Are you mentally tough enough to complete an ultra-marathon? It probably comes as no surprise that evidence is mounting that your mental capacity has a say in your success or failure at such a goal. But the specific cognitive abilities that determine your outcome may be a surprise to you.
How do you score on inhibitory control?
A 2015 study by Cona et al found that there were correlations between certain cognitive abilities and performance of an ultra marathon running event (an 80km race in this instance). The runners that performed better in the race also outperformed the slower runners in tasks that challenged their inhibitory control. There are lots of online tests for challenging your own inhibitory control – just google ‘Stroop Test’ and you will come up with lots of examples. I did the one on the Psytoolkit website and scored a Stroop effect of 220ms. Unfortunately there are many variations on the Stroop test and scoring systems, so normative data does not exist to my knowledge. You can try it yourself here:- http://www.psytoolkit.org/lessons/stroop.html.
So what is inhibitory control?
It is basically the ability to inhibit a natural or habitual response in preference for another that is more congruent with a specific goal. In the Stroop test, this often requires the participant to name the ink colour of a word that may be representative, or contradictory to that colour. For example, the word ‘green’ may appear in red ink- so your time-taken to answer ‘red’ is measured. The participant is asked to repeat this process a large number of times and their average response time (and accuracy) is measured.
So how does this translate to running performance?
So you can resist the impulse to answer ‘green’ when the ink is red – so what!? When we run long distances, we are constantly making choices and resisting impulses. When the going gets tough, our instinct is to stop, or slow down. But this may be incongruent with our goal, which could be to get a personal best. Those with a greater ability in inhibitory control may be able to resist this urge to slow down or stop because they rank their goal as a higher priority than that urge. They sacrifice an immediate reward for the delayed reward which is to finish with their best possible time. Runners with lower levels of inhibitory control may be more likely to succumb to the urge to stop so that they can enjoy an immediate pay-off for their choice (the pain stops).
So what can you do about this? There is evidence that inhibitory control can be improved with training (Berkman et al, 2014) but there is insufficient evidence that improvements in the lab cross-over into other aspects of life. This field is certainly a ‘watch-this-space’ topic, so I will. In the meantime, when the going gets tough on my next long run, I’ll keep reminding myself of what the ultimate goal is, and train my mind on that.
Berkman, Elliot T., Lauren E. Kahn, and Junaid S. Merchant. “Training-induced changes in inhibitory control network activity.” Journal of Neuroscience 34.1 (2014): 149-157.
Cona, G., Cavazzana, A., Paoli, A., Marcolin, G., Grainer, A., & Bisiacchi, P. S. (2015). It’s a matter of mind! Cognitive functioning predicts the athletic performance in ultra-marathon runners. PloS one, 10(7), e0132943
There is no shortage of people who want to tell you running is bad for you especially if you’re a beginner runner. ‘It wrecks your knees!’ they proclaim. I bet you anyone who has said that to you doesn’t run themselves. I do run, and do believe that almost anyone can run comfortably and enjoyably, and enhance their health (heart, bone, brain) in the process.
So here are my 3 Tips For a Beginner Runner To Start On The Right Foot
1. Get your cadence right!
This is really simple – download a metronome app from your favourite app store (there are lots for free that will be perfect). Set it to 180 beats/min. Jog on the spot to the rhythm of the metronome. See if you can maintain this for 1 minute. Rest, repeat, rest, repeat. If you pull up well from this the next day, do it again. Repeat this as frequently as you can for three weeks. The purpose of this exercise is twofold: First, to help program your brain to run at a high turnover. This will decrease impact stress. Second, it will help condition your feet, ankles, calves, knees and hips for the impact of running.
2. Run Quietly
When you have completed your three weeks running on the spot you are ready to start moving forward. But you must do this quietly! Tread lightly on the ground. Take note of the noise your feet make when they impact- do they slap, or stroke the ground? Aim to impact the ground softly – and when you start to get heavy, walk. Also, you shouldn’t be huffing and puffing yet. Aim to run easily, and when the lungs start to struggle, walk. The first few months of running should be about getting comfortable with running – not getting a hardcore cardio blow-out (do that on a bike!).
3. Be Patient
If you are taking running up as an adult, who may not have run for 20 years, be realistic. Give yourself 6 months before you start thinking about tackling an event. Your body will adapt to running if you are conservative, but consistent. Aim to run every second day, even if it is just a short lap around the block. You will have some ups and downs, but the improvement will come if you are patient. You will eventually find the running ‘gear’ that you can click into and the kms will just glide away.
We are here if you need us!
At iNform we have helped hundreds of people begin to run, from people that want to run around the park with their kids, to those wanting to tackle a marathon. If you want to get running the best way possible, give us a call!
We live in the age of the easily-offended. Where our outrage and anger is set on a hair-trigger. Social media has given us a platform to rant and rave. It is the 21st century soap-box. But is it worth it?
What is the cost of being so quick to offend and outrage?
In the moments during and following the social media red-mist the following takes place within your body:
–The hypothalamus ramps ups and signals the pituitary gland to get to work.
— The pituitary gland releases hormones to the adrenal medulla.
— Adrenal medulla releases cortisol.
— Cortisol promotes muscle contracture; pupil dilation; suppression of GI tract (digestion); increases heart rate; amygdala becomes hyper-aroused which can lead to emotional tagging in the hippocampus (sets you up to repeat this response in the future).
— Prefrontal cortex becomes inhibited (this is where present-time awareness, planning, motivation, decision making etc happens).
Not a good picture really. What basically happens is the outrage primes our system for a physical response (flight or fight) which tapping on a keyboard can’t satisfy.
And because of the tagging in the brain, we can become pre-programmed to be the angry bear-trap in other areas of life. The person cutting you off in traffic now deserves to die a painful death. The kids playing up in the backseat leads to an explosion of rage. The coffee shop gives you a flat-white instead of a latte- AARRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!
So again, is it worth it?
Being quick to offense is grossly damaging to so many of your systems inside your body- as well as relationships around you. So next time you feel compelled to respond to a trivial Facebook post with an angry tirade, consider your own health. Maybe just take a few deep, calming breaths. Run around the block (flight)- or punch a pillow a couple of times (fight).
Let the anger go, because it isn’t worth it.
*Thank you to my colleague James Smith for keeping me on track with the neuroanatomy/physiology/biology!