Monday, 8 November 2010

Developing Positive Self Expectations - Part 1

Hi again,

Yes after 5 weeks of nothing, there are three posts within a week!  I wasn't planning to write another post so soon but this morning I was interviewed by David Bradford, a local runner who is also a freelance journalist, who is in the process of writing an article on training and mileage for Runners World.  During the interview he asked me some good questions that got me thinking, with some of my answers being new topics that I hadn't addressed on my blog.  So before I forget what I spoke about this morning I thought I would try to highlight some key points. 

David came to speak to me about physical training, but I ended up talking mostly about mental training, self belief, positivity etc.  So I  am not sure how much will end up in the article.  Also I think he said it was restricted to only 1300 words.  I would have spoken more like 13,000 words or even double that this morning!  Lastly if you are like me, you probably no longer buy Runners World or any of the running magazines as they tend to be the same old story repeated time and time again, with only the occasional excellent article.  Here's hoping that David's article, I'll let you know when it is published, is better than the standard magazine article!

We spoke about what training is needed, the bare minimum to be able to perform to a 'reasonable level', although we never attempted to define what we meant by a 'reasonable level', as this will vary immensely dependent upon the aims and expectations of each individual runner.  I found it hard to come up with an answer as I tried to explain that performance in endurance running, with the longer the event the higher the importance, is more about the mind, the mental approach, self expectations, positivity, etc.  He wasn't totally convinced, but thought that the mind has a role to play but felt that the physiology, the physical attributes were more important.  David's responses were a bit like the comment left by Andy Cole on my blog the other day in response to my Beachy Head Race Report -
"I'm beginning to believe your expectation theory, but doesn't it still link back to training - expectation comes from confidence, confidence comes form having done the work?"
Yes, Andy's comment is largely true, but one can develop confidence in other ways.  Although what is probably more important and relevant is that people can do the work, but still not end up with positive / high self expectations!  So what is happening there?  And how much work is required to gain confidence - positive self expectations?

Another question David asked was "Did I always have these beliefs about the importance of the mind in determining performance, and how did I come to these conclusions?"  Now these questions really got me thinking, I started trying to recall, when and how did my current ideas develop?  I never used to think this way.  I was like everyone else.  I used to believe running performance was all physically determined!  To try and expand on these questions I guess I need to go way back to when I started running, in 1977!  Not sure how far I will get in answering these questions and getting back to strategies to develop positive self expectations, but I'll simply keep typing, and maybe this might end up being a part 1, 2, 3 post, as it is such a big area!

I started running back in 1977 at the age of 14 when I joined Hutt Valley Harriers.  I joined the local harrier club as I was too small to be any good at playing rugby.  My lack of skill and pace probably also didn't aid my rugby performance.  So after 6 years of rugby, harriers, i.e. cross country and road running, was to be my new sport.  I distinctly recall now, picking up the club race calendar and there listed at the end of the season was a race called the Consolation Race.  It was a specific club race for only those athletes that hadn't won a prize, i.e. finished 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in any race during the season.  I immediately thought, maybe I could perform well in the consolation race, as I had clearly established within my perceived self expectations that I was a low performing athlete, even before I had begun running as a sport!  The club information also referred to an Attendance Medal.  Where if you attended and ran every Saturday during the season, club and inter club races and the club training runs, no matter what level you performed at, you would win an Attendance Medal.  I again have strong memories of me thinking, yes, I can win one of these medals!

So why at the age of 14 did I have such low expectations of my ability as an athlete?  Around that time in New Zealand, John Walker, one of the greatest milers of all time, had just set the world mile record (3:49.4 in 1975) and had won the 1500metres Gold Medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.  So all New Zealanders were basking in the glory of a New Zealander, from a country of only 3 million people, who was the best runner in the entire world!  Winning, success, was what sport was all about!  It is amazing how the media's portrayal can influence how people think!  Not only was the emphasis on winning, but the media also 'made up large' the importance of one's physiology, the importance of "choosing the right parents"!  How many times have you heard that expression!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  John Walker was reported to have one of the largest VO2max values recorded.  Physically he was tall, muscularly strong, with a big barreled chest which enabled him to breathe in and consume massive amounts of oxygen.  It was these physical attributes that he inherited, that he was born with, that made him the best in the world!

So little old me, 4 foot something and aged 14, had obviously chosen the wrong parents.  My Mum was largely overweight and never done any physical activity or sport in her entire life, apart from gardening.  My Dad played tennis at the local club, but for recreation, fun, at a social level.  How poor was that, he never won any club or county championships!  So these messages I saw on the TV and in the papers, led me to have a real distorted view of what sport was about.  The over importance on performance, and how it was beyond ones control.  Tough luck if you chose the wrong parents!  Just an interesting side question.  Are things any different in the UK now in 2010 as opposed to NZ in 1977.  What are all the messages given out leading up to the 2012 London Olympics?  What is the message? Yes, you are right!  How many medals will the UK team win!  Messages being sent to young athletes, and reinforced by the media.  If you aren't any good by the time you are 10, or 12, or 14 at the very latest, then you are never going to be any good.  Tom Daley the World Champion Diver from the UK who was World Champion at the age of 15, British champion at the age of 13!  Then you have all of the child superstar footballers, Joe Cole, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, Michael Owen, and on and on!  I think things have got even worse than what they were in NZ in 1977!

