by Louis Cinquino
The WholeRunner approach isn’t sports psychology. That field is primarily focused on competition: how the mind can make you a better athlete, a faster runner. This is not our primary goal.
WholeRunner flips the script. We spend our time on exploring and explaining how your running can give you an even bigger prize than a faster half marathon time: to make your life happier and more positive. And if your half marathon time improves (and it will), that’s just more evidence of the synergistic impact of our approach.
In the previous post, we discussed how to adapt the SPIRE technique to your running log. This post will focus on another positive psychology assessment tool.
The VIA Character Survey
I consider the VIA Character Survey to be the gold standard of any personal approach to positive psychology. I ask all the clients I work with directly to begin our time together by completing the survey.
As my clients share the results of their assessment, we take the time to better understand how, when, and where these strengths come into play in their lives, as well as how the strengths have served them in past situations. Then, together, we find approaches to their current goals that are rooted in the areas of their greatest or emerging strengths. (For more specifics on my coaching approach, visit characterstrengthscoach.com.)
The possibilities for incorporating the VIA Strengths Report into your running life revolve around that kind of inquiry. Looking at how your particular top strengths have been meaningful in your running, are currently manifesting in your running, and how you might use them to amplify what running can do for you.
Let’s not lose track of our goal though—it’s not to have our strengths make us faster runners (although they can, if you’d like to direct your effort toward that goal). The WholeRunner goal is to have our running help us understand and amplify our strengths, in order to drive us to achieve better outcomes in our lives.
Here’s how I’ve begun to approach this work.
A few months ago, I took the VIA survey. This is the third time in about four years that I’ve taken it. When I compared my results to previous times I’ve taken the survey, I found that certain strengths seem to rise and fall, largely based on what my mindset was at the time. Was I in the middle of some emotional struggle? Did I have a particularly fascinating work project consuming my days? Was I content in my family life and relationships?
It’s that kind of comparative approach I’m going to suggest to see how your running influences (or is influenced by) your character strengths.
Inside Track to Happiness Exercise: VIA Character Survey of Your Running Life
Take the survey straightaway. Answer all the questions as they apply in your life, and look at the results. Spend some time on the survey site to understand how to work with your results.
Now, wait a bit—at least a couple weeks. It will help if during those weeks you continue other aspects of the WholeRunner approach to bring more awareness to your running and the role it plays in your life.
Take the survey again, specifically with your running in mind. Whenever it makes sense in the phrasing, silently amend the questions with phrases like “in my running,” “through my running,” “because of my running,” and “during my runs.” Not all questions are easily adapted and for those, don’t waste time trying to shoehorn them into the format—just answer them as is and move on.
There’s no one specific way I’m going to recommend you adapt the questions. You can find ways that seem best to adapt them so they are all about your running, or how they connect your running to your life.
For example (and this is not actually from the survey), when considering how you relate to a statement in the survey like, “If I feel like I’ve failed at something, I always think about what’s going well for me,” reframe it as, “If I feel like I’ve failed at a running goal, I always think about what’s going well in my running.” Or it could become, “If I feel like I’ve failed at a running goal, I always think about something else in my life that is going well.”
Essentially, it’s asking the same question, but by consciously introducing the lens of your running to your question, you get an idea of where your running fits into the entire landscape of your mindset. Does it tend to be something you rely on to bolster or escape your emotional life? Is it a source of joy or grudging acceptance? In our example, might you handle disappointment in a running goal differently than disappointment in regard to another kind of goal in your life? There’s no single right approach—whatever comes to your mind is the right way for you at this moment.
Another distinction that you will have to make is on several questions that involve others and how you relate with them. If you run with others, they can be the people you consider in your answer. If you run mostly solo, you might consider friends or family that you discuss running with. They could be the pack of peers you run among in races, even if you don’t really talk with them. If you don’t really have running confidantes, then just answer in general terms—the results should then match your previous survey results and that aspect of your running won’t expressly stand out.
My point here is that how you choose to adapt the question may create a certain bias on the results—but that’s actually what we are going for—how you see running stand out as part of your identity. If and when it doesn’t create a bias, well, that’s important to know also.
Looking at the Results
If you are like me, not too much will change between the two surveys. But pay attention to what does, especially to what comes in and out of your top three. You can be more precise about your tiers of strengths if you purchase the advanced reports, which give you an actual score for each strength, rather than just a rank order. But even with the basic report, it’s a good conversation opener to see what shifts—and start to think about why.
For example, for me, in my running survey, Humor jumped up to number one, which ranked between nine and 13 in my previous surveys. This surprised me. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but when I run with friends, it’s always a great source of laughter and fun, at least at this point in my running. (When I’m training hard and pushing myself to exhaustion for some specific race or performance goal, that definitely shifts. It’s hard to laugh when you can’t breathe.)
Looking from the other way around, Judgment and Social Intelligence were the biggest droppers from my civilian life to my running life. They both fell from my top three into the midrange. It’s not like they disappeared from who I am, but they just don’t seem to be accentuated in training and the people I’m training with. Apparently, I’m laughing too much to judge anyone.
As I considered these results, my most immediate reaction was that running may actually be the place where I most use my humor, which I had never really considered until I saw this result. That made me wonder if there were other areas in my life where I can bring out more of this kind of camaraderie. It was also apparent that I turn off my analytical mind when I run—I’m not trying to figure things out in that way. My answers pointed more to emotional benefits: Humor and Appreciation of Beauty (which also jumped up from my midrange to top three in my running life).
Later in the WholeRunner approach, we will explore more specific Inside Track to Happiness exercises, including some to work specifically with your character strengths. Meanwhile, here are some questions for you to consider as you look at how your strengths display themselves:
How can I bring my top running strengths into my life more?
Are there specific character strengths I want more of in my life? Is there a time in my running that I use these strengths? Can I use this awareness to build these strengths and bring more into other situations?
Think about different running situations—do I use different strengths in unique ways for each situation? For example …
• Solo runs
• Longer runs
• Speed work
• Group runs
• Particular courses you train on
• Early morning runs
• Lethargic days
• Intentional days off
• Days when your schedule goes awry and you can’t fit in your run
• Days when you blow off your run (yes, it happens!)
• Days when you are injured and need to recover.
Each situation presents a different opportunity to use (or develop) one or more of your character strengths.
We will return to the discussion of character strengths later in the series, but for now it’s enough to simply understand what strengths are important in your life and start thinking about how and when running can help you build upon them and bring them forward.
From here, in the upcoming posts, we will continue to
• Explore some of the fundamental tenets of positive psychology and how running can bring them to life
• Adapt specific exercises of the positive psychology toolkit through the lens of a running practice
• Talk with runners, psychologists, coaches, and practitioners to see how they’ve deepened the experience of running for themselves and clients
• Take a closer look at other authors’ and researchers’ work on the ways that running can generate positive emotions.
As always, I’d love to hear from any runners out there who would like to collaborate on the project or provide feedback on any aspect of the work.
Watch for the next installments in Louis Cinquino’s WholeRunner series—and check out his previous posts and series for the blog here.
Louis Cinquino is a writer, Certified Distance Running Coach, life coach, dad, and graduate of CiPP4 and Positive Psychology Coaching Fundamentals. His personal observations, discoveries, and training plan as he prepared for the Fifth Avenue Mile race were featured in “The Mulligan Mile,” (Runners World, September 2013). He is currently developing WholeRunner: Your Inside Track to Happiness, a project to explore and explain the positive psychology of running. You can read more from Louis on his blog, TakingMulligans.com.