The Psychology of Ultra-Endurance Training

Endurance performance also always requires mental strength. Top athletes manage to endure physical fatigue and to positively motivate themselves over long distances and times. However, this is not a matter of chance: endurance athletes can train their psyche so that their emotions are controlled by the head.

Emotional control is a skill needed to overcome competitive stress. And you too can work on this ability and improve it. Improving your emotional control will always improve your performance.

In this article, the concept of the mood profile is presented and suggestions are given on how athletes can increase their performance. Afterwards, the learning of emotional control is illustrated by the example of the preparation for the marathon of the Sables. This is a 6-day competition with about a marathon distance covered daily. He is considered one of the hardest endurance events in the world. In this run, the athlete is exposed to a scorching heat, extreme blistering on the feet and huge sand dunes and must also carry his equipment through the desert itself - this is not suitable for the faint of heart. For such a performance, you need a well-trained psyche.

Studies in this field

The University of Wolverhampton has conducted extensive psychological research into endurance performance. Scientists have studied fear and self-confidence among duathletes and triathletes as well as the emotional state before and after marathons. (1, 2, 3, 4)
The most recent studies were about the emotional state before, during and after the competition. The focus was on the emotional changes that occur during 4 and 2 hours of intense cycling. (5, 6) In addition, the researchers studied emotions before and at the hardest point of the London Marathon. (7)
In our latest study, we look at the mood and emotion changes during the Marathon of Britain, a race over a distance of about 280 km that takes place in stages over 6 days. (8) Another study looked at mood changes during a solo expedition to the South Pole (8) These studies provide comprehensive data from which recommendations for endurance athletes can be derived.

Tips for the competition

Analyzing the results of the mentioned studies, this leads to various recommendations for a competition. The analysis shows that intense emotions are completely normal before such a situation. Many athletes are very restless, and most feel scared in some way. Fear can be caused by insufficient preparation for the race, too high a goal or the feeling that the track is too difficult. It should be remembered that in life as well as in sports it never actually runs optimally in every respect. Therefore, you should take into account a certain nervousness before the run.
The athletes should try to interpret these feelings less as anxiety than nervousness. Sporting achievements are always associated with uncertainty, and even athletes with a great deal of self-confidence feel a certain amount of tension with regard to the outcome of the competition. The fear you feel should be considered motivation and motivation. Anxiety can have a positive effect.
It has also been shown that athletes experience a mixture of different emotional moods during long, intense exercise. Runners have to expect fatigue. Athletes with good endurance often feel fatigue and happiness at the same time, while athletes whose stamina is not that high feel exhausted, depressed, and angry at the same time.
Corresponding profiles were depicted using data from the London Marathon 2004 in Figure 1.

illustration 1

Noteworthy here is that the fatigue was the same for both runners. The successful runner felt tired but happy and full of energy, unlike the less successful athlete.

Figure 2 illustrates a researcher's statements during an expedition to the South Pole. In the graph, it can be seen that force and fatigue fluctuate greatly with the repeated large loads. Endurance athletes must expect high levels of fatigue and appropriate strategies for this.

Figure 2
Another important aspect is that mental resilience is based on physical fitness and personal experience. In order to enjoy repeated physical stress during the competition, one must have experienced the state of fatigue after long training sessions repeatedly. So you train your body to master the demands of the training and your mind to experience that experience positively.

Develop emotional control!

Your emotional profile as the basis for your success

Everyone experiences great emotions before important events. Some athletes can channel these feelings to increase their performance, while others can control them and reduce their anxiety. But there are also athletes who are paralyzed with tension.

Feelings are rarely felt in isolation, but rather different sensations are felt in parallel. In this example, the first athlete is excited and calm, the second anxious and excited and the third anxious and discouraged. Athletes 1 and 2 are likely to finish well, while Athlete 3 is likely to score poorly. Figure 3 graphically shows the 3 different profiles that follow

- Athlete 1: This emotional profile is characterized by strength, liveliness and alertness as well as control. This athlete has negative and unpleasant emotions under control. This profile is often associated with extreme self-confidence and the attitude that every challenge can be mastered.

