6 Ways to Gamify Your Marathon Training

1 : Have a Winnable End-Game

Again, this is a modified version of the list linked above. But I think the points were valid for my purposes in this post, too. The first rule seems smart: make sure the game is winnable. No one likes to play a game they cannot win. Progress in gamification (at least in my experience) comes from the idea that (a) you are working towards a goal and that (b) the goal is completely reachable if you take your turns and follow the rules.

As it works out, I gamified my half-marathon training last summer and am intending on doing the same this summer with my marathon goals. My game (called “Hackable Me“) was scoped from the notion that I was going to cross that start line — that I COULD cross that start line — if I followed the rules and beat the game.

2 : Limit the Abstract, Ground Motivation in Reality

You’re probably sitting there thinking that all this seems a little abstract, eh? Turn my running into a game. Or you’re rolling your eyes at the idea of keeping score with points, maybe? And hey, I heard about some app that does that and gives you fake little trophies on Facebook if you… blah, blah, blah.

The abstract components of work = reward probably cannot be completely divorced from the idea of gamification. But it can be grounded in reality. Again, when I did my Hackable Me game, points were earned or lost on real things. Real effort or failure. A point was a kilometer of running. But a point was also a measurable quantity of food. And the reality was that there was a connection between throwing points away on snacks or junk food and the kilometers I knew I’d need to run to earn those points back.

3 : Make it Emotional Too, Not Just Rational

It’s funny to think about but gaming really is a kind of bridging of a rational act with an emotional action. Gaming is fun that requires focused effort. Gaming is play with thought stirred into the mix.

Gamifying a training effort is sort of the same way and needs to keep rooted in both a philosophy of fun and rationality — but the fun part is actually more difficult to achieve. You’ll see some of the apps out there that do this kind of tracking for you attempt this with cartoon-ified profiles or Facebook-like social engagement between players. And like I wrote above: it’s not easy to do… or do right, at least.

4 : Create Payoff that Gets Bigger with Real Progress

This, of course, comes down to your scoring and your results. Grounding the game in reality (as in point #2) is important as you’re playing, but it’s also important as far as payoff goes, as well. 

You game needs to be winnable, yeah, but what do you WIN? Honour and glory? Bragging rights? Or are you getting a little treat at the end? Does a great week and a set number of points win you an ice cream on Saturday afternoon? Or is it that you can cash in your points on a little splurging and spending towards a new pair of headphones in the summer?

5 : Build it Fun & Keep it Light

But at the end of it all, it needs to be light and easy and fun. If you are doing complex maths or logging heaps of finicky data just to play your game I can almost assure you that you’ll turn the game into as much of a chore as the fitness.

Games should be light. It’s not science. It’s not mission critical data-logging, here. It’s just a kind of play and motivation mixed together. Forget tracking every single calorie you consume and just be honest and give yourself a daily score, instead. Don’t log every calorie you burn doing exercise, but rather track your big efforts, estimating distances or achievements, and log that as a simple number. Complexity will kill your motivation faster than a snowstorm in June.

6 : Use Existing Tools

As much as I’ve ranted on and on above about devising scoring systems and building payoffs, et cetera, or even about my little Hackable Me project (which worked for my purposes by the way, but I don’t give any guarantees) given the opportunity for a do-over, I’d find an existing tool to replace every one of those efforts every time.

Here in 2013 there are stacks of great existing websites and phone apps that will do this gamification stuff for you (I’m on Fitocracy, myself, right now.) Rolling your own application or scoring system or even just trying to construct a website or spreadsheet to track all this is probably not worth the time: you could be training instead. Probably… of course, you might do that eventually… but definitely don’t START that way.

It’s just a game, after all.