Saturday, 22 May 2010

What Determines Performance in Ultra Running?

Hi again. Welcome back

I have just written the title to tonight's post, but at the moment I am not really sure what I will end up writing. Over the last few days I have been reflecting on my race performance in last week's 33 mile Marlborough Downs Challenge, whilst at the same time beginning to prepare mentally for my next race. Way back in my post titled "Is More Always Better?" I introduced the importance of the mind, the importance of attitude in determining ultra performance. Hopefully tonight I will expand upon this, without confusing you the reader, or confusing myself!

Within the "Is More Always Better?" post I stated that Ultra Running Performance is largely determined by "The need to have a strong self-belief in your preparation / your ability". Although I frequently read the physiological and biomechanical research in relation to endurance performance, I very seldom, if at all, read any psychological research. So this post lacks any official research, it is simply my thoughts, possibly supported with a few examples.

The question I often ask myself is "What makes me slow down during an ultra race?" I can part explain the answer physiologically and biomechanically in terms of the eccentric muscle damage affecting my running economy, or becoming dehydrated. Both of these factors contribute to a rise in heart rate for the same running speed, known as 'cardiac drift'. There could also be nutritional issues, with their being a depletion of glycogen/reduction in blood glucose. However, thinking back to last week's race and other ultra races I have ran, I think a major aspect, which is often overlooked, is one's 'current state of mind' during the race. I will try to explain.

I used to think that the mind and the body were separate items. The mind would instruct the body what to do, the body would respond, and inform the mind that it could or couldn't do what was instructed, i.e. it would send messages back stating that it was sore, tired, injured, exhausted etc. However, now I belief that the two are heavily intertwined. It is not possible to separate the two. It is not just the body that gets sore, tired, injured, exhausted. The body and mind together experience these feelings, as well as experiences the positive feelings combined, such as joy, powerful, strong, floating, energy, etc.

Lets try to look to some sporting examples to illustrate how performance is influence by a combination of body and mind. I seldom follow football, but with the World Cup starting next month, and having two teams to cheer on (England and New Zealand, (yes NZ have made it for only the 2nd time ever!) I have taken a larger interest. Looking at the Premier League table, Chelsea recently finished top winning 27 out of their 38 games. The interesting statistic which is relevant to this post is that at home, they won 17 out of 19 games, and away only won 10 out of the 19 games. To further highlight this interesting statistic, Fulham won in total 12 out of their 38 games, however, 11 of these wins were at home. They only won 1 game away! The relevant question is, why is there such a big difference between home and away performance. Is it not the same teams they play, the same ball, and pretty well the same sized pitch!

What about another example, not football based but a mixture of activities including racing performances. Lets look at the performance of the host nation of the Commonwealth Games: New Zealand hosting the Games in Auckland in 1990, and England hosting the games in Manchester in 2002. In both situations, the host nation performed significantly better than in the Games either side of their host games.

New Zealand
1986: 8 x G, 16 x S, 14 x B = 38 medals
1990: 17 x G, 14 x S, 27 x B = 58 medals
1994: 4 x G, 16 x S, 20 x B = 41 medals

1998: 36 x G, 47 x S, 53 x B = 136 medals
2002: 54 x G, 52 x S, 60 x B = 166 medals
2006: 36 x G, 40 x S, 34 x B = 110 medals

So you can quite clearly see that being the home team results in a massive improvement in performance! This occurs because the mind and body are interlinked. Racing / competing at home results in improved performance largely due to the positive energy the athletes / players receive from their supporting fans, friends, family. This home support makes the individual feel happy, to feel good, to feel comfortable, but most of all to feel positive. And it is this positive feeling, this positive attitude, this positive energy that then leads to a positive successful performance.

So let's get back to ultra running! and "One's 'current state of mind' during the race".

Firstly let's look at how one's training recently completed affects performance. Quite often, following a consistent period of 'good quality' training, performance in ultra racing improves. Common sense suggests that this improvement in performance is due to the good quality training completed. I however suggest an alternative answer. As a consequence of the period of good quality training, one feels more positive towards their runs, feels more positive overall and happy. There is also an increased confidence, an improved attitude in relation to racing, that actually causes the improved performance. With it being very little to do with the 'improved body'! Similarly the opposite happens following periods of poor training, leading not to decreased physical fitness, but leading to a poor attitude, low confidence, a negative 'state of mind'!

So the secret is to be able to be positive, to be confident. But this has to be at a 'deep level'. It can not be superficial. You must truly believe, must truly experience the positive energy, the positive confidence. And this must continue, must OCCUR DURING the ultra race.

