You Don’t Have to Be Mentally Tough to Be an Ultra-Marathoner, but It Does Help

Or, why we all have the psychology to run very long distances

Tikkho Maciel — Unsplash
It all started with a very long run….

The Mourne Mountains sit between Belfast and Dublin, nestled beside the Irish sea. They are a wild, and beautiful range, with hidden loughs, nearby forests, and trails throughout. It is a dream for any mountain trail runner.

The Mourne Way Ultra is a 52-mile race weaving its way from Rostrevor to the park below Slieve Donard, the largest of the mountains in the range, and back. Along the way, the route is often muddy, slippery, rocky and technical.

It was on the last leg of this race, over 6 years ago, whilst in a particularly challenging low, I questioned two things:

  • My sanity for doing this
  • What makes an ultra-marathoner?

Whilst I continue to wrestle with the first point, the second question led to a Ph.D. and the research below.

Mourne Mountains

Background

Over hundreds of thousands of years, evolution has adapted both the bodies and brains of our species for endurance.
Within our lifetime, our aerobic training shapes our individual bodies and brains for endurance.

All sports professionals accept and embrace the fact that our psychology has a huge impact on our performance in endurance sports, and must be considered key to the development and the performance of the athlete.

However, perhaps surprisingly, there is a lack of research exploring the relationship between both psychological factors and physiological measures of endurance performance.

As part of my Ph.D., and with a personal interest based on staggering through ultra-marathons, we attempted to begin the journey to fill this knowledge gap. The aim of the following research was simple, to better understand what makes an ultra-marathoner — psychologically and physiologically.

How did we measure endurance performance?

We performed 4 studies to better understand endurance and ultra-marathoners in particular. To provide a more full, and complete picture, we took ideas, and measures, from a number of different disciplines, including psychology, physiology, and genetics.

Measures included personality, mental toughness, motivation, aerobic indicators (including lactate threshold and V02 max), stress hormones, and key genetic indicators

We tested:

  • Ultra-marathoners, the aerobically fit, and the sedentary in the lab
  • Ultra-marathoners competing in a race, comparing psychological and physiological measures against their race times
  • A new runner training for their first ultra-marathon — before, and after, 15 months of increasingly difficult aerobic training
Testing for key genes

What did we find?

Ultra-marathoners are physiologically better adapted to completing an ultra-marathon; this is clearly in response to the large amount of aerobic training performed.

Ultra-marathoners are also identified as being more open to new challenges — they see opportunities where others see difficulties.

Mental toughness and other personality dimensions were associated with increased aerobic potential but did not identify ultra-marathoners

Interestingly, our psychology may not be as fixed as we might think. Mental toughness, extraversion, and agreeableness all increased in response to aerobic training in preparation for an ultra-marathon.

The findings suggest that optimum behaviours for ultra-marathon training and racing may result from a balanced set of psychological attributes, including mental toughness, motivation, and personality. More extreme personality traits, are best avoided, for example, being too extraverted, or highly neurotic, may have a negative impact on behaviour linked to training for, and competing in, a race.

What does this mean?

The research suggests that we all have the necessary mental toughness, motivation, and personality, in our psychological toolkit to run a very long way.

Or to put it another way…

We are all potentially ultra-marathoners so long as we are open to new challenges, and we put the miles in training.

Whether an athlete or not, mental toughness and personality both positively impact coping strategies and athletic performance, and may also be influenced by the challenges we face.

Interventions modifying the demands, and stressors (type, frequency, etc), faced may support the development of an optimal balance of psychological factors leading to behaviour promoting improved endurance performance.

There is still much to learn about our potential for endurance. Human performance is incredible, and we are far from understanding the extremes, whether measured in the lab or pushing personal limits in a race.

References

See also, within medium: adaptation, endurance limits, evolutionary endurance