- Athlete 2: This athlete shows a different emotional profile in connection with success. Unlike Sportler 1, it is characterized by strength, tense and anger. The feeling of tension and anger helps athlete 2 to get motivated. For him, tension can be like a warning sign - "I'm just trying to reach an important goal, and only if I work really hard will I be able to do it."

- Athlete 3: This athlete is scared, angry, discouraged and depressed. Such feelings are likely to reduce performance. The feeling of tension can still cause an athlete to work harder. However, combined with the feeling of depression, it can cause him to give up. Said studies have shown that despondency and depression are probably the most unfavorable feelings one can have before and during a competition. When athletes feel dejected, angry, and exhausted at the same time, they tend to put anger in, blame themselves, and implode. A bad performance is then likely.

Figure 3

    Rate your emotional profile

    I let athletes fill out self-assessment scales before training sessions and before the competition. I also ask you to tell them if they have achieved their goals. Emotional reactions always occur in such situations, and knowing how his emotions change will, at best, help him understand how to change one's behavior. You should rate your emotional profile in different performance situations. This can be done using an emotion rating scale just before a competition or training session. (4) After the competition, you then assess whether or not you have met your expectations.

    Performance should be evaluated in terms of own expectations and goals. You need about 5 good and 5 bad performance results to make trends. Of course, this is not always possible, because it can, for. For example, you may have a winning streak and perform well on most of your workouts.

    But you can also get started by looking at some of your recent runs and judging how you felt before races where your performance was good (in terms of your own expectations) and before runs where performance was poor ( again in terms of your own expectations). Once you have created a mood profile related to good and bad performance, a psychological training program can be tailored specifically to your needs.

    Rate yourself!

    The emotions can be judged by the athletes themselves, mostly on the basis of a questionnaire. Of course, this method has the disadvantage that an accurate evaluation is only possible if the questions are answered honestly. However, in my opinion, there is no better alternative, since a reliable evaluation of emotions is only possible if one gets insight into the thoughts and feelings.

    Of course, by measuring hormones (eg, adrenaline), you can also sense emotions because these hormones are detectable in feelings such as anxiety, anger, and nervousness. The disadvantage of this method, however, is that the physiology of sensations such as vitality or nervousness is similar to other states characterized by high activity, e.g. Eg fear and anger.

    The evaluation of a physiological measurement - that is, whether the measured values ​​are anxiety or vitality - is only possible through an honest self-assessment of the athlete, ie by asking the person if they were angry, anxious or agitated.

    It is important that you know what emotions you feel in success or failure. If you can relate your emotional state to poor performance, you can also begin to develop a strategy for improving that factor.

    Visualize the success

    One strategy for how to develop emotional control is to use your imagination. The imagination can be very helpful, because with their help situations can be retrieved again. The emotions experienced can be transformed from dysfunctional into functional emotions. Here the task of the imagination is to re-live the situation mentally, but to change individual aspects.

    If you want to learn to work with your imagination, then first find a quiet place. Sit in a chair and make yourself comfortable. Close your eyes and breathe deeply and evenly until you feel calm and relaxed. Imagine that you are in the relevant competition situation. Try to understand as many details as possible. What can you hear? How does it smell in your competitive environment? How do you feel? Immerse yourself with all your senses in your competitive environment. They should relive the experience in 30 second blocks in real time in their mind's eye. We encourage athletes to visualize in the ego form ("I am in

    ") And to remember the emotional experiences before and during the competition performance.

    But we also use the imagination to show athletes how to handle difficult situations. You should try to anticipate a difficult situation and imagine how you can handle it successfully. The important thing about this process is that you envision how to tackle factors that are difficult for your task. Do not underestimate the difficulty of the task, because this could create false self-confidence.

    Imagine z. For example, consider how to handle the hardest part of a run and how your body feels exhausted. Imagine successfully fighting fatigue, how slowly anger and depression come up when you feel that your physical fitness does not meet your desired level of fitness.

