According to UltraRunning Magazine, an ultra run is anything longer than a standard marathon of 26 miles, but it’s not unusual for people to participate in gruelling runs that take place in punishing environments over days or even weeks. For people who struggle to run to catch a bus, the idea of deliberately putting yourself through this kind of physical punishment, for fun, seems little short of crazy. Yet this is a sport that’s on the increase – the number of official events has doubled in the last decade.
Exercise-related distress was once seen as a simple consequence of physical symptoms like metabolic discharge building up in the muscles. But we now understand that the mind plays an important role in deciding whether a symptom is acceptable or unbearable. It’s this that makes ultra-runners possible. In fact, a new in-depth case study of an ultra runner published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology finds that with greater physical exertion comes the experience of ever more positive emotion.
The profiled runner is an unnamed woman who was new to ultra-running but had a pedigree of elite-level running in international marathons. The researchers, led by Urban Johnson at Halmstad University, examined her experiences during a 10-week run in late spring covering 3641 kilometres (2262 miles) across Europe. The route included flats and substantial rises, passing through mountain ranges such as the Pyrenees. She and her experienced running partner covered between 26 and 80 kilometres each day, typically running between five and eight hours, taking turns to push a baby buggy holding their equipment. In case it’s not obvious … that’s a lot of running.
After the run, the researchers interviewed the runner to understand what she perceived as the mental qualities that made for ultra success. She revealed four key factors: mental stamina; motivation to test one’s limits, a will that’s generated by the enjoyable features of the journey; a sense of camaraderie with the partner; and self-awareness. As an example of the last factor, the running pair formalised a rule to communicate to teach other whenever they felt even a twinge of pain so that it could be immediately addressed: a “not one step further” rule. In addition, the pair did not run to targets, covering as much distance as felt comfortable day to day.
The ultra-runner also made a weekly record of her mood and exertion levels, starting three weeks prior to the run and ending three weeks after its completion. The researchers were interested in finding out from these records whether the physical impact of intensive running would produce psychological stress even in the absence of competition or targets.
During the run, the more physical exertion the runner experienced, the more her positive mood intensified. There was only one dip in positive mood during the run and this occurred during a two-week period where the close running dynamic was disrupted by the temporary participation of a third runner. Meanwhile, a measure of more negative mood states found no significant difference due to exertion, nor any differences inside or outside of the run period. So for this runner, no, intensive running was not psychologically stressful, but rather rewarding. It was only after the run was over that our ultra-runner experienced a drop in feelings of vitality, harmony, and appreciation from others, as she came down from her remarkable trip.
This case study provides insight into a person doing exceptional things, with particular drives: as the authors note drily, “the runner enjoys running!” But her breakdown of the key psychological ingredients for success in intense endeavours may resonate with you, whether you climb, act, or are founding a business.
Johnson, U., Kenttä, G., Ivarsson, A., Alvmyren, I., & Karlsson, M. (2016). An ultra-runner’s experience of physical and emotional challenges during a 10-week continental run International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 14 (1), 72-84 DOI: 10.1080/1612197X.2015.1035736
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