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Photo credit: Johnny Logan.

The psychological profile of ultra success


Last updated: 20-Jan-20

By Sarah Cooke

There is an increasingly large body of research exploring personality traits associated with sporting success and with endurance performance. This research can help us to understand what makes the successful athlete tick, but it may be frustrating for an aspiring ultra runner who may, or may not, possess these seemingly desirable traits.

For example, if you read a study that says that successful runners are extraverted risk-takers and you identify yourself as being introverted and cautious, then this isn’t going to fill you with hope for your next race.

In this article, I aim to consider how some of the research in this field may be of practical use, and address whether ultra runners of all types and abilities can learn something from the traits and habits of successful endurance athletes.

A series of recent studies at the University of Wolverhampton by Hamilton and colleagues found that athletes experience a range of emotional states during long bouts of exercise. All endurance athletes can expect to experience fatigue. However, those who cope successfully tend to feel fatigue and happiness simultaneously, whereas those who have been less successful in achieving their goals are more likely to experience depression and anger when tired.

Analysis of the data from these studies suggests that the former athletes interpret fatigue as a necessary part of goal attainment and an indication of the effort they are making in pursuit of success. Conversely, less successful athletes are more likely to interpret fatigue as an indication of their inability to cope, leading to negative emotional states.

This is important research because emotional responses, unlike personality traits, are flexible. Training your mind, as well as your body, to cope with fatigue, and learning to perceive it positively, may be just as important as how far and how fast you run in your training.

McCormick, Meijen, and Marcora (2015) reviewed studies exploring the psychological determinants of endurance performance and confirmed the prevailing wisdom, and anecdotal evidence, that mental strength is at least as important as physical strength. If we combine this with the findings above, then the key message seems to be that learning strategies to cope with fatigue could build mental, as well as physical, strength.

Athletes who feel depressed and angry when they find a long run difficult are more likely to be self-critical, and this increases the likelihood of reduced performance, and of giving up. If you recognise this self-critical tendency in yourself, then make a note of your triggers, coping strategies and what you say to yourself in those moments. Practise turning those negatives into positive statements. For example, if you notice that you always tell yourself ‘I am tired and weak’, then prepare a script for those difficult moments where you tell yourself that ‘I am carrying on even though I am tired because I am strong’.

Developing self-awareness is an important tool in being able to prepare for the challenges ahead. Feeling in control of your own success or failure is crucial, and many ultra runners thrive on the discipline of their training, because it is less reliant on external factors than success in their personal or professional lives (Norman, 2015).

In order to emulate this sense of self-efficacy, you may need to focus on things you can control when fatigue hits. For example, you could concentrate on technique when you need a distraction from feelings of tiredness. You could mentally rehearse how you will adjust your posture, pick up your feet or alter your stride length to make yourself more efficient.

Freund et al. (2013) assessed the personality traits of participants in the TransEurope FootRace compared to those of recreational runners. Ultra runners were less dependent on gaining rewards than non-endurance runners. This may enable them to remain focused on long-term goals and to maintain consistent effort for prolonged periods. In contrast, someone training for a 5km race might see improvements in their pace in a relatively short time-frame and can begin a race expecting to achieve their goal in minutes rather than hours or days.

For this reason, a goal-setting approach may be helpful for ultra runners feeling overwhelmed by the training ahead, and this approach was set out in my chat with Alice Morrison in February. Other approaches to developing a mindset that promotes endurance that have empirical support include verbal encouragement and imagery.

A supportive coach, sports and exercise psychologist or training partner may be able to help you develop a positive emotional relationship with fatigue, but self-talk, as discussed above, is also a common (and free) technique used by professional athletes.

In addition, imagery can be very powerful – picture yourself in the race environment and imagine yourself dealing successfully with all the challenges it brings.

Write down the difficulties you expect to face and mentally rehearse how you will cope with them as well as planning what you will say to yourself when you get tired. See yourself crossing that finish line with a smile on your face.

In conclusion

Mental toughness is ‘the ability to consistently perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances’ (Zijer Veld, 2015). There is broad agreement amongst psychologists, athletes and coaches that mental toughness is associated with athletic success (Tamarkin, 2014), but your psychological resilience is not determined at birth.

You can train your mind to cope with fatigue, and psychological-skills training may benefit runners by developing associations between tiredness and positive feelings and by enabling them to acquire strategies to cope with fatigue.

What seems apparent from the research is that psychological toughness and physical strength go hand in hand – the more you experience fatigue during your training, the more both your body and mind get used to dealing with its challenges.

Physical training combined with self-awareness and techniques to alter your perception of fatigue and your ability to manage it, make it possible to learn the habits of successful endurance athletes.

Feeling despondent during your run is possibly the most damaging emotional experience you can have in relation to your future running mindset. Mental training is, therefore, at least as important as physical training when building endurance.

I would be interested in the personal experiences of runners in relation to anything discussed in this article, so please feel free to comment on difficulties you have faced or mental strategies that have benefited your running.

Your Comments On The psychological profile of ultra success

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02:53 15-10-19

Hi, great article but focussed on psychological issues of long distance running. I have a number of male acquaintances that either taken their own lives or know of people that have. Has anybody studies the links between low testosterone levels caused by ultra running and the mental effects this has on the body. Through my research there seems to be some suggestion that depression and suicide in ultra male runners could be linked to the effects of low testosterone levels.

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01:36 09-10-17

Thank you both for your thoughtful comments. Positive self-talk has been shown to have benefits in many areas, not just running. Negative self-talk actually has the same impact on the brain and emotions as being bullied by someone else, and you really can't escape from the bully if it is in your own head. It sounds like you have both experienced the benefits of positive self-talk and I wonder who is the 'better' athlete - the one who is fast when things go well or the one who can get the job done even on a bad day.

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02:05 07-10-17

I totally agree with the need for mental strength when taking part in endurance events - i am probably the slowest person ever due to my own lack of training motivation and so i know i am weak in terms of physical strength but when i take part in events i know i will finish because of the sence of achievement and that keeps me going. I've seen much better athletes than me have complete meltdowns because they have talked themselves into failing. It really is mind over matter.

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07:05 05-10-17

If I start a run feeling tired or with pace ‘expectations’, it can be a very negative experience even though I know I just love running. My scientific brain loves seeing what I believe works (self-talk and/or a great training buddy) supported by research. Fab article.