The mind in long distance running

Some weeks ago I came across the following article in the site Runner’s World Running Times, How Much Does Mental Toughness Affect Race Times?. The article discusses a study by John Hall, a performance psychologist at Staffordshire University (U.K.) in which he tried to find quantifiable evidence supporting the notion that mental toughness has a direct effect on race times (1).

Some excerpts from the article:

[…] Hall noted that there was little quantifiable evidence supporting the notion that mental toughness has a direct effect on race times, so he set out to see if he could put a number to it. 

Hall surveyed 706 ultramarathoners at six international events, including the Marathon des Sables in Morocco and the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. The sample included 539 men and 167 women from multiple countries ranging in age from 22 to 69.

For the study, Hall used a previously established tool to measure three components of mental toughness: confidence (self-belief), the sense of being in control, and constancy (concentration, determination, acceptance of responsibility, and stability of attitudes). Perceived effort, discomfort levels, use of mental skills and hardiness were also measured. Mental skills are actions like goal setting and refocusing. Hardiness is a personality trait tested in previous research.

Hall found that mental toughness greatly influenced subjects’ finishing times, and that among the variables influencing performance (fitness, weather, and nutrition), mental toughness accounted for 14%.

I read reactions to the article in Twitter from several runners criticizing the numbers, having reactions like “in long distance running the mind is everything”. I am also of the opinion that the mind has a great deal of importance in running, however I believe that the catch is in the what the study is trying to measure.

The study is already taking a group of 706 ultramarathoners and sees how much mental toughness is influencing the differences in their finishing times as compared to other elements. To that respect it finds out that the mind’s influence in the difference in times is 14%, other elements like heat and strong wind had more relevance in the final times.

What the study is not telling is that to complete the Marathon des Sables in a certain time having the correct mental toughness will contribute only a 14%… and I think this is what runners have in mind when hearing the outcome of the study and reacting to it.

When training for a marathon or an ultramarathon for months prior to the race, only the runner knows how many times he has to rely on that mental toughness to go out in a rainy day and do his series training, or wake up really early on a Sunday morning to squeeze a long run before some other family event, or to bring running shoes to every business or leisure travel he has during months, or to keep the pace up in all the repeats of a series training session… in all those situations, mental toughness plays a role and that is what runners have in mind.

Those 706 ultrarunners who took part in the study already had a great mental toughness (much higher than a sedentary person). The study looked at the slight differences between the toughness of some runners compared to others.

To end this post, I leave you with a few quotes on the different roles that the mind plays in running:

Yiannis Kouros (Greek ultramarathon legend holding every men’s road world record from 100 to 1,000 miles and every road and track record from 12 hours to 6 days):

“When other people get tired they stop, I don’t. I take over my body with my mind I tell it that it’s not tired and it listens.”

Emil Zatopek (Czech runner, winner of four Olympic gold medals):

“We are different, in essence, from other men. If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.”

Jacqueline Gareau (Canadian runner, 1980 Boston Marathon champion):

The body does not want you to do this. As you run, it tells you to stop but the mind must be strong. You always go too far for your body. You must handle the pain with strategy…It is not age; it is not diet. It is the will to succeed.

Frank Shorter (American runner, 1972 Olympic champion in the marathon):

“You can actually suffer a little bit more going slowly than when you’re going really fast. A faster marathon might even be easier than a slow one, in terms of what it takes out of you mentally.

John Bingham (American runner, No Need for Speed column in Runner’s World):

Marathons are about tenacity as much as talent.”

Hal Higdon (American runner and author of 34 books):

“Motivation remains key to the marathon: the motivation to begin; the motivation to continue; the motivation never to quit.

(1) The paper related to the study has not yet been published, as the author explained in the comments thread of the article in the Running Times online magazine.

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