International 100+ UltraRunning Foundation

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Gratitude: The Best Racing Fuel



July 2017
by Claire Nana and Lisa Smith-Batchen


When it comes to racing fuel, ultrarunners are known to try some pretty odd concoctions. Pickle juice, peanut butter and bacon sandwiches, raw milk, chocolate milk, and sardines (yes, sardines) could all be considered common fare at an ultra.

But gratitude? Now that’s a new one.

For one thing, gratitude can’t be measured in calories, consumed, or for all intents and purposes, digested. Yet what it can do is much more powerful.

Broaden and Build: The Expansive Nature of Gratitude

When Barbara Frederickson wrote her book, Positivity: Top Notch Research Reveals The Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life in 2009, the question she was asking was: What is the adaptive value of positive emotions? That is, just how did they aid our survival? Gratitude, after all, is nice, but it’s hard to see how admiring sunsets will do much for us when we’ve got food to hunt for and predators to fend off.

Yet the answer lies in the way gratitude works in our brain. What Frederickson found was that positive emotions broaden our perspective and lead to novel, expansive, and exploratory behavior. In what Frederickson calls the “broaden and build” theory, positive emotions act much like a snowball, gaining momentum as we see more possibilities, find more resources (within ourselves), and grow in ways that might have previously seemed impossible.

This makes perfect sense to Martin Seligman, the author of Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. In his book, Seligman described a study where one set of participants were given a candle, a box of matches, and a thumbtack with the instructions: try to find a way to position the candle on the wall, and another set were given the same items and instructions, but had been “primed” to be happy by watching a few short comedy movie clips. While all the participants tried to solve the puzzle, it was the happy group who were not only much more successful, but vastly more creative.

Seligman’s takeaway, like Fredrickson’s, is that gratitude is a consciousness expander and a problem solver.

In a runner’s equation, gratitude might be the difference between concluding that you cannot continue the race because you feel too beat up and don’t expect to start feeling better anytime soon and asking: “What if I start feeling better?”

As any ultrarunner knows, the answers to problems on the run fade into the background the minute you stop asking solution-focused questions. And while gratitude doesn’t guarantee an answer, it might just start the process.

But that is only part of the puzzle. Gratitude is also uniquely linked to dopamine, which many studies have indicated doesn’t simply lead to the nice rewarding feelings that result from exercise, it is the motivational catalyst to start exercising in the first place. In one fascinating study, researchers from the University of Montreal uncovered just how dopamine might’ve worked from an evolutionary perspective. Endurance running was thought to have evolved as a way to maximize the chances of finding food, and when food stores were plentiful (in this case when we have extra body fat), dopamine signaling decreases, making us less motivated to run. On the other hand, as fat stores decrease, dopamine signaling increases, which acts as a way to motivate running, and finding food (Fulton, et. al, 2015).

Yet dopamine levels don’t only increase when we are leaner, they also increase when we are feeling gratitude. Because this equation also works in the reverse – when we feel less gratitude, we have lower levels of dopamine – the conclusion for runners is pretty clear: the more gratitude you have, the higher your levels of dopamine will be, and the more motivated you will be to run.

Out of Adversity Springs Gratitude

If you ask most people about the social outcomes of September 11, 2001, gratitude is not likely to be one of them. Martin Seligman himself might’ve been surprised, except that he was the one collecting the data. Seligman and his colleagues had been measuring people on the VIA inventory of psychological strengths, which acts as a map of positive functioning. Inventories had already been taken before the attacks, and the study continued after them. Astoundingly, gratitude was shown to increase over this period (Peterson & Seligman, 2003).

And this was not the only study. Several subsequent studies showed that gratitude appeared to increase for both adults and children after the attacks (Wood, et. al, 2011).

The question you might be asking is: Why?

The answer has something to do with the way facing adversity – or in this case horrific circumstances – affects us. Contrary to what most people believe, following a difficult event, an outcome of post-traumatic growth – which is growth that precedes pre-adversity levels of functioning – is more common that an outcome of post-traumatic stress disorder (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004).

And one of the five domains – perhaps the most recognized – of post-traumatic growth is gratitude. While it might be that major losses, setbacks, and adversity cause us to recalibrate our circumstances in ways that help us feel grateful for what we have left, it might also be that gratitude itself helps us cope with challenge.

As Joseph and Linley two researchers who study losses and the processes we take to get through them suggest, gratitude is an essential part of the recovery process. It appears that people’s recovery from the traumatic experience is influenced by the extent to which they are able to find some benefit in the experience (Joseph & Linley, 2004).

The key seems to lie in our attitude toward adversity. The question many runners might recall asking themselves is: Why is this so hard?

Just how we answer that question might have a lot to do with how we respond to adversity. When we can find a purpose for it – such as building strengths, cultivating resources, and building the grit we will need for future races – adversity holds a pretty important place, and we are likely to be grateful for it.

On the other hand, if we feel that the challenges we face are too hard, unfair, or unwarranted, chances are, there isn’t much to be grateful for. Then, on a larger level, our ability to cope with them diminishes dramatically.

Getting Grateful On the Run

So how do we get grateful on the run? To answer this question, I asked one of the most grateful, and successful ultrarunners I know, Lisa Smith-Batchen.

Here is what she said:

Find The Love. Gratitude comes from love, no other place, and when you can find love, you can find gratitude. So, a question to ask yourself is: What can I find love for right now?

Find The Lessons. It is through experience that we become wise, and one of the any lessons we learn is that gratitude is not one-dimensional, and neither are our lives. We will have setbacks, failures, adversity, and experiences that make us question many things. Yet when we can find gratitude for all of our experiences – good or bad – we will see that it is often in these times of strife that the most profound lessons are learned. So ask yourself: Can I be grateful for all of it?

Be The Source. Gratitude is not something that happens to you, rather, it shines through you. We don’t have to wait for gratitude to be bestowed upon us, given to us, or happen around us, we can generate it ourselves. And the best thing about gratitude is that it works in a positive feedback loop – where the more you give out, the more you receive in return. And that is more than I can say for any other racing fuel!



Resources:

Frederickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Top Notch Research Reveals The Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life. New York, Random House.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. New York, Simon and Schuster.

Fulton et al. (2015). Leptin suppresses the rewarding effects of running via STAT3 signaling in dopamine neurons. Cell Metabolism, September 2015

Seligman, M., Peterson, C. (2004). “Strengths of Character and Wellbeing,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, no. 5 (2004), 603

Wood, A., et al., (2011). “Using Personal and Psychological Strengths Leads to Increases in Well-Being over Time: A Longitudinal Study and the Development of the Strengths Use Questionnaire,” Personality and Individual Differences 50 (2011), 15–19.

Tedeschi, R.G., and Calhoun, L.G. (2004). Post-traumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 1

Joseph, P., Linley, S. (2004). “Positive Change Following Trauma and Adversity: A Review,” Journal of Trauma Stress 17, no. 1 (February 2004), 11–21.


Claire Dorotik-Nana M.A. frequently writes for many organizations including Professional Development Resources, International Sport Science Association, and Zur Institute. She is also the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks Into Springboards.

Lisa Smith-Batchen is a ten times Badwater finisher and founder of the Dreamchasers Outdoor Adventure Club