests were run comparing the different groups on each of the six different levels of motivation. Significance was set at p=.05, but given the low numbers of participants, significance levels approaching this will be acknowledged.


The average scores for each group can be found below in Table 1.

Table 1- Average Scores among groups

Figure 1 presents a comparison of the averages for each group. Hypothesis one that there would be a difference between HS and Elite motivation using a 2-tailed test revealed that there were no significant differences between the groups. However, several differences approached significance with IM to accomplish (p=.11), EM introjected (p=.12), and Amotivation (p=.15) all near significance.

Hypothesis two was that elites would have lower amotivation than HS level athletes. Using a one tailed t-test, significance was closely approached (p=.07). The third hypothesis was that Elite runners would have lower EM introjected than HS runners. Using a one tailed t-test, the p-value was .06, which is very near significance.

An entire comparison looking for significance between all classifications was also done using a 2-tailed t-test. The results can be seen below in Table 2. When compared to the lower level HS runners, elites showed a significant difference in Amotivation (p<.05), and almost a significant difference level for EM introjected (p=.06). Lastly, in comparing High vs. Low caliber HS athletes, amotivation approached significance (p=.10).

Table 2- Significance levels between groups

Figure 1- Comparison of Averages among groups


The first hypothesis was that there would be a significant difference between Elite and HS runners. While, there were no significant differences, several approached significance. EM introjected was closest (p=.06), which if significant would support the 3rd hypothesis. Lastly, the 2nd hypothesis that levels of amotivation would be lower in Elites was not significant when compared to the entire HS population, but was significant (p=.04) when compared to only lower level HS (HS-L) runners.

Several interesting conclusions can be drawn from these findings. First, while not statistically significant, there does appear to be a difference between the motivation for Elite and HS level runners. In particular HS runners seem to be more motivated by EM introjected reasons, such as feeling guilt for not running. This means that they might be more motivated by the negative aspects of not running, then the positive aspects of running. Several possibilities exist for this difference. One possible explanation is that since HS runners are on a team that you have to join, the feeling of letting down teammates, coaches, or others by not running is present. This is in contrast with Chantel et al. (1986) study finding that elite athletes had lower levels of EM introjected motivation.

Another interesting finding was that the difference between Elite and HS-L runners amotivation levels were significant (p=.04). This differs from the findings of Chantel et al. (1986) who found elite athletes (not runners) had higher levels of amotivation than non-elites. The contradictory findings on amotivation and EM introjected between the present study and the Chantel et al. (1986) study can be explained by two distinct differences. First, the act of running itself is different than other sports, as found by Clough et al. (1986). The present study would seem to confirm this idea that motivation for runners is different than other elites. Secondly, the study by Chantel et al. (1986) was done using Bulgarian athletes who were subject to different pressures than the Elite athletes used in this study who all live in the United States. U.S. athletes competing in the 21st century have significant more freedom than Bulgarian athletes competing in the 1980’s. In effect, the U.S. Elites choose to participate in track and field, while this may not have been the case in Bulgaria.

The present study had several limitations that I’d like to acknowledge. First, the subject numbers were very low which made finding significant differences difficult. Secondly, due to the nature of the study and the short time frame, the sampling was one of convenience. This was also partly due to the fact that in sampling Elite runners, the numbers of such runners are inherently low and spread out across the country.

This study demonstrates that Elite runners may show a different pattern of motivation than HS runners. Also, based on comparison with other studies, their motivation may be different from other Elite athletes. The finding that amotivation was lower in Elites demonstrates the great demand of training required for running and that peak performance likely cannot be achieved with high levels of amotivation. Future studies need to look at interventions that can decrease amotivation levels in HS level athletes. In addition, comparisons need to be made between Elite runners and other Elite athletes in the U.S. to see if there is indeed a difference. Lastly, while no significant differences were found, a comparison of high level and low level HS runners might be worthwhile. It was difficult to compare these groups in the present study because of low numbers, but in looking at the average scores it appears that HS-H runners were more similar to Elites than HS-L runners were. This opens up the possibility in using motivation scales to predict future success as runners.

Chantal, Y., Guay, F., Dobreva-Martinova, T., & Vallerand, R. (1996). Motivation and elite performance: An exploratory investigation with Bulgarian athletes. Int J Sport Psychol, 27, 173-182.

Clough, P., Shepherd, J. & Maughan, R. (1989). Motives for participation in recreational running. Journal of Leisure Research, 21, 297-309.

Fortier, M. S., Vallerand, R. J., Briere, N. M., & Provencher, P. J. (1995). Competitive and recreational sport structures and gender: A test of their relationship with sport motivation. Int J Sport Psychol, 26, 24-39.

LaChausse, R., (2006). Motives of competitive and non-competitive cyclists. Journal of Sport Behavior, 29(4), 304-314.

Ogles, B. M. & Masters, K. S. (2003). A Typology of Marathon Runners Based on Cluster Analysis of Motivations. Journal of Sport Behavior, 26.

Onywera, V. O., Scott, R. A., Boit, M. K. & Pitsiladis, Y. P. (2006). Demographic characteristics of elite Kenyan endurance runners. Journal of Sports Sciences, 24(4), 415- 422.

Running USA. 2009 Marathon and State of the Sport Report. Retrieved March 20, 2010, from:

Slay, H. A., Hayaki, J., Napolitano, M. A., & Brownell, K. D. (1998). Motivations for running and eating attitudes in obligatory versus nonobligatory runners. Int J Eat Disord, 23(3), 267-75.

Thorton, E. W. & Scott, S. E. (1995). Motivation in the committed runner: correlations between self-report scales and behaviour. Health Promotion International, 10(3),177-184.

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    1. Joshatalie on April 19, 2011 at 7:07 pm

      Some day I hope to classify myself as an Elite Runner, for now I will work on that! Sigh! I really enjoy reading ALL your posts. Thanks!

    2. Anonymous on April 20, 2011 at 12:42 am

      "Running is an activity that requires dealing with a large degree of pain, a high injury risk, and the ability to handle high training loads."

      I hope you mean the SPORTS of track and field, cross country, and road running require a large degree of pain. Certainly, the simple activity of running does not require dealing with a large degree of pain. Even if you do mean the sports of cc and t&f I still disagree that these activities require dealing with large degrees of pain. I know several elite runners who have competed pain free.

    3. Anonymous on April 20, 2011 at 2:52 am

      Me too. Great post! Thanks

    4. stevemagness on April 20, 2011 at 3:12 am

      Anonymous- By pain, I meant the pain of training and racing…not pain in terms of injury. Racing is a very painful thing to do for the most part.

    5. Sam Platt on August 11, 2011 at 9:50 pm

      Really enjoyed reading through the study, very interesting. Motivation in running is an area that I would like to expand my website into, so to read this was very insightful. Thanks

    6. motivational speaker on December 2, 2011 at 6:28 am

      Competition is a good motivation. Competing brings out the competitive fire in athletes. This makes them train and work hard.

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