The future of running psychology
Our understanding of the mental state of runners used to be fairly simplistic. Serious runners “associated,” meaning that they thought mostly about running while they ran; more casual runners, on the other hand, “dissociated,” which basically meant they daydreamed. Speaking as a serious runner who has spent a considerable amount of run time daydreaming, I always knew that this picture was too simple.
These days, there’s a much more nuanced understanding of how different thought patterns and personality traits can interact with running. For example, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh asked 34 college cross-country runners to fill out a questionnaire that identified and quantified their perfectionist tendencies – a group of personality traits like high personal standards and concern over mistakes that is common among runners. Then they followed these runners for eight weeks to see if any patterns emerged.
The preliminary results, which were presented at this year’s American College of Sports Medicine conference in Minneapolis, were stark: runners who exhibited “perfectionist concerns” were 17 times more likely to suffer an injury during the study than non-perfectionist runners. Next up, understanding how and why this happens – do perfectionists ignore warning signs, or do they simply train harder? – is a key priority for the researchers.
Another remarkable example comes from Italian researchers at the University of Padova, who administered a questionnaire to 237 runners the day before a half-marathon in Verona. The questionnaire assessed their “emotional intelligence,” a measure of how well they’re able to identify their own emotions and those of people around them, and how effectively they can regulate those emotions. Since long-distance running inevitably requires dealing with a prolonged period of unpleasant sensations, the researchers hypothesized that runners with better emotional intelligence would produce faster race times.
The results were even more convincing than they expected. In fact, the results of the emotional intelligence test were the strongest predictor of finishing time in the study – stronger even than training volume or previous race history. The researchers are now following up with further studies involving a mental skills training program designed to increase emotional intelligence, to see if it improves race times. As in the link between perfectionism and injuries, the emotional intelligence results offer striking evidence that simple questionnaires can reveal thought patterns that have measurable impacts on running performance. The challenge for the future: figuring out how to change these thought patterns. Alex Hutchinson is one of the most respected sports science writers in the world. His latest book, Endure, is available now.