Matt Fitzgerald is an acclaimed sports journalist, a certified sports nutritionist, and the author of numerous books on running, triathlon, nutrition, and weight loss.
His most recent books are Racing Weight Cookbook, Racing Weight Quick Start Guide, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel, Racing Weight, Brain Training for Runners, and The Runner’s Diary. His book Iron War was long-listed for the 2012 William Hill Sports Book of the Year.
Matt is a regular contributor to Men’s Fitness, Men’s Health, Outside, Runner’s World, Bicycling, Running Times, Women’s Running, and other sports and fitness publications. Fitzgerald is a featured coach on Training Peaks, