Monday, 21 February 2011

Successful Running? State of Mind, or State of Emotion?

Today I hand over controls of the blog to my colleague Andy Preston of the University of East London where he lectures on sport science. He also specialises in Marathon research and today gives us some pointers on coping strategies. If you're London based, I recommend you read all the way through, as at the end, Andy offers assistance if you want to participate in his research. Over to you Andy!

When asked to contribute to Stuart’s blog, it struck me that much of the stuff us runners are expected to read, digest, and interpret is written from a so-called ‘expert point of view’ – then translated into “runners’ speak” to fill our favourite runners’ magazines, training guides and runners’ bibles. This translation/retranslation is a problem which also transfers itself into your own - the runner’s - experience of marathon.

What’s amazing about endurance running, is it’s a personal, subjective challenge regardless of each individual’s level of experience, ability and knowledge. What I also find inspiring, as a researcher and sports scientist, is that our ability to cope with the mental and physical challenges sent our way over the distances we train and compete will differ on a moment-by-moment basis too.

But right there lies the problem. Stuart in discussion with Tim Holder, has explained with clarity what the scientific community knows and understands about how thousands of runners have trained for, and competed in, these challenges. But here’s me, a 4+ hour plodder, trying to explain what we know about how people ‘cope’ with a marathon.

I could waste hours of your life telling you how I coped the last time I ran the London Marathon. But you can get that kind of experience over a bowl of pasta at any pre-race party, from any one of thousands of other runners (one of my more interesting research experiences was trying to capture said marathon experience wearing a Dictaphone and microphone around the London course – but more on that some other time, eh?). My problem with the hundreds of articles, features, chapters and guides we all digest diligently is this: “Does knowing how a bunch of strangers dealt with their Marathon difficulties tell you anything about your own abilities to cope with yours today, tomorrow, or next Sunday?

So first – Some Theory

Typically, coping is associated with mistakes, failures, threats and stress – but, according to Dr Richard Lazarus, a leading athletic coping researcher, appraisal of stress may also be related to performance success. Previous blog entries talked about how we might set performance and outcome goals to enable us to cope during demanding phases of the race, and that we frequently base these on what we think we can successfully achieve.

Adam Nicholls, another leader in endurance coping research, suggests that in a similar way, us runners are not thought to approach each new and unfolding mid-run challenging situation by evaluating then reacting to it with a novel solution, but rather by drawing upon a preferred set of pre-existing coping strategies, which are relatively unchanged over time. We cope, it’s suggested, the same way we goal-set, essentially based on what went before.

So, regardless of the hours spent listening to advice, reading books and strategically pre-planning, does this mean that each of us will unconsciously follow that pre-programmed blueprint as soon as we perceive our mid-race mistakes, difficulties and stresses to be a threat to our distance-running goals and targets?

And When The Research Stops.
This is where I believe research has so far failed to offer real value to us endurance running crowd. A second bit of Nicholls’ proposition, and the bit that I believe best taps into our own personal experience, is the idea that we all have a ‘transactional’ coping strategy. Our race-time mindset, adjusted moment-by-moment as our depleting energy resources bring on fatigue and distress, induces a thinking-based response which eats away at our confidence, at our mental toughness and resilience, belief, and our pre-race or early-race evaluation of our abilities to achieve whatever it is we set out to do. Set against the previously stated mental blueprint of coping strategies, it’s little wonder that we recruit an artillery of mental tools to manage pain, or push on to maintain our target pace.

But our emotion-focused coping resources are, I propose, the secret weapon to help us win the marathon war. An American Air-Force genius created the stealth bomber, so called because it’s invisibility on enemy defence equipment enabled it to hit targets without being seen ‘on the radar’.

Our radars scan constantly as we run. Each blip of ‘challenge’ means we use our army of mental coping defences to meet that moment-by-moment demands flying our way. But invisible on our radars is the stealth bomber of emotions. We know that emotions play a crucial part in our ability to successfully perceive the extent of our mental and physical coping resources – and it’s quite often our emotional responses to the perceived inability to successfully cope which herald the cognitive responses that doom us to ideas of failure.

Emotion-focused coping is aimed at regulating the emotions tied to the various physical and mental stresses and disengaging from a demanding situation, without adjusting the stressful situation itself. By reducing or eliminating the symptoms we experience as a result of the massive stresses encountered ‘down the road’, rather than addressing the source of the problem, us runners may then also be more able to focus upon the emotions associated with our continued successful performance.

Excellence in coping, we’d argue, may therefore precede excellence in performance
If you are reading this and the clunking sound of a penny dropping somewhere in your ‘runner’s brain’ just resonated, here’s some terrific news.

Emotional regulation is thought to help us cope better with so-called ‘uncontrollable’ demands – a sudden unexpected feeling of tiredness; a soul-sapping headwind on a rainy race day, or the onset of sudden and unexpected muscle soreness on the pre-taper long one. While I’m not suggesting that those mental strategies – associating/dissociating are irrelevant, I’d argue that these strategies do not help you change HOW you evaluate your performance during a race – which in itself means that afterwards you cannot evaluate if your ability to cope was effective, or not. But this evaluation, Nicholls argued, is how we then construct our coping strategies for future events.

So what I’m proposing you do is this. Think very carefully about how you felt before, during and after your last great race/training run. Do this soon after your next great run too. How did those feelings motivate you to continue, to push on, or to speed up. How did they help you triumph over challenge and adversity. If you write these down, in your training/race diary for example, then mores the better. Were there negative emotions involved, but ones that made you more determined to succeed? Include these! Importantly, I’m not asking you to build up a library of cognitions here. Don’t dwell on what you thought. Consider how you felt. Elated? Invigorated? How did it feel to stave off physical and mental fatigue, or triumph over the temporary pain of the last few miles.

With this library of personally powerful emotional resources, we can start to manipulate our emotional appraisal of our running, on a mile-by-mile (or even a yard-by-yard) , and uniquely personal basis. So by seeking out the emotional experiences we associate with our own best performance, we can change our emotional responses to the immense mental and physical challenges experienced during races, and in time, bring ourselves to the start-line with an emotional strength that can withstand the mental and physical battering that we know each race could throw our way. This emotional strength, in association with our preferred mental strategies mid-race, will combine to make each of us more resilient if things don’t go to plan, and create a frame of mind more able to cope with the range of mental challenges that for now, sports psychologists don’t have the silver bullet to cure.

I’d appreciate any comments and feedback, not least because I am actively researching the complex area of coping in endurance sports, but from an individualistic, rather than collective viewpoint. In time, I hope Stuart invites me back to share some further ideas (Ed: Yup!), and findings from studies being carried out now and in the near future. In the meantime, if you are an active runner (of any level), and think you’d like to test out some new ideas on the next endurance event you are training for, please e-mail me at

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