Not only are there these messages about the necessity to perform at a young age, and the imporance of genes, but the hereditary message is even stronger now than ever with regards to running.  The simple message is, if you aren't from Africa, then you can not expect to perform to any high standard in endurance running.  Many people are asking the question, why can't the UK produce any top endurance athletes (apart from Paula Radcliffe), maybe it is as simple as that they have very low self expectations from everything they encounter throughout their lives in terms of the media's portrayal of sporting success and it's determinants.  It takes a pretty strongly minded young person to have the self belief to conclude that pretty well every message they encounter within society regarding sporting performance and ability is simply misleading!  Well, I said this could be a multi-part post.  I am really going 'off course' tonight!  But deep down it is relevant, as all of these messages influence one's self expectations!

So back to 1977, the 14 year old short kid, not much good at rugby, starting out running.  Hutt Valley Harriers was very good in terms of encouragement.  It still had a focus on performance and the need to be good, but I joined just at the time of the fun run boom at the end of the 70s where running simply for the fun of the participation was valued.  So I felt welcome, and was encouraged, with the aim to improve through training.  Bearing in mind that I was never going to be any good due to my genes!  Beyond my control!  Just to confirm what all the messages were telling me, there were two brothers Mark and Peter Lucock and they were both awesome runners, they both had the right genes, given to them by their parents, and with Peter in my school year I was never ever going to beat him! or even get close to him.  Not my fault, blame my parents!  Evidence for my low self expectations.  In 1975, in my first ever proper cross country race as a 12 year old, the Hutt Valley School Cross Country, Peter finished in 2nd place.  Me, I finished well behind in 47th place out of a field of 57!

The question I ask now is why did I finish in 47th place?  Lets change the question slightly, to something like:  You are running your first ever 10km road race or half marathon.  How do you know what pace you should run at?  How do you know what pace is right to ensure that you can make it to the finish without 'blowing up'!  What exactly is 'blowing up'?  What is fatigue?  What determines how fast you can run?  I used to have answers to these questions which I thought were correct.  The only problem is that even the cleverest sport and exercise scientists around the world are not in agreement to the last three questions.  Those who have carried out loads of research have PhD and you name it many other letters after their name do not know the answer!  So if no one knows what actually causes fatigue in endurance running, or what actually determines the pace I am able to run at, then how can I the runner decide what pace to run at!!!
What I have used in the past is that after I had run a few races, I based my pace on what I ran previously.  Thinking if I had completed a good period of physical training then I expected to run a little bit faster than before.  If my physical training hadn't been going very well, I expected to run a little bit slower than previously.  Quite simple really.  And as I have tried to explain, my running pace was determined by my self expectation of what I thought I could achieve.
Getting back to my first ever race. What pace did I run at?  I can't exactly recall what I did, but I am trying to think what your typical novice runner would do.  They haven't got any previous running experiences to help them.  So they formulate a self assessment of themselves as a sports person.  They look at the physiques of the other runners, and depending on what their self assessment is, in terms of how high, how confident it is they will determine their pace in relation to the other runners in the event.  I doubt they would go out with the leaders, I also doubt they would run at the back of the field with the massively overweight runners.  Again, the pace is solely determined by their self expectation, and how good they perceive themselves in relation to others.
Now, I have been running for many years.  I am running my umpteenth half marathon.  What pace do I run at?  Simply a pace similar to my previous runs in half marathons.  How do I know that this is the right pace.  It simply feels right!  What happens if I find that I am closer to the front, quite a bit ahead of all of the other runners that are usually around me?  I question, should I be this far near the front, in front of the others, and relate back to my expectation of what I expect I am able to achieve, and then adjust the pace accordingly, in most occasions probably easing of the pace, being conservative, so I don't 'blow up', even though no-one is able to actually define what 'blowing up' is!
So the real secret to running performance in endurance events is simply changing one's self expectation of how fast they expect to run!  Many readers may be thinking what absolute rubbish,  UltraStu is definitely Ultra Stupid tonight. What does he mean, no one knows what causes fatigue in endurance running!  It's running too much above one's lactate threshold, thereby producing too much lactic acid, which then inhibits the enzymes and the chemical reactions, which then causes the muscles from contracting, hence fatigue!  Only problem, is that the latest research now quite clearly concludes that this simply model is no longer correct!  It must be due to glycogen depletion then.  No carbohydrate left in the muscle cell to burn, so then one has to resort to fat, and therefore due to the increased oxygen demand to burn fat can not regenerate the same amount of ATP so must slow down.  Now this can be the case in some instances, however, with carbohydrate gels and drinks now being available during marathons, excessively low glycogen levels are no longer commonly found at marathon finish lines.  And what about all those events, half marathons and less, where it isn't likely that the glycogen stores will become depleted.  What causes fatigue in these races???  If anyone out there is able to tell me, supported with scientific evidence, NOT what their running mate has told them, or NOT what they have read in the running magazine, who an elite athletes book, then please add a comment, so we can all know the answer.  As within my readings of the scientific literature, although I must acknowledge that I do not read as much as I should, and therefore may have missed the latest understandings, I am still wanting to find out!
I think, at this moment I will finish this post - part 1 - to be continued!
I will sign off with the quote I signed off with last week, as it is probably a lot more relevant to tonight's post.
"There was a time, not so long ago, when we really did know everything about human physiology. After all, it was all so very simple. ...... But the more compelling challenge for the traditional model (of fatigue) is that it simply cannot explain the obvious." Tim Noakes (2007) From the foreword for the book:Brain Training for Runners, by Matt Fitzgerald.

