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The Ultra-Endurance Journey — Researching the Athlete Mindset

BY Tatjana Bill

A study aims to understand the psychology of ultra-endurance athletes' passion, lifestyle and more to reveal the driving forces behind their journeys.

This is a three-part series breaking down research into ultra-endurance athletes and their journey through a psychological lens.

Part Two
Part Three

Part 1 — Passion Becomes Lifestyle

We know triathletes and ultra-endurance runners, swimmers and cyclists are “different.” They lead a lifestyle that “normal” people mostly consider crazy. But there are more and more ultra-endurance (UE) races around the world, and more and more people are doing them. This global explosion of extreme endurance and adventure races is a phenomenon of our post-industrial, post-modernist and very comfortable Western world.

Can any theory or concept of psychology, sociology or philosophy explain this passion for endurance sports? Not really, and definitely not from a long-term perspective. This triggered my curiosity, so I started my Ph.D. dissertation about it and would like to share with you what we have found so far. Step by step, in three episodes, so show some endurance and stay tuned!

In the first study, I interviewed 16 non-professional ultra-endurance athletes (triathlon, running and cycling) from several countries, asking them to share their journeys of passionate engagement in sport, from inception to its full adoption as a lifestyle. I heard amazing stories demonstrating that the development journey of UE athletes is a multi-year, sometimes life-long endeavor full of unique experiences, emotional rollercoasters, overcoming and surrender stories, passion and spiritual growth.

And while each journey was unique, there were also similarities in key milestones of the endurance journeys of the athletes. Our conversations were distilled into five pivotal themes in the ultra-endurance athlete’s progression: 1) The making of the UE athlete, 2) Finding a tribe, 3) Peak experiences, 4) UE lifestyle and 5) UE passion and outcomes. These themes serve as markers along a path conceptualized through psychological frameworks like Self Determination Theory and the Dualistic Model of Passion. They provide insights into the psychological evolution from initial interest to a deeply internalized ultra-endurance identity.

The visualization below is the “Temporal framework for progressive UE engagement and passion development.” Let me take you through it stage by stage – and I ask you to reflect on it as we go to see if it also represents your journey.

Temporal Framework
Fig. 1: Temporal framework for progressive UE engagement and passion development (Bill T, 2023)

The Making of the UE Athlete

Whether the idea of extreme racing attracts someone or whether one attaches meaning of threat or opportunity to possible novel experiences is probably defined by their high-level psychological predisposition. The reasons to engage in UE can be complex, and this engagement cannot be predicted. It can be early childhood sports engagement, parental or social influence, natural inclination to extreme sports, an inborn or acquired set of character traits, or (and most likely) a combination of all the above. The exact combination cannot be known – but it became clear through the research that a positive first UE experience (normally a smaller competition or a first real endurance race) plays a crucial role and represents the first milestone in the formation of a long-term passion. If this experience is not good, an exit from these endurance activities will likely follow.

The UE engagement continues if it fulfills the innate psychological human needs for competence (a desire to feel a sense of personal initiative), autonomy (a desire to interact effectively with the environment) and relatedness (a desire to feel connected to significant others). The fulfillment of these needs is seen as the necessary condition for ongoing human growth, integrity and overall well-being, and all three must be satisfied for optimal human development. If all three of them are fulfilled by one activity, like training for and participation in UE races, this activity becomes a high-value need, and motivation becomes more and more intrinsic. (-> Stop and consider how your needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness are satisfied. There are more and less productive ways to do it.)

Finding the Tribe

 “Tribe,” in anthropology, describes a notional form of human social organization based on a set of smaller groups united by common descent, language, culture and ideology. Graffiti artists, musicians, Star Wars fanatics, Saluki dog breeders, etc., all form a “tribe.” Social cohesion and sharing common values and norms are vital features of a tribe, and this is what individual UE athletes are looking for when they strive to resolve the social paradox inherent to their extreme hobby: their lifestyle and choices of pastime do not comply with those of their peers, and they feel frequently ridiculed and even marginalized. The most common cliché is that of being “crazy.”

An answer to this is the formation of the UE sub-culture, which features different norms. Where running 100km, cycling 200km and swimming 5km is expected, where training camps are considered holidays and where the “your training is my warm-up” mentality is widespread. In groups of like-minded people, social norms get re-framed and deconstructed. So, the perceived “abnormality” of the UE hobby gets normalized, and athletic identity gets activated and reinforced.

