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Extreme Sports: What's the Appeal?

Experts explain why some people feel the need to push themselves to the edge in extreme sports.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

It starts off with a 2.4-mile swim. The next phase is a 112-mile bike ride. If that’s not enough, the final leg of the race is a 26.2-mile run -- a full marathon. It’s a triathlon -- and the most famous one is known as the Ironman. Why would anyone in their right mind want to submit themselves to such agony?

“There’s an innate characteristic in some people,” says Justin Anderson, PsyD, a sports consultant for the Center for Sports Psychology in Denton, Texas. “Some people are turned on by that stuff; they get a lot of adrenaline by it, and they gravitate toward activities that give them that feeling. For some it’s jumping out of airplanes, for others it’s climbing Mt. Everest, and for others, it’s the Ironman. When they find that sport or activity that gives them that feeling, they say there is nothing better.”

What is their motivation, and why do people keep pushing the envelope to more extremes, never feeling satisfied with their last conquest? Why do the rest of us tap into our inner voyeurs when the X-Games are on TV? And why do we find pleasure in watching extreme athletes risk their lives? Experts, along with an Ironman who’s in training for his third competition, give WebMD the science behind the rush.

The Motivation of Marathoners

So what is it that makes a person push themselves beyond the limits, when the rest of us are sitting comfortably on our couch? Their motivation stems from achieving a goal, and being competitive.

“Researchers [have] found that the primary difference between the elite and the nonelite triathlete was that the goal was key, and competition was the second factor,” says Lester Mayers, MD, director of sports medicine at Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y.

The goal, whether it be crossing the finish line after a grueling triathlon or reaching the 29,035-foot peak of the highest mountain in the world, is the Holy Grail; accomplishing it with a competitive edge is what this small and elite group of people seek out. It’s also knowing that you are one of very few who have dared to dream -- and achieved that dream.

“It’s a sense of identity,” says Mayers. “The triathlon is not a sport that is crammed full of people. There are only a handful of people who have the ability to train for and accomplish this feat.”

While competing in a group of elite athletes may bring money, fame, and glory, most importantly to some, it also brings a healthy dose of respect.

“Skiing down from the top of a mountain where a helicopter drops you off alone, or jumping out of planes, I have a feeling those people have a sense of identity and that identity is important to them because they feel that earns them respect,” Mayers tells WebMD. “Caring for athletes as I do, my own personal opinion is that the most important desire they have is for respect.”

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