Runners and social identity - man trail running

Runners & Social Identity Theory

10 Minute Read

Sometimes (not all the time, but sometimes) runners feel like something is missing from their sport or passion. It doesn’t always feel like enough. We don’t feel like a real athlete or runner. We want to feel something more. We want more from the sport, but we don’t know what it is or why we feel that way.

We (the Long Run Team) feel that way regularly. And, we will admit, it doesn’t make much sense. We are runners. We run often. We operate a business for runners. But we don’t always feel like we’re close enough to our passion. In this situation, social identity theory may help.

The Theory

Social identity theory suggests that individuals derive their self-identity (and in turn, self-worth) through membership to social groups. This absolutely includes our “membership” to the running community, but also consider the various other groups you belong to - your career, your friends, your family, etc. etc. The combination of all of these memberships creates our identity and how we view ourselves.

This theory emerged to explain how individuals define themselves, perceive their self worth, and that it is mostly based on societal groups. So what does this mean for runners specifically? It means identity mindset is an absolutely key way to develop and strengthen passion. When we truly see ourselves as athletes, we internalize the values, behaviors, and goals associated with this identity.

The Fix

And so, naturally, if what we want is to feel like a true athlete, we must strengthen our perceived identity as runners.

We’ve come up with a short list of potential strategies and ways to further see yourself as an athlete:

The Gear

Often, the gear we invest in serves a functional purpose. Take a Garmin watch, for example. Perhaps you’re using it to track distance, measure pace, estimate V02 max, or analyze sleep patterns. All of that is great. But… when we see someone with a Garmin watch, our first thought is “what’re you training for?”

It has become a symbol of someone’s membership to the running community, and therefore, builds the social perception that they're an athlete. We use the watch as an example, but this same thing is true of running shoes, run hats, and yes, electrolyte infused coffee. Exploring gear is a fun and easy way to add facets to your identity as a runner.

Books, Blogs, & Research

Dedicating time to learning and reading about the sport is very impactful. Reading running-related literature (such as popular books, opinion blogs, or training science articles) helps us understand more about the sport, how we should conduct ourselves in training, and further helps us craft an identity as a runner. And importantly, learning more about the sport gives us more to talk about. When we can hold a good conversation about our sport, either with runners or non-runners, it helps solidify our identity as an athlete. Just be careful not to sound like a know-it-all.

Social Engagement & Podcasts

Connecting with other runners through social media platforms, online forums, podcasts, etc. is a great way to further engage yourself in the running community, and see yourself as a “member.” It’s yet another angle that you can use to grow closer with the running community, which is very helpful when building your identity and self perception as an athlete. And the best part about social media content is that there is both A TON OF IT but also very different kinds of content. You could find yourself more interested in training science, or more interested in personal stories. Either way, consuming content will strengthen your passion.

Joining Clubs and Races

If our identity as a runner is based on our perceived “membership” to the social group, then becoming a run club member should do the trick! Run clubs and groups are a great way to physically be around other runners, engage in the lifestyle, and get to experience more from the sport. For a similar reason, races too are an excellent way to further embrace your identity as a runner. Because who are the people signing up for races? Runners (obviously). And that makes a whole lot of sense for identity building. The race environment too has the added benefit of being a unique combination of exhilarating and different.

The Big Downside

There is an important distinction between seeing yourself as an athlete, and becoming all-consumed. Over-identification with running can lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as excessive training, unhelpful comparisons, or perfectionism, which will harm mental health.

To avoid going overboard while maintaining a strong identity, consider the following:

Balance: Embrace running as an important part of your life but maintain a balanced perspective. Explore other interests and activities to avoid fixation solely on running.

Flexibility: Allow flexibility in your running routine. Recognize that identity is multifaceted, and it's okay to adapt based on changing circumstances or interests.

Self-Compassion: Practice self-compassion and acceptance. Remember that your worth is not solely defined by running achievements.

Final Important Note

Notice that nothing here commented on how far, how fast, or how often you should be running to consider yourself a runner. That isn’t part of it. The runner identity is a feeling, not an actual checklist-based objective. If you feel like a runner, then you are one. And this article is to help you feel that way.

Wrap Up

Leveraging social identity theory can empower runners to cultivate a deeper passion and commitment to their sport. By embracing the identity of a runner and engaging in supportive practices, individuals can strengthen their connection to the running community while maintaining a healthy perspective on their identity and well-being.

Fuel your passion

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