    During the sessions where you work with your imagination, you should use strategies to build mental and strength. For ultra-endurance events such as the Sable marathon, imagine how you feel at the beginning of a difficult stage. This could be z. B. 3 days of a multi-day event, where you constantly feel tired. Imagine how you tell yourself that you are ready to keep running as you downplay the pain. Imagine how you run the track. Focus on every single step, on all the little details, and see for yourself how well you can manage the individual stages, if they are divided into simple sections. In this way, you can develop effective coping strategies that will help you successfully combat unpleasant emotions in competitive situations.

    Talk to yourself

    Controlling emotions during a competition means controlling the inner voice in your head. When you feel tired, this inner voice can have a decidedly negative effect. It can question your job, persuade you to stop, and it can get pretty annoying. However, when you feel tired, you need positive self-messages.

    For endurance running it is necessary to tackle the occurring fatigue. This can be learned. You can fade in and out the inner voice, and you can switch it from negative to positive. Think back to the situations of running in which you felt tired. Think about what your inner voice said then and write it down. In the next step you convert the negative self-message into positive self-instructions.

    Take z. For example, the negative self-message: "My legs have no strength left. I have to stop. "Such a relationship between tiredness and the way forward is very detrimental to performance. You must therefore change both statements of this message. Instead of saying, "My legs are out of power, " you should choose a phrase that has a transient nature, such as a B. "My legs are tired". This often also suits the situation better. Fatigue tends to be in waves during endurance running, and strong physical fatigue may pass.

    It is important to change the strategy for dealing with fatigue. I recommend that runners concentrate on their technique when they feel tired. This is a good strategy as it is largely controlled by the athlete himself. When the runner focuses his attention on the technique, his attention is distracted from the tiredness. The result is a much more positive self-message: "My legs are tired, so I concentrate on my technique to run more efficiently."

    Positive self-talk is very well suited to anticipate difficult moments during the competition or training. Create scripts for such soliloquy to turn negative scenarios into positive ones. Combine imagination and soliloquy to create situations where you experience unpleasant emotions. Then imagine how to successfully handle these situations and write down the positive self-messages that allow you to control the negative inner voice in your head.

    Recognize problems, solve problems

    To prepare for the marathon of the Sables is to find out what problems can arise here. Ideally, you should drive there one month before the race, go off the track, practice running in the heat, tackle certain hills, and so on. If you have the time and resources, you should do that. Many athletes do not have this opportunity. I would like to show this group in particular how they can manage it anyway.

    Again, it is particularly important to clarify problems before they occur. This is part of this strategy, which allows you to handle extreme environmental conditions. For the marathon of the Sables, this means finding out how to handle blisters on the feet as positively as possible, how to learn to walk with the equipment on your back, how to handle the heat, how to control drinking and how to use it many more factors. We know that some can inherently handle such factors better than others. Unfortunately, there is no extensive research database that we could use for these purposes. But there are people who have run the race, and many are happy to share their advice. In the linked box you will find a summary.

    Strategy to prepare for the marathon of the Sables


    Finally, let me summarize the above points again. What should an ultra-endurance runner know before a run, and what should he expect?

    - Expect to feel tired and develop coping skills. Expect to be scared before every run, but try to interpret these feelings as positive nervousness.

    - Keep in mind that athletic performance is always associated with uncertainty, and even athletes with a great deal of self-confidence feel a certain amount of tension about the outcome of a competition.

    - Remember that physical fitness is the solid foundation for psychological resilience.

    - In order to enjoy a competition, athletes must have experienced the state of fatigue after long training sessions themselves.

    - You should train your body to cope with the training requirements, and your brain to see that experience positively.

    - Finally, you should thoroughly prepare for the specific requirements of each event.

      Andy Lane is a professor of sports science at the University of Wolverhampton and an editor for the journal Sport and Exercise Scientist, published by the British Association of Sports and Exercise (BASES).


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      5. Journal of Sports & Exercises, 2003, Vol. 35, p. 162

      6th Annual Conference of the British Psycological Society, 2004, Imperial Colledge, 15-17 April 2004

      7. Mood and human performance: Conceptual, measurement, and applied issues. Nova Science Publishers

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