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