Stress and negative thoughts are among the more unpleasant parts of the marathon experience. But are they necessary elements? Maybe not, according to a study led by Jose Jaenes of the University Pablo de Olavide and published recently in Frontiers in Psychology.
Fourteen experienced male marathon runners participated in the study, which, it should be noted, had no control group. All 14 runners underwent a seven-week course in psychological skills training (PST) prior to participating in a marathon. The specific elements of the program were 1) cognitive association techniques (teaching the runners how to focus most helpfully on task-relevant factors such as pace, effort, and the course), 2) cognitive dissociation techniques (teaching athletes how to distract themselves from their running in helpful ways such as by reminding themselves of their motivations for running), 3) thought stopping (actively arresting negative thoughts), 4) progressive relaxation (a method involving tensing and releasing different muscle groups), and 5) coordination skills (increasing runner confidence by training them in relevant skills such as drinking while running).
The runners were given a single task involving one of these five categories to practice each day in training throughout the intervention. For example, on a Tuesday during the seven-week training period, the subjects were asked to complete an interval workout of 10 x 1 km fast on 75 seconds’ recovery and practice ignoring any uncomfortable sensations they experienced, then evaluate the personal effectiveness of this method in writing afterward. The runners also met directly with the psychologists once per week; the first two meetings were group education sessions, the next four were individual check-ins resulting in personalized adjustments to the program, and the final interaction, also one-on-one, was held post-race to assess the program’s effectiveness.
And it was indeed effective. All three of the study’s outcome measures decreased significantly from baseline: the average score for negative thoughts before running dropping from 4.32 to 2.28 (on a 5-point scale), negative thoughts while running sliding from 4.08 to 2.32, and stress and doubts declining from 4.39 to 1.57. Jaenes’s team concluded that “Training in cognitive control and relaxation techniques, as part of the psychological skills training could determine the quality of performance of marathon runners.”
Quality of Performance?
When I first read this study, I found that last phrase rather curious. “Quality of performance?” I wondered. “Is that like style points or something?” What I preferred to know was whether PST had any quantitative effect on the subjects’ marathon performance. Running is a sport, after all, and the intrinsic objective of any sport is to maximize performance. I’m not terribly interested in techniques that have a positive effect on something other than performance and a neutral or negative effect on race times. For example, if a study demonstrated that a certain fashion intervention made athletes feel better about how they looked while racing but also slowed them down, I would not bring it to the attention of the athletes I work with.
On further reflection, however, I changed my mind about this study, for two reasons. The first is that science has already demonstrated that reducing stress and negative thoughts in athletes improves performance. In 2016, for example, researchers at Brock University reported that a lesson in positive self-talk increased time to exhaustion in a high-intensity indoor cycling test by 39%. I do believe that a follow-up to Jaenes’s study that does measure performance is needed, but I would be surprised if psychological skills training failed to yield faster race times.
More Important Than Performance
The second reason I reversed my initial judgment on the study under discussion is that, as important as performance is in the sport of running, it’s not the most important thing. I once worked with a professional runner who came to me in a state of burnout. When I asked her what he biggest fear was, she answered, “I’m afraid I will never love to race again.” As all too many elite runners do, this athlete had allowed performance pressure to steal the joy out of competing, and the ironic result was that her performance suffered. The silver lining in this experience was that, through it, she came to realize it was possible to win and be unhappy and also to lose and be happy, and that if she could have only one or the other, she’d rather be happy.
This is true for every runner. When it comes down to it, running is nothing more than a collection of experiences. Setting and pursuing performance goals supplies the telos of the sport, but success and failure are fleeting moments — drops in the bucket of the overall experience. A successful race outcome can’t reach back in time and make an unenjoyable lead-up enjoyable. Nor can an unsuccessful race outcome reach back and spoil an enjoyable lead-up in any meaningful way.
There is nothing running can offer that is worth a bad experience in the sport. Not even money, in the case of the pros. Indeed, there are many examples of professional runners (Kara Goucher comes to mind) who quit running for money yet kept running competitively in order to preserve or restore their enjoyment of the sport.
So, while I am confident that the runners in Jaenes’s study performed better in their marathon as a result of feeling less stress and having fewer negative thoughts, it doesn’t really matter. Less stress and fewer negative thoughts equal a better running experience, which is its own justification.
Embracing Fear and Self-Doubt
This is not to suggest that eliminating all uncomfortable feelings from the running experience is desirable. A big part of what makes running so rewarding is that it’s challenging at, at times, scary. We don’t become runners because we’re looking for something easy to do in our spare time. Finishing a race without having had to overcome fear and self-doubt along the way would be no more satisfying than finishing a race without feeling tired. When elite miler Kyle Merber retired from professional running earlier this year, he said he knew it was time to do so when he stopped getting nervous before races.
I think most of us feel the same way: We’d rather conquer stress and negative thoughts as runners than never experience them. Fortunately, a certain amount of stress and negative thinking are unavoidable as long as we continue to chase our limits. The true objective is not to eliminate these things but to reduce them and manage them as much as possible without lowering our performance standards. Psychological skills training appears to be one way to do this.