PSYCHOLOGICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF ULTRA-RUNNERS

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Ultra-marathon refers to any race with a distance longer to the 42.2k of a marathon. Running such distances represents a physically and mentally challenging test for any athlete.

Among the most common inconveniences of such effort we may find muscle pain, cramping, musculoskeletal injuries, blisters, fatigue, sleep deprivation, confusion or quitting recurrent thoughts, between others.

Commonly ultra-runners use a set of psychological strategies to maintain the motivation levels during races: tendency to set small goals, engage in positive self-talk, focus on body sensations and search of social support.

A recent article has tried to elucidate the psychology of ultra-runners, and if they have any psychological skill that gives them an advantage to run ultra-marathons.

Resilience can be defined as the ability of someone to maintain normal psychological functioning in a stress situation. From a psychological point of view is still unclear if ultra-runners are more resilient than normal population. This could explain their ability to cope with stressors during a race.

Emotion regulation can be defined as the ability to influence our emotions. We can decide “which”, “when” and “how” experience any emotion. The strategy to do so is called “cognitive reappraisal” and is linked to lower levels of anxiety and depression and a wellbeing improvement. Thus, another unanswered question is whether the ultra-runners respond emotionally in a different way than the non-runners.

 

The study

A single session of 2.5 hours was used to study ultra-runners’ psychology and compare with control individuals. Two tools were used:

  • A self-questionnaire completed in a quiet room to evaluate resilience, personality traits and emotion regulation strategies.
  • A computer-based emotion regulation test to study the runner´s psychophysiology. Physiological responses (heart rate and skin conductance) in response to emotionally negative images were recorded, and the ability of adjusting them for a second viewing, using the cognitive reappraisal abilities.

 

The results

From the self-questionnaire ultra-runners were found to be:

  • more resilient.
  • more likely to use positive reappraisal, as strategy of emotion regulation.
  • lower in affiliative extraversion, or in other words, lower need of social relationships.

No differences were found in other 16 measures regarding personality traits and emotion regulation processes.

From the emotion regulation test:

  • ultra-runners showed slightly lower heart rate and skin conductance changes in response to negative images.
  • no significant differences in their cognitive reappraisal abilities.

 

The conclusions

  • Ultra-runners seem more resilient than non-runners, but it is unknown if it is a consequence of their training or a previous skill predisposing them to ultra-running.
  • Ultra-runners seem less physiologically responsive to emotionally negative stimuli, maybe due to a difference in the processing of negative images or an adaptation from training.
  • Reduced affiliative extraversion in ultra-runners is associated with the loneliness of ultra-running, a sport involving long hours of training and competition.

Don´t forget that resilience can be trained: psychological interventions and regular exercise have been associated an increase in resilience.

 

Bibliography

Psychological characteristics associated with ultra-marathon running: An exploratory self-report and psychophysiological study.

Roebuck GS, Urquhart DM, Che X, Knox L, Fitzgerald PB, Cicuttini FM, Lee S, Segrave R, Fitzgibbon BM.

Australian Journal of Psychology (Accepted/In press). https://doi.org/10.1111/ajpy.12287

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