A high-value need for UE, driven by strong internal motivation, is now powerfully reinforced by the external motivation coming from the UE tribe, resulting in increased engagement in UE. This is the moment when UE enters self-identity, and hobby triathletes start defining themselves through their sport. Unique and peak training and racing experiences help the hobby become a passion.

Peak Experiences

Peak experiences are “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.” (Csikszentmihalyi M, 1989). They are central to understanding the psychology of UE athletes, and stories about peak racing experiences represented the core of the interviews. These stories were focused on intense emotions, bodily experiences, self-discovery and encounters with nature. Polarity was central to all stories since UE racing is an endless rollercoaster of positive-negative emotions and embodied experiences.

A lesser-known aspect of the UE experience is the “self-discovery journey” uncovered in my research. For participants, it was an essential long-term personal development process through UE. Many told me how the extreme experiences in races helped them build self-confidence, learn humility and gratitude, and even become better people overall. Another important aspect was the “uniting with nature,” representing a spiritual dimension to UE racing. Getting to the top of a mountain after 100 or more km of tough racing, alone, in a sunset or sunrise, being met there by an alpine ibex, is likely to induce a sense of elation, magic and divine, especially when intensified by physical exertion and central neural fatigue.

UE Lifestyle

Peak experiences make life worth living. They turn a hobby into a passion. And passion becomes a lifestyle. This lifestyle is based on UE identity, habit and master competency. When training is a fixed part of a daily routine, your food, recovery and leisure choices support your hobby, and when most of your friends are athletes, you have more running than high-heel shoes, which translates to most of your travel being to races.

Through the (unconscious) need for satisfaction in UE hobby practice, athletes start internalizing their UE hobby in their self-identity and start thinking about themselves as ” trail runners,” “athletes,” or “triathletes.” The UE hobby becomes a self-defining activity, which assists in exploring a sense of meaningful and coherent identity and provides a unique context for exploring one’s own interests and talents. “Living UE” becomes a habit, and practicing it for many years develops a master competency.

UE Passion and Outcomes

Living UE passion and practicing UE lifestyle brings about a number of outcomes, the quality of which is driven by the type of passion formed: harmonious or obsessive. A harmonious UE passion brings about positive (adaptive) outcomes such as a healthy lifestyle, balanced training, meta-needs fulfillment, and the formation of an inspiring life story. At the same time, an obsessive passion is connected to possible maladaptive outcomes such as vanity and ego-centrism, as well as injuries and burn-out, including a potential exit from the sport.

In addition, peak experiences, need satisfaction, the UE tribe, identity, lifestyle, and master competence in UE training and racing all lead to a passion-driven life plan for non-professional UE athletes: They simply do not see a reason to stop. Ever. They all claim to want to continue training, racing, and leading an active lifestyle until a very old age, until they die, for some, preferably in a race.

For a full version of the article, please visit: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0293864

More on different types of passion – and happiness – in the next episode! Enjoy your balanced training, and stay healthy!

Want to be part of the research?

For our next study, we are interviewing spouses and partners of UE athletes to better understand the impact of the UE hobby on family and relationships. Please email me at coachtatjana@gmail.com if you are interested in participating. Your support is much appreciated!

Part 1 References

Deci EL, Ryan RM. The” what” and” why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological inquiry. 2000 Oct 1;11(4):227-68.

Vallerand RJ, Blanchard C, Mageau GA, Koestner R, Ratelle C, Léonard M, Gagné M, Marsolais J. Les passions de l’ame: on obsessive and harmonious passion. Journal of personality and social psychology. 2003 Oct; 85(4):756.

Vallerand RJ, Salvy SJ, Mageau GA, Elliot AJ, Denis PL, Grouzet FM, Blanchard C. On the role of passion in performance. Journal of personality. 2007 Jun;75(3):505-34.

Csikszentmihalyi M, LeFevre J. Optimal experience in work and leisure. Journal of personality and social psychology. 1989 May;56(5):815.

Part 2 — From Passion to Happiness — or not?

