Extreme Sports: What's the Appeal?

Experts explain why some people feel the need to push themselves to the edge in extreme sports.

From the WebMD Archives

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.”

The Adrenaline Factor

When it comes to extreme sports, the adrenaline factor likely plays a role in explaining why athletes reach for the outer limits as well.

An “adrenaline rush” occurs when the adrenal gland is stimulated through an activity that causes stress on the body, and certainly extreme sports, such as backcountry snowboarding and bungee jumping, fall into the category of causing stress. According to the University of Maryland Endocrinology Health Guide, the stimulation of the adrenal gland releases a number of hormones, including epinephrine, or adrenaline. This increases the heart rate and the force of heart contractions, facilitates blood flow to the muscles and brain, causes relaxation of smooth muscles, and helps with the conversion of glycogen to glucose in the liver. For extreme athletes, this adrenaline rush is a feeling that can’t come often enough.

“A lot of extreme athletes report that they are seeking that rush,” says Anderson. “They’re looking for those sensations they get from putting their life on the line.”

It’s a feeling that can’t be duplicated in any other activity, and for many, explains Anderson, it’s a true sense of feeling alive.

“The emotion that the adrenaline feeds in to is a heightened sense of being alive,” Anderson tells WebMD. “All your senses are in an acute level of awareness, and it’s that fight or flight response. They either do it and live -- or they die. That is what they are playing in to, and that is a very primitive thing that is going on.”


Pushing to the Edge

So why is it that their last accomplishment is never good enough? Why do extreme athletes always need to push it to the next level, closer to the edge?

“Extreme athletes say that it’s the law of diminishing returns,” says Anderson. “Reaching the same goal over and over doesn’t bring the same amount of excitement as it did the first time, so they want to push the envelope and go for the next big goal.”

Take free diving, for example, explains Anderson. “People who free dive with no oxygen tank are always pushing deeper and deeper into the ocean with just one breath,” he says. “They’re never satisfied with their last dive.”

It’s the risk that is appealing, and the riskier, the better.

“The mentality is that people who are drawn to extreme sports are risk takers,” says Jenn Berman, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Beverly Hills, Calif., who was a member of the 1984 exhibition Olympic team in gymnastics. “It’s that they love to push themselves to the limit -- physically, emotionally, and in every way possible.”

There is always another goal to be set and reached, and the bar just keeps inching upward.

“Each time they have a success they want to push themselves farther. Any great athlete tends to do that, but this is especially true in extreme sports,” says Berman. “Once they accomplish something, they will start to lose the rush, so they have to push themselves harder and set the bar higher.”

From the Mouth of an Ironman

Experts say it's about goals, competition, respect, adrenaline, and always reaching for the next level. Rick Hall, a registered dietitian and two-time Ironman athlete, explains how right they are.

“Competing in the Ironman is solely for me,” says Hall. “It’s the ability to say I’ve done it. It’s pushing my body to its absolute limits. I’m competitive in nature in life and business but when it comes to competing as an athlete at the Ironman level, it’s about self-competition and how well I can do and what my personal best can be.”


While Hall explains that during the event he often asks himself why he would put himself through such agony; the answer becomes clear when the end is in sight.

”It’s a long-endurance event, and several times during the day, and when you’re way out in the middle of nowhere and you’re away from spectators, you think, ‘Why am I doing this?’” says Hall. “But you get to the finish line, and it answers those questions all at once. It’s an absolute adrenaline rush, and it’s very emotional.”

At the end of the Ironman, there are thousands of people screaming for competitors to put one foot in front of the other and cross the line.

“It’s one of the few sports where there’s no booing -- everyone wants you to succeed and they’re screaming for you because you’ve just accomplished a huge feat,” says Hall. “When I cross the finish line, I’m ready to sign up for the next one. For me, that’s a big rush, and it lasts for several weeks. ”

Hall -- who completed his second Ironman in better time (by one hour) than his first -- is already training for No. 3 in 2007.

”There’s a statistic out there that says less than half of a percent of the world’s population can complete a regular marathon,” says Hall. “Now consider adding a 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike [ride] to that, and you can imagine that there aren’t many people who can say they can do it, or have done it.”

Watching the Extreme

Most of us are content to play the role of screaming fan at the end of an Ironman, standing by while elite athletes like Hall cross the finish line. Why is it that we enjoy watching others endure the blood, sweat, and tears of extreme competition?

“Why do we like to watch NASCAR? Boxing?” asks Berman. “It’s human nature to have curiosity about the outcome of such extreme sports and how people can defy death.”


Will they live, will they die? Will they succeed, will they fail? It certainly brings a new meaning to the reality TV trend.

“It’s different for everyone, but it’s exciting to watch these people compete,” says Anderson. “They are testing themselves to an extreme measure, and watching them push themselves while you say, ‘I could never do that,’ is fascinating.”

So why doesn’t a mere mortal feel the urge to go the extreme?

“While we all enjoy the feeling you get from participating in something extreme, extreme athletes just gravitate toward the activities that create these emotions,” says Anderson.

The science behind the rush really comes down to the finish line, the top of the mountain, the next big wave -- the finale.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD


Published May 22, 2006.

SOURCES: University of Maryland Medical Center web site: "Endocrinology Health Guide." Justin Anderson, PsyD, sports consultant, Center for Sports Psychology in Denton, Texas. Jenn Berman, PhD, private practice, Beverly Hills, Calif. Rick Hall, RD, MS, faculty, Arizona State University, Phoenix. Lester Mayers, MD, director of sports medicine, Pace University, Pleasantville, N.Y.
© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.


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