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A woman running an ultra marathon

Many long-distance runners will know how it feels for that little voice in your head to make you feel good one minute and terrible the next. Now a new study carried out with ultrarunners shows how beneficial it may be to try and keep your mood as stable as you can during a race as it could help to achieve a faster time.

Of course, this is easier said than done.

Mood changes

The Durham research team measured mood fluctuations in 34 athletes competing in the Hardmoors 60, a 100 km (60 miles) trail ultramarathon which is run in a single day in North Yorkshire, and examined how variation in mood related to performance by looking at finish times.

Runners whose mood fluctuated a lot during the race had slower finish times than those whose mood was more stable throughout.

Although many factors play a key role in performance, such as training and physical ability, regulating mood may also make a small but significant difference.

Just as athletes condition the body for the physical demands through regular training, research shows that practising self-regulatory techniques can help. These can include mental imagery, setting regular smaller goals, self-talk and reciting positive mantras. Other approaches such as focusing on the scenery or playing music may also help athletes control the intensity of their mood changes.

Mental fatigue

The study is the first to specifically examine mood changes before, during and after a competitive ultramarathon with the runners completing a ‘mood survey’ five times – a week before the race, at the start, twice at checkpoints during the race and once they had finished.

The researchers suggest that athletes whose mood goes up and down during a race will need to work hard to control it which results in increased mental fatigue. This fatigue makes an athlete feel like they are having to work extra hard which has been shown to negatively affect performance in endurance sports.

When the perception of effort is high, runners also tend to re-evaluate their goal or even decide that their goal, for example completing the race, is unachievable. This can lead to slowing of the pace or quitting.

Feelings of tension

The research team also looked at feelings of tension, depression and anger in the athletes at different stages.

Tension was high immediately before the start of the race with less experienced runners feeling particularly tense. Generally, the runners were more relaxed by the time they got to the first checkpoint in the race at 35km (21 miles) which suggests the tension was caused mainly by pre-competition anxiety.

Depression, anger and mood fluctuations were not as prominent right before the race compared to the week before the competition. This suggests that feelings of depression and anger are minimised by a sense of energy following a period of reducing the training load ahead of the race, called tapering, and excitement about the race starting.

An ultramarathon is any footrace longer than the traditional marathon length of 42.2 km (26.2 miles). They take place over a variety of distances, time limits, terrain types and levels of support provided to participants, but all require continuous activity for periods of hours, or even days.

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