Part One
Part Three

the author, Tatijana, racing

Reflecting upon the dynamic landscape of ultra-endurance (UE) sports, we’re confronted with a compelling inquiry: does the fervent embrace of such extreme disciplines indeed render athletes happier? This query prompts a deep dive into the intricate relationship between the proliferation of endurance races and their societal significance, framed within the narrative of seeking happiness and fulfillment through “serious leisure” activities, as coined by Stebbins (1982).

In order to explore these intriguing happiness questions, we conducted a questionnaire containing several standardized psychological tests with 116 non-professional ultra-endurance athletes, predominantly trail runners. The aim was to dissect the complex interplay between UE passion, motivation, athletic identity, happiness, and (limited) demographic data of athletes. Before unraveling our findings, it’s pivotal to acquaint oneself with the Dualistic Model of Passion, formulated by Vallerand et al. (2003), predicated on the Self-Determination Theory of behavior (Deci & Ryan, 2000). This model distinguishes between harmonious and obsessive passion, offering a differentiated lens to view the dedication to UE sports or any “interesting and important activity.”

Harmonious vs. Obsessive Passion

In the case of harmonious passion, the athlete displays a strong yet controllable desire to engage in the sport through training and racing. The sport represents a significant part of their identity but is coherent and well-integrated with other life domains. At any moment, the athlete can freely decide whether or not to train or to race. In contrast, obsessive passion refers to an uncontrollable urge to keep training, no matter what. This rigid engagement can lead the athlete to neglect other aspects of one’s life, thereby creating tensions and conflicts.

Read my previous article on this topic to learn more about this helpful model and how to recognize signs of dangerous obsessive passion.

In Part 1 of this series, I introduced a “Temporal Framework for Progressive Ultra-Endurance Engagement and Passion Development,” derived from extensive interviews with ultra-endurance (UE) athletes as part of my doctoral thesis. The aim was to better understand how athletes develop their UE passion from their fledgling interest in UE pursuits to the ultimate embracement of UE as a pivotal aspect of their self-concept and lifestyle. By applying various established psychological theories to interpret athletes´ narratives, the framework charts the phases that UE athletes traverse on the long UE journey.

For part two of this series, we want to look deeper into the impact of the UE on the happiness and well-being of athletes.

Obsessive Passion Can Make You Less Happy

The findings of this research reveal complex dynamics at play. Obsessive passion for ultra-endurance sports was correlated with lower levels of happiness, echoing the experiences of athletes who, despite their relentless training and commitment, seem to struggle with personal relationships, suffer frequent injuries, and display unstable mood patterns and signs of burnout. This observation aligns with broader research indicating the maladaptive outcomes of obsessive passion across various domains, including career, music and personal relationships, on overall well-being.

Lack of Motivation Can Also Make You Less Happy

The lack of motivation, or amotivation, toward sport also predicted lower happiness levels in our study. Without motivation, there cannot be passion, which is confirmed to be an essential ingredient to human well-being. Do you feel unmotivated toward your once beloved sport? Something is clearly off, and if it continues, it will likely decrease your happiness.

Therefore, the two extremes—obsessiveness and lack of motivation—have a negative impact on athletes’ happiness. As often is the case, the ancient Greeks knew it, and Plato warned us about “nothing in excess,” creating the Golden Middle rule. Your doctor will always tell you that “everything is good in moderation,” while more anecdotally, the excess is either immoral, illegal or fattening.

Harmonious Passion and Happiness

Interestingly, while harmonious passion has been linked to higher happiness and well-being in the general population, this study did not observe a direct correlation in the sample of ultra-endurance athletes. This suggests that the extreme nature of UE sports may introduce unique psychological (extreme neurological fatigue, exercise dependence, athletic body standards´ external pressure) and physical challenges (overuse injuries, accidents, thermoregulation issues) that influence the traditional dynamics of passion and happiness.

Characteristics of Obsessively Passionate Athletes

Further analysis provided insights into the psychological profile of highly obsessed UE athletes. We found a tendency towards extrinsic motivation and, thus, towards external rewards and pressures. Athletes with high scores on obsessive passion also displayed higher exclusivity in their athletic identity. The exclusive athletic identity is characterized by the following statements: “Sport is the most important part of my life” and “I spend more time thinking about sport than anything else” and runs, therefore to the detriment of other life aspects. Coupled with external pressures, it appears to foster an environment ripe for the development of obsessive passion, subsequently leading to lower happiness.

