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02 August, 2014 0 comments

The Psychology of running


Running and Psychology

Surely running is just running, learnt from an early age and continued into adulthood. Even if it is only during a rare fight or flight episode.  There is no doubt your mind controls much of your running experience, from motivation to pacing strategy to handling pre-race jitters and pain.

You probably won’t believe this article as you may point out that you can't think your way to a good marathon on poor training. Or command your legs to run faster when the world is on your back. Or wish yourself a perfect running body like the best distance runners. And you'd be right, but, bear with me; you may also be missing the point. It's not that good physical training isn't essential to running. It's that your brain ultimately determines how much of that training you'll be allowed to use. It does this by monitoring your body's fuel levels, temperature, hydration and other markers of fatigue and tissue damage, and then shutting down muscle fibre recruitment and other systems when it perceives imminent damage to your body.
There are many theories of fatigue. The peripheral fatigue model, which dominated for 100 years, holds that fatigue occurs when muscles begin to fail in a way that will ultimately lead to physiological catastrophe (i.e., you'll slow down or stop). The central governor model, proposed in 1997 by Timothy Noakes, a professor of exercise and sport science and author of Lore of Running, proposes that fatigue is an emotion generated by your brain to protect your body–sensing imminent danger to your organs, your brain decreases muscle fibre recruitment. Most experienced runners favour a third model, in which a combination of the brain's subconscious regulation and our own conscious evaluation of physical and emotional fatigue dictate our pace.

Every competitive runner is familiar with the “sticky road” phenomenon. In the latter stages of a race or tough workout you begin to feel as though the pavement beneath you has been resurfaced with gluey, wet tar. Whereas in the early miles your feet bounced lightly off the ground, you now have to actively yank them away from the surface. With each stride the effort required to do so increases, and as a result your feet seem to spend twice as much time in contact with the earth as they did in the beginning.

Studies have shown that this feeling is no illusion. Our feet really do remain “stuck” to the ground longer as we begin to fatigue. Exercise scientists do not yet fully understand what causes the running stride to deteriorate in this manner during prolonged hard running, but they do know that it’s fundamentally a neuromuscular phenomenon. In response to chemical “warning” signals sent from the working muscles to the brain, signals such as rising muscle acidity and various indicators of muscle damage, the brain protectively reduces electrical output to the muscles, thereby preserving the body’s homeostasis but at the price of causing the stride to lose its former bounciness. Now that does sound very ‘sciencey’ but here is something more basic. In 1977 Bill Morgan and Michael Pollock wrote one of the first and most influential papers in sports psychology. They interviewed a group of elite distance runners, asking the runners what they thought about in the heat of competition. They then asked the same question of mid pack runners. Interestingly there were two very distinct answers. The elites said that they monitored the body while racing. The mid packers said they tried to distract themselves by thinking about stuff unrelated to the race. From here on in the two approaches were named “associative thinking” (the elite way) and “disassociative thinking” (the mid packer way). Before long, average runners everywhere were encouraged to develop an inward strategy like the elites, such as a mid-race check checking relaxed shoulders, arms moving smoothly, breathing controlled and stride light and quick.

However, unfortunately for us, a new paper in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology concludes that the associative vs. disassociative approach is too simplistic. The authors suggest a more finely grained distinction: Don’t think about things you can’t easily change, like your breathing and form. According to what's known as the "constrained action hypothesis," focusing on the automated running movement or the even more highly automated process of breathing is counterproductive. But it’s okay to ponder your general feelings, or to think about the things that usually flutter in and out of your mind. The researchers reached this conclusion after measuring the running economy of 32 veteran runners who typically logged 20 miles a week. The subjects had their oxygen consumption measured while thinking about their breathing, thinking about their form, thinking about their feelings and thinking about whatever typically occurs to them while running. It was reported that “both internal focus of attention directed to automated processes (running movement, or breathing) led to worse running economy than the internal focus on the feeling of the body and the control condition”. So there you have it, it could be suggested that focusing on the feel and comfort of your body and the conditions you are running in may support a more effective and economic run. You could say it’s all in the mind!



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