If you have been to my blog before, you will know I am a firm believer of the pacing strategy "Run as fast as you can, while you can". So far the focus of the discussion has largely been on the physiological effect of a fast start. However, the secret behind a fast start is to obtain, to enhance this positive energy. As long as you have a strong belief in your ability, in your race approach, then a fast start generates enormous amounts of positive energy. This positive energy is largely generated from within, because you are running fast, the absolute joy of moving over the ground quickly, running quicker than you have previously run, running substantially quicker that your usual training pace.

But you also get positive energy from everyone you come across during the race. Have you noticed that people are often a reflection of yourself. Well if you are racing along, with bundles of positive energy, everyone; i.e. marshals, spectators, friends, family etc., you meet, will reflect this positive energy back to you, with added 'interest'. If you are running feeling in a negative 'state of mind', your low levels of positive energy will be further drained! Think back to how your support crew responded to you in recent races, did they reflect your energy levels, think about their response at a deep level, not what they superficially tried to portray?

So during my race preparation I focus on generating this positive state of feeling, a positive attitude, a positive confidence. And during the actual race I do my utmost to maintain high levels of positive energy. To help achieve this I try to race "being in the now". To take on board, to experience everything that is happening around me, at each and every moment. I try to appreciate the scenery, the terrain, the spectators, the other competitors. Some people use 'distraction' strategies, I try to do the exact opposite!

I find that my positive 'state of feeling', or 'state of being' corresponds to a positive mind and a positive body, remember they are not separable. The true secret of ultra running is ensuring this positivity remains, and is not overcome by a negative 'state of feeling/being'. Although. I talk about the body and mind being inseparable, I do find that the initiation of a negative state can occur from either the mind or the body. It may start from within the body, due to muscle damage, cramp, dehydration, lack of glycogen/glucose. All of these will initiate a negative response. Two things are important here, trying to deal with the physical causes, but then as soon as possible return back to positivity.

The negative state may start from within the mind, disappointment at being down on race schedule, disappointment that other runners are performing better than you, focusing too much on others rather than yourself, forgetting to appreciate the joy of running, forgetting to appreciate the excitement of racing, of running fast, not appreciating the beauty of the surrounding trails, the surrounding environment. This is why I find ultra trail running so much easier than road racing, the enjoyment I get, the positivity I experience by being in the trails. Running the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc was a prime example. You don't get a much more spectacular environment than on the mountain trails of France, Italy and Switzerland. Hence my performance , which I felt was equally as spectacular to match the scenery, to match the atmosphere, the amazing overall experience.

So what happened last week in the Marlborough Downs Challenge. Having reflected on the race, the actual finish race time (3:55, an improvement of 15 minutes on my 2009 time) and race result (3rd) were both good. However, the disappointment that I experienced ,was in that I did not maintain a positive energy throughout the race. There were moments when I became less positive. The first situation, originated from my tight chest. However, I quickly dealt with that, and positivity returned. But at around the 25 mile mark, a negative state developed, because I failed to stay 'within the now'. I started to get distracted, I started thinking about other races, thinking about the Runfurther Ultra Series as a whole. As I got distracted away from the present, I was no longer receiving the positive energy, the joy of ultra racing along the Marlborough Downs. It wasn't until I returned to 'being in the now' when I returned my focus to the actual race I was currently performing in, that my running performance improved, the enjoyment improved, and the last 3 miles were back to normal!

Well, hopefully you have been able to follow my above 'mutterings'. I feel I have truly honoured the title of Millsy's Mutterings with this post. What is the take home message? As, with the discussion on ultra pace judgement, it is likely that everybody will have a different approach, with no one method being superior to others. What I think the important message from tonight's mutterings is, is for ultra runners, to take 'one step back', and try to look at how they approach ultra races. What is your 'state of feeling', 'state of being' during ultra races. Try to reflect on those races that you gained most enjoyment from, possibly these being those races that you performed the best. Was anything different in terms of your positivity, your attitude, your self confidence?

Time to sign off with a self quote that hopefully summarises the above: "Ultra Trail Running is significantly enhanced through maintaining a 'positive state of being' as one remains 'within the now', experiencing the overwhelming joy of running within the surrounding natural beauty". Stuart Mills, 2010.

May your ultra runs be enhanced through positivity,



  1. Stuart, To explore the brain's role in governing performance I suggest you read "Brain Training for Runners" by Matt Fitzgerald.
    Best wishes,

  2. Hi William

    Thanks for your comment with some recommended reading. Maybe I should start reading a bit more about the psychological aspects! "Brain Training for Runners" sounds like a good book to start with.