Mental Health of Ultra-Endurance Athletes

Exploring obsessive passion further, we looked into demographic data. We saw that a high obsession with UE sport seems to create quite an extreme UE athlete profile, that of a non-professional athlete who is very competitive, does a lot of races, strives to perform like a professional, and identifies themselves through sport. This profile can be connected to the broader topics of psychological well-being and mental health in sports. Despite a general agreement among scholars that many types of exercise increase subjective well-being and vitality, there is also evidence of higher depression rates among extreme athletes. One study found that 20% of ultramarathoners screened positive for exercise addiction concerns, compared to 0.5% for the general population and 3% for habitual exercisers (Buck et al., 2018). Despite these concerns, the median happiness score among participants was marginally higher than the average, hinting at the potential for UE sports to contribute to personal happiness, albeit through a delicate balance of passion, motivation, and life integration.

In conclusion, the relationship between ultra-endurance sports, passion, and happiness is multifaceted and complex. While obsessive passion and amotivation emerge as potential threats to athlete well-being, developing harmonious passion within a supportive and balanced environment holds promise for enhancing happiness. This study expands our understanding of the psychological dynamics of ultra-endurance sports and underscores the importance of cultivating healthy passion and motivation in pursuit of personal and athletic excellence.

Based on the learnings generated in this quantitative research, we expanded our framework by introducing a more granular understanding of the passion construct and the potential outcomes of both types of passion. We also point to the possible exit from the UE hobby as a consequence of obsessive passion, which can lead to such maladaptive outcomes as lower well-being/happiness, revealed by our research, as well as injuries, interpersonal conflicts and negative emotions. We invite athletes and coaches alike to engage in a reflective examination of where they stand on their UE journey and between harmonious and obsessive passion. This introspection is vital for fostering an environment conducive to developing harmonious passion, characterized by autonomy, competence, and a broader sense of identity — elements crucial for the long-term flourishing of UE athletes.

New Temporal Framework

Part 2 Temporal Framework
Fig. 1: New temporal framework for progressive UE engagement and passion development (Bill T, 2023)

“It Depends “

Conclusively, the question of whether UE passion cultivates happiness in athletes is met with a philosophical stance: it depends. The nature of the passion and the quality of the underlying motivation emerge as critical determinants in this equation, with obsessive passion and amotivation standing as potential adversaries to happiness. This nuanced understanding prompts a broader reflection on the role of passion in shaping the experiences and well-being of ultra-endurance athletes.

Part 2 References:

Bill, T., & Antonini Philippe, R. (2023). A new temporal framework for the passionate engagement journey of ultra-endurance athletes: A qualitative investigation. Plos one, 18(11), e0293864.

Buck, K., Spittler, J., Reed, A., & Khodaee, M. (2018). Psychological attributes of ultramarathoners. Wilderness & environmental medicine, 29(1), 66-71

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The” what” and” why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227-268

Stebbins, R. A. (1982). Serious leisure: A conceptual statement. Pacific sociological review, 25(2), 251-272

Vallerand, R. J., Salvy, S. J., Mageau, G. A., Elliot, A. J., Denis, P. L., Grouzet, F. M., & Blanchard, C. (2007). On the role of passion in performance. Journal of Personality, 75(3), 505-534.

Part 3 — Navigating Ultra-Endurance Passion in Relationships

Part One
Part Two

two photos next to each other, one of an older couple at the finish line of a race hugging and smiling with each other, and the other of a triathlete giving a high-five to his daughter holding a sign on the side of the course

A Guide for Athletes and Their Partners

Ultra-endurance (UE) sports are more than just a hobby—they are a lifestyle that demands dedication, resilience and resources, especially time. While UE sports’ physical and mental challenges are well-documented, the impact on athletes’ personal relationships often flies under the radar. This guide sheds light on how UE passion affects spousal relationships and offers practical strategies to ensure that both athletes and their partners thrive.

The Impact of UE Sports on Relationships

Engaging in UE sports can bring both joy and challenges to relationships. From our research, we identified several key stressors and benefits that partners of UE athletes commonly experience.


