Ultra marathon success

100_1520.JPGamendedFor many non-participants, the assumption is that for ultra marathoners successful performance is measured by shorter race times, and a lower race position. Success for some, or all, ultra marathoners may be a measured in other ways. Participants in ultramarathons often associate with a sub-culture, where performance is more than simply race times or positions, and is instead measured against meeting personal goals to explore limits of human endurance, and a sense of belonging.

Has our psychology evolved for endurance ?

Evolutionary biology suggests that endurance running was important in the pursuit of prey, and instrumental in the evolution of hominins. According to fossil evidence, key physiological adaptions may have evolved approximately two million years ago to benefit long distance running. The relatively new field of evolutionary psychology, like cognitive science, identifies the human mind as a computational mechanism seated in neural tissue, designed, like any other organ, by the processes of natural selection. If correct, then many of our psychological constructs are a result of adaptations to previous environments that increased both the likelihood of survival and reproduction. In an attempt to explain the behavior of the modern human, evolutionary psychologists aim to answer how a particular behavior develops in relation to the environment, whether the mechanisms that underpin it were acquired or innate, and why such mechanisms evolved. More recently, this approach has been applied to performance, motivation and reasoning in the fields of sport and exercise psychology. As a result this presentation aims to provide clarity regarding the current understanding of evolutionary psychology and identify its application to endurance running.

Evolutionary psychology, as an approach, has been developing over the last twenty years though currently limited literature exists regarding the application of evolutionary psychology to sport. In particular, minimal research has been performed with regards to the evolutionary origins of the psychological mechanisms involved in endurance running. Future research, from an evolutionary perspective, may benefit areas such as motivation, mental toughness and attention strategies, and improve the support sport professionals and psychologists provide to endurance athletes.

Does Mental Toughness identify the ultra marathoner?

According to many researchers Mental Toughness is key to success in all sports.

Defined by Crust and Clough (2005) as

The 4 C’s, challenge, commitment, control and confidence. 

Mentally Tough individuals are said to: 

  • View negative experiences as challenges 
  • Be influential and control negative life experiences 
  • Be deeply involved and committed to achieving goals
  • Be confident in their ability to deal/overcome difficulties 

But what if this is not true of the ultra marathoner, what is it that makes them distinct? Motivation, tolerance of pain, or purely the physical results of slogging the miles out.

I’m currently performing research with ultra marathoners with the aim of being able to answer these questions… I will share the results as the come in.

Enjoy the struggle

“Struggling and suffering are the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not
pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not demanding more from yourself – expanding and learning as you go – you’re choosing a numb  existence. You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.”  Dean Karnazes, Ultrarunner

Recovery and rest: its ok to stop

5 days after the 100km, and I still feel tired, mentally and physically. Mental fatigue has been shown to impact physical performance, and it would seem logical then to expect such fatigue after challenging events. So, after finishing a race, when you have given your all, its ok to stop, rest body and mind, and take stock.

2017-05-26 16.15.18This is an excellent time to think, without over analysing, what has been achieved, identify any lessons learned regarding training and racing, return to a more manageable training/life balance, and perhaps start to look at any future events that are interesting. At the moment I’m considering some shorter running races, or maybe an adventure race, I like the idea of cycling, running, kayaking, and swimming, ideally out in the wilds.

For the moment, I’m just going to enjoy taking it easy, let the blisters, muscles and mind heal, and keep walking the dog.

London to Brighton 100km Ultra Marathon

2017-05-28 10.31.40There is no doubt, 100km is a long, long way.

Though my PhD research continues into ultra endurance, through my physiological/psychological testing of ultra marathoners, i felt the best way to really understand and experience such a challenge was to complete the distance myself. I’ve survived a number of ultras over the years, but this was certainly my furthest, and i viewed it with some trepidation.

