To most of us, completing a 50- to 100-mile run sounds nightmarish. To an ultra-marathon runner, it’s a thrill. What motivates these uber athletes to undergo such strenuous activities? What pushes them once that motivation has run out?
By looking into the psychology of long-distance running, we gain an appreciation and understanding of our species’ ability to endure and overcome, to push our bodies and our minds to the limit. After all, there’s truth to the old adage that running is 90 percent mental.
Evolution of Exercise
While our ancestors were typically more active than modern man, running 50 or 100 miles in a stint is not a natural undertaking for hominids. A typical chimp walks roughly two miles a day; the average hunter-gatherer walked or ran up to nine miles each day. Although our bodies, from our head to our toes, are suited for travelling long distances, a love of exercise was never under any evolutionary selection pressure for early man; not exercising was not an option.
However, evolution did give us one boon: The runner’s high.
The runner’s high is oft-cited exercise lore. Some runners and other endurance athletes claim to feel a sense of relaxation or even euphoria after an intense session. While there had been many theories explaining the cause for this phenomenon, including that humans evolved the response during the hunter-gatherer period when they would track and chase prey, its existence had not been scientifically proven until five years ago.
Until recently, technology had not been up to the task of monitoring endorphins in the brain before and after exercise. Then, in 2008, a group of German scientists found solid evidence that a surge of endorphins in fact rushes through the brain following exercise. Using PET scans and recently available chemicals, Dr. Henning Boecker of the University of Bonn and his colleagues were able to compare runners’ brains before and after a two-hour run. They then compared the scans and found that the runners who reported a greater sense of euphoria showed signs of higher levels of endorphins in the brain.
This brings great news for those in exercise science and sports psychology. Researchers hope to distill what initiates the runner’s high, so that exercise may become downright addictive for those who are less inclined to participate in physical activity. It also has implications for distance runners; Dr. Boecker also found that the runner’s high enhances pain tolerance, which can help runners push through the wall.
Hit the Sticky Road
During an endurance event, athletes hit “the wall.” For runners, the sensation of “the wall” is often compared to that of running on a sticky road. Runners feel as though the ground beneath their feet has been resurfaced with sticky tar and that they must yank their foot from the ground with each step.
Now, studies have shown that this is no illusion. Due to a neuromuscular phenomenon, a runner’s stride will begin to deteriorate in the latter stages of a long race. This is the body’s survival response to endurance training; essentially, the brain reduces electrical output to the muscles to prevent a person from running themselves to death.
So, how do runners keep going when their brains and bodies are telling them to stop? Sports psychologists offer a few mental strategies for aspiring long-distance runners.
Runners have many mental strategies at their disposal to combat the sticky road. There is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. Each runner must find their own willpower and motivator; what works for one runner may not work for everyone. And as with most athletes, superstitions and tradition often come into play.
On the most surface level, tangible, physical or emotional rewards may motivate a runner. Winning a medal or prize money may be enough to push through. Some runners run for health reasons or for the sheer joy of accomplishment. However, when the going gets tough, some runners find they needs a more immediate method of coping with the physical and mental stress of long-distance running.
Focusing on something other than pain or poor performance may help runners keep going when all their systems are screaming at them to stop. Many professional and competitive runners confess that dissociative tactics are helpful in finishing a race that is not going well.
Divide and conquer
Many long-distance runners find that breaking the course into smaller, more manageable goals can help keep them motivated. Instead of focusing on the entirety of the race, long-distance runners will set goals for each segment; the greater the discomfort, the shorter and more achievable the segment.
Runners often recite a mantra or simply a single word to help keep them motivated. Like the little engine that could, many runners repeat to themselves that they can and they will complete this task. Others may have less conventional power words; Olympic runner Lidia Simon repeats the word mama because her mother made her feel she could do anything.
Visualization tactics are commonly used by anyone hoping to achieve a set goal. Long-distance runners may visualize themselves crossing a finish line or floating as lightly as a feather. Some runners feel that distraction and visualization techniques need to be practiced so that the runner’s focus is not split between their desire and the task at hand.
Whatever tactic a runner uses, all athletes can agree that the more you do something, the better you become at it.