  • Worry and Anxiety: Partners commonly have concerns about potential accidents and injuries.
  • Time Apart: Training and competitions can lead to significant time spent away from family, placing additional burdens on the partner, especially if children are involved.
  • Financial Strain: UE sports (especially triathlon) can be costly, and financial sacrifices may be necessary.
  • Balancing Responsibilities: Partners often take on more household and parenting duties due to the athlete’s demanding schedule.


  • Shared Healthy Lifestyle: Many couples develop joint healthy habits and enjoy a more active lifestyle.
  • Travel Opportunities: Traveling to races can be a fun and exciting way to explore new places together.
  • Pride and Inspiration: Watching a loved one achieve their UE goals can be incredibly inspiring and a source of pride.
  • Role Modeling: Setting a positive example of dedication and perseverance for children and extended family.

Keys to a Healthy UE Relationship

Our research highlights the importance of balance, communication, and mutual support. Here are some tips to help you and your partner navigate the UE journey together:

1. Communicate Openly: Regularly discuss training schedules, upcoming races, and how these commitments impact family life. Ensure that both partners feel heard and valued.

2. Plan Together: Involve your partner in planning your training and competition calendar. This helps manage expectations and balance responsibilities.

3. Stay Flexible: Life is unpredictable. Be prepared to adjust your training or competition plans when family needs arise.

4. Share the Experience: Involve your partner in your UE activities whenever possible. Whether it’s cheering from the sidelines or joining in on training sessions, shared experiences can strengthen your bond. A joint hobby is a very strong relationship builder!

5. Set Boundaries: Establish clear boundaries to prevent UE passion from becoming all-consuming. This might mean setting aside specific times for family activities and ensuring that UE training doesn’t encroach on these moments.

6. Celebrate Together: Acknowledge and celebrate the athlete’s achievements and the partner’s support and sacrifices. Recognizing each other’s efforts fosters mutual appreciation and respect.

Scenarios to Watch For

Based on our findings, relationships generally fall into three categories regarding UE sports:

1. Harmoniously Practiced UE Passion: Both partners enjoy the benefits and joys of UE sports when the non-athlete partner actively supports the athlete’s passion or both partners are engaged in the sport. In these relationships, the positives, such as shared experiences and a healthy lifestyle, far outweigh the negatives.

2. Conditional Support: Conflicts are more likely when the support for UE activities is conditional or reluctant. These relationships often experience stricter rules and less open communication, leading to emotional strain.

3. Obsessive UE Passion: When the athlete’s dedication to UE becomes obsessive and significant identity transformation happens, it can create significant challenges. In such cases, the imbalance often leads to serious difficulties, potentially resulting in relationship dissolution or the end of the athlete’s UE activities.


Ultra-endurance sports can be a source of immense pride and joy, but they also bring unique challenges to relationships. UE athletes and their partners can successfully navigate these challenges by fostering open communication, planning together, and staying flexible. Celebrating each other’s roles and achievements, both in and out of the sporting world, can help ensure that the journey of ultra-endurance is a fulfilling and shared adventure.  Remember, the key to a thriving relationship amidst the demands of UE sports is mutual support, understanding, and a balanced approach to integrating this passion into your lives.


Bill, T., & Antonini Philippe, R. (2023). A new temporal framework for the passionate engagement journey of ultra-endurance athletes: A qualitative investigation. Plos one, 18(11), e0293864.

Bill, T., Dessart, G., & Antonini Philippe, R. (2024). Does Ultra-Endurance Passion Make Athletes Happy? Sports12(6), 149.

Lamont, M., Kennelly, M., & Moyle, B. (2019). Perspectives of endurance athletes’ spouses: A paradox of serious leisure. Leisure Sciences41(6), 477-498.

Lev, A., & Zach, S. (2020). Running between the raindrops: Running marathons and the potential to put marriage in jeopardy. International Review for the Sociology of Sport55(5), 509-525.

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About Tatjana Bill

Tatjana Bill (Ivanova) has coached endurance athletes for more than 20 years. Her qualifications include Elite Coach A by the German Triathlon Union, Level 2 TrainingPeaks, IRONMAN and Trisutto. She is a 20x IRONMAN finisher (2xKona), trail runner and cross-country skier. All her athletes, from first-time marathoners to IRONMAN World Championship qualifiers, have achieved their personal goals and finished their races with a smile. Learn more at http://www.coachtatjana.com/

“Joy in the effort” is Tatjana´s mantra for training and racing.

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