When Running Rhymes with Pleasure

In the 21st century, running has emerged as one of the most popular, most covered, and most unifying athletic disciplines. Running helps us stay in shape, take time for ourselves as well as spend it with others. Running also brings us great pleasure, joy, satisfaction, and pride when we manage to reach goals once thought unattainable. When we experience a positive session (Zenko, Ekkekakis, & Ariely, 2016), and we retain good memories of it, we’re more likely to keep coming back. On the other hand, running is also synonymous with physical exertion, discomfort, and even pain and exhaustion (Hall & Fong, 2015; Mullen & Hall, 2015). Consequently, when we experience these types of sensations while running, we’re less tempted to come back.

How is pleasure derived, and why does it affect our willingness to return to the activity?

The rise of pleasure

Aerobic metabolism linked to pleasure

Physiologically speaking, performing physical exercise requires the production of muscular energy. That muscular energy can be created by using the surrounding oxygen (i.e. aerobic metabolism) or by using the energy that is already stored within the muscles (anaerobic metabolism). Tapping into aerobic metabolism lets individuals exert themselves over longer periods (e.g. several hours) with a minimum amount of pain and fatigue. This leads us to favor the practice of a physical activity associated with pleasure. Inversely, due to the accumulation of lactate within the muscles, favoring anaerobic exercise during our sessions leads to an unpleasant experience marked by feelings of displeasure, fatigue, pain, and even exhaustion.

Should you favor aerobic or anaerobic when training?

When you practice a physical activity, especially running, both of these mechanisms can be favored. Which one depends on the intensity of the effort and the duration. The more intense the effort is, the more the body will favor the anaerobic mechanism as it produces energy much faster. Conversely, if we exert ourselves over a more extended interval, as opposed to short but intense bursts, the aerobic mechanism will be the predominant system used (Figure 1). The meeting point, where the body starts preferring one mechanism over the other, is called the ventilatory threshold. Up until this point, the aerobic mechanism is preferred because the intensity is only moderately difficult. Beyond this point, the anaerobic mechanism will produce the majority of the muscular energy because the intensity of the physical activity requires rapid energy production.

The ventilatory threshold is often associated with the lactic threshold because a preferential use of the anaerobic mechanism generates a significant quantity of lactate. Lactate is an energy-giving waste product which generates negative sensations, such as discomfort, pain, and exhaustion.

The duel-mode theory

The dual-mode theory, developed in 2003, explains that when we engage in physical activity, the pleasure or displeasure we feel also depends on the psychological characteristics of the person (Ekkekakis, 2003). A person who appreciates feeling like they are making an effort will be more inclined to feel pleasure while their body is favoring the anaerobic mechanism than a person who prefers to enjoy athletic activity without suffering. On the other hand, that same person (who prefers the feeling of exertion) will feel a great deal of displeasure if they take part in an athletic activity that is not intense enough. This is despite the fact that their body is using a physiological mechanism that ought to allow them to feel pleasure.

Figure 1: Graphic representation of the dual-model theory (Ekkekakis, 2003; VT: ventilatory threshold; LT: lactic threshold)

The mental resources needed to perform a physical activty

Psychologically speaking, engaging in physical exercise requires mental resources in order to organize, plan, and chain together all the movements while at the same time not putting our body in danger (Abbiss, Peiffer, Meeusen, & Skorski, 2015; Brick, MacIntyre, & Campbell, 2016; Brick, MacIntyre, & Campbell, 2015). In this context, feeling pleasure or displeasure when we practice a sport depends on our ability to correctly plan out what we are going to do and to adapt to changes and difficulties the arise during the session. The more we’re able to correctly plan and correctly manage difficulties and efforts during the session, the more likely we are to feel pleasure while we run. Inversely, experiencing negative feelings such as displeasure when we move is a sign that what we’re doing is potentially dangerous for us and that we don’t have the resources needed to overcome the difficulties. In this case, our body as well as our mind is in danger. At that moment, the challenge is in the ability to change what we are doing (intensity or duration of the session) so that we do not put ourselves in danger, all while maximizing the effort exerted and the pleasure that is felt. Adapting appropriately will once again bring us feelings of pleasure and therefore push us to return to this type of session in the future. On the other hand, adapting poorly will bring us even more feelings of displeasure and may lead us to give up the activity of running altogether (Fig. 2).

Figure 2: Graphic representation of the link between psychological resources, pleasure, and engagement in a physical activity.

How to always (or as frequently as possible) feel pleasure while running?

Tools to optimize your session

Take stock of your fitness level before starting

It is important to note that, sometimes, despite our planning and organizational abilities, we are just not able to properly manage what we are doing. A poor fitness level before the run may keep us from feeling pleasure because we are already tired before even starting. Paying attention to the state we are in before we start is a good tool for better adapting our sessions in order to maximize pleasure and minimize displeasure. Before each session, on a scale from 0 to 10, take stock of your fitness level (0 = not at all fit; 10 = maximum fitness).

Listen to yourself constantly during the session

Paying attention to what you are feeling lets you better adapt what you are doing during a sports session (Acevedo & Ekkekakis, 2006; Eston & Williams, 1988; Lind, Joens-Matre, & Ekkekakis, 2005; Rose & Parfitt, 2008; Schücker, Knopf, Strauss, & Hagemann, 2014). This makes it possible to better regulate the intensity (Lind et al., 2005; Rose & Parfitt, 2008) in order to improve your performance and optimize the management of your energy expenditure (Schücker et al., 2014), and experience a more pleasant session compared to practicing a physical activity without basing the intensity on what you are feeling (Parfitt, Rose, & Burgess, 2006). So, when you run get into the habit of paying attention to what you are feeling. Whether it’s every 5 minutes or every 10 minutes, just be sure that it’s regular.

Accepting yourself and relaxing

Feeling pleasure while practicing a sport means engaging in a session that is at a level of difficulty that we are able to manage both physically and psychologically (Pesce, 2016). This way, when you start to feel displeasure, accept that you are not able to accomplish the efforts required for that day. Doing so will make it possible for you to recoup your strength and have confidence in yourself the next time.

Written by:

Mauraine Carlier – Doctor in Sport Psychology

Bibliography

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