The fu­ture of run­ning psy­chol­ogy

Canadian Running - - THE SCIENCE OF RUNNING -

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.

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