Study finds what sets ultra-runners apart from other athletes, and it’s not muscles

For most of us mere mortals, tackling even a typical marathon would be a major achievement. So what kind of mindset are ultra-runners tapping into when they complete gruelling races that can go way beyond the 100 kilometre mark? 

Researchers surveyed 56 elite runners taking part in the 2019 Hawaiian Ultra Running Team’s Trail 100-mile (HURT100; that’s 160 km) endurance race, asking a series of questions designed to measure mental toughness and self-efficacy (our innate belief in our ability to succeed).

While the results of these questionnaires didn’t show any links with where the runners finished in the HURT100, they did show that ultramarathon runners seem to have a greater mental toughness than athletes in other sports, based on previous studies.

“Our interpretation is that these results taken in conjunction, suggest a threshold of mental toughness that performers require to be of the standard needed to be able to prepare for and compete in elite ultramarathon events such as the HURT100,” the researchers write in their paper.

“Once this mental toughness threshold is met, other factors are likely to be more influential in determining elite level ultramarathon performance.”

The researchers found that mental toughness and self-efficacy were closely linked – as you would probably expect, as they both contribute to a positive mental outlook.

But the finding they didn’t link to ultramarathon performance was a surprise. The researchers suggest there might be a certain mental attitude and strength required to get involved in these kinds of endurance events – but then physical qualities and other factors take over when it comes to the actual finishing positions.

As the same set surveys have been used in the past with other sports, the researchers were able to show that ultramarathon competitors had significantly greater mental resilience than athletes who took part in hockey, tennis, football, martial arts and athletics.

However, the sample size was relatively small, and self-reported indicators aren’t always the most accurate. In addition, HURT100 is considered to be a particularly difficult race, and many other ultra-running events exist. Samples of larger groups, as well as questionnaires tailored specifically towards ultramarathon running, could provide more detailed results.

Considering the length of ultramarathon events and the associated toil they can start to have on the body – nausea, blisters, muscle pain and more – this necessity for a tough mindset would make sense. Intense fatigue and negative thoughts are also widely reported by runners.

Previous studies have shown that there is a limit to what our bodies can take, and once we start pushing up against that limit, the physical and mental cost can rise quickly.

As well as shining some light on a sport that we don’t have a lot of research on, the team behind the new study is hoping it’ll be helpful for athletes and their coaches too – giving them a better idea of the state of mind required to be an ultramarathon runner.

“Our research has practical implications for athletes, whether they want to increase their own mental toughness, or know what it takes to run in an ultramarathon event,” one of the study authors, Kendall George from the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, writes in The Conversation.

“Having advanced knowledge of the mechanisms underpinning mental toughness (such as self-efficacy) could also help sport psychologists and coaches create more effective and targeted training programmes.”

The research has been published in PLOS One.

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