I choose to raise money for Asthma Uk, as a condition that has affected me over the years, and something that makes me appreciate good health


2017-05-27 05.56.20I selected the London to Brighton run as my challenge, and I had foolishly imagined that the route from Richmond (London) to Brighton would be relatively flat – that was a mistake. The hills are not steep, as in a mountain marathon, but they are at times long, and
cruel – well that is how they felt at the time. The weather on Saturday was good: hot, but usually accompanied by a gentle breeze, and earlier in the day even some cloud and light rain. Running 100km was more difficult than i had imagined: your legs tire, but most importantly mentally you feel exhausted. It became more and more difficult to tell my body to keep moving, after 70km everything was telling me to stop. But the thought of my family, and friends at 56km, and then 80km, was enough to keep me going. The organisation was incredible, well signposted along the entire length, and the food stops covered everything from water, energy drink, tea, coffee to fruit (pineapple tastes great on a long run) and pizza, pasta and baked potatoes at the major stops. With friends to talk to I stopped at 56/80km and enjoyed some well earned food after mostly relying on carbohydrates from the easily digested tailwind nutrition i had mixed into water along the route – it was ideal, but i needed something more substantial nearer the end.

The last 10k2017-05-28 12.04.54m seemed to take a lifetime, and seeing the Brighton race course felt like a small, but well deserved, miracle. Seeing my family made it all worthwhile, and quite emotional – 12 hours of running, jogging and walking, and two hours of stops to get me through, and it was complete. Two days later and my legs don’t feel too bad – i think the massage at the end may have saved me !!

Great event, and first class organisation and support. If you want to run 100km, this is an ideal event – no navigation, and good food, and first aid if needed all along the route. Thanks London 2 Brighton Challenge!!!


Running in the moment

There are times in a run, though sadly not in every run, when we feel free of effort, or concentration, and movement becomes as easy as rest. At those times, which are often only fleeting in nature, we are beyond tiredness. and motion, the elements, the landscape and our body seem to work together. I relish those times, often, for me, only found on longer distance runs as I feel I can keep running for ever. This feeling is capture in the book ‘Bone Games’ by Rob Schultheis. Though the following passage is about his descent from a mountain following injury, it could so easily be the feeling of ‘flow’ during an Ultra:

“I hung there for I don’t know how long: thirty seconds, two minutes, half an hour. I couldn’t climb back up the overhanging rock, and I could not descend…”.
100_1434 copy“Something happened on that descent, something I have tried to figure out ever since, so inexplicable and powerful it was. I found myself very simply doing impossible things…”.
“I know my limitations, and I was climbing way, way beyond them. One small part of me trembled with fear and fatigue, cried out to be rescued, to be whisked away to any place other then this bleak precipice. The rest, confident, full of an unsane joy, revelled in the animal dance of survival, admired the brilliant crystals in the granite, the drunken calligraphy of ice crystals… was totally possessed by the act of mountaineering, rejoiced in the immense vertigo of the place. It was like certain dreams I have had…”. “The person I became on Neva was the best possible version of myself, the person I should have been throughout my life…”.


High Intensity, and Supramaximal Intensity, Interval Training

Sometimes its tempting to just keep banging out the extra miles. But what you’ve always done to prepare for an event, may not be the right thing, or even the best way to make use of limited training time. A number of recent physiological studies have found that greater endurance returns can be made from high intensity and supra maximal training as opposed to continuous running.  High intensity training (HIT) involves running intervals at 80-90% of V02 max (i.e. maximum volume of oxygen that the lungs and heart can deliver to, and be used by, the muscles) – in other words 9 out 10 for maximum, all out running. Supramaximal intensity interval (SMIT) training involves running at 100% or above of V02 max. Cicioni-Kolsky and others in 2011 found that SMIT gave the most benefit when compared to either HIT or continuous running, after 6 weeks training, when assessed on 3000m time trials. Gibala and others in 2006, found that sprint interval training (which could include both HIT and SMIT training) was both time-efficient and produced adaptations, both muscular and in terms of performance, comparable to more typical endurance training. So if you are time limited, or just becoming stale in your training, more miles may not be the answer, pushing times and speed in interval training could provide the required returns.