All the best in your development of positive self expectations,



  1. Hi Stu

    Thanks for the good read. About fatigue ...

    I realise that nothing has been scientifically proven yet but I rather like the central governor theory put forward by Tim Noakes in Lore Of Running. I would include it here but it would make this comment too long so I'll provide a link to a post on my blog where it can be read:

    Having completed eight 24 hour races (and a number of other ultras) since March 2006 I know that the mental aspect is more important than the physical. My experience is that I have no problem completing a race of almost any length if the aim is just to finish, the problem lies with trying to run that race as quickly as possible. For a 24 hr race this presents further problems in that the absolute minimum distance I would be satisfied with is 225k (140 miles) which is about 6:24 per km (10:17 per mile).

    That's a slow racing pace but to maintain it for a whole day takes an awful lot of mental strength.

    In races of this length small negative things turn into major issues which seem to magnify things and make any muscular fatigue seem ten times worse that it would do in a much shorter race. For example, if something happens at mile 20 of a marathon [extremely bad weather, missed drinks station, fall to the ground, etc] the last 6 miles may be uncomfortable but it isn't a major issue. If the same thing happens at 20 miles into a 24 hr race it can quickly become serious as there is, in my case anyway, 21 hours still to go and the mind will start to play tricks and try to get me to stop to escape the weather or find a drink or get the cuts and bruises looked at.

    In return I try to 'manually override' these thought patterns by reminding myself that 6:24 per km is very slow and all I have to do to ride it out is concentrate on my own pace and avoid everyone else. Until about hour 20 ... then the racing can begin.

    To avoid these situations arising I try to formulate coping strategies, in the months before a race, so that should anything untoward occur I know exactly how to deal with it.

    In many ways that is what let me down in this year's 24 hr World Championship in Brive, France. The expected weather for mid May in Brive is 23 C during the day (13 C at night) with quite a lot of sunshine. What actually happened was that we got 13 C during the day (very cold at night) with lots of cloud and mist/fog and a bit of drizzle. In fact I kept my gloves on for the entire race. I managed well until about 16 hours then I just got fed up with the lousy weather. My sub conscious kept telling me that all my 'heat training' had been a waste of time and I would have been better doing some other training instead ... not a good situation. Still managed 222 km (138 miles) which, with hindsight, I'm pleased with as I kept battling those demons right to the very end.


  2. Hi Chris

    Thanks for the comment. It is pleasing to find that other runners have also discovered that running performance isn't just physically determined. I haven't read much of Tim Noakes's stuff, but having seen him present at scientic conferences he comes across as a pretty clever chap who often 'thinks outside of the box'.

    I went to your blog and read your comment and the quote from Noakes which I will paste below.

    Noakes writes about fatigue in terms of a Central Governor in his book Lore Of Running. He writes on page 19 (fourth edition)

    "... the increasing feeling of fatigue and the progressive reduction in the capacity of the exercising muscles to maintain a constant work output during prolonged exercise results from currently unrecognized processes in the brain, which presumably act to prevent bodily harm during such exercise. This model theorizes that performance during exercise is determined by two separate phenomena:

    A pacing strategy that is preprogrammed into the athlete's subconscious brain as a result of previous training and racing experiences.
    Acute alterations to that preprogrammed strategy resulting from sensory input from a variety of organs - heart, muscle, brain, blood and lungs, among others - to the exercise controller or governor in the brain. Output from the controller to the motor cortex then determines the mass of skeletal muscle that can be activated and for how long, thereby determining the pacing strategy that the subconscious brain adopts during exercise.

    "At the same time, information is sent from the controller to the emotional and other centers in the brain. These influence the level of discomfort that is felt, the emotional response, and the self-talk and self-doubt that are additional but poorly understood features of the fatigue that develops during exercise."

    I think I definitely need to read up on the Central Governor Theory as it seems to be in agreement with my ideas, in that performance in endurance performance is largely determined by self expectations. It are these self expectations

    that help set the "pacing strategy that is preprogrammed into the athlete's subconscious brain". And especially the last comment by Noakes; "and self-doubt that are additional but poorly understood features of the fatigue", Exactly low self expectations contribute to fatigue!

    Time to do some more reading, and then wrtie up parts 2 and 3 of this extensive Self Expectation topic!

    All the best with your plans for next season. It looks like you can't quite make up your mind on what races to run. Quite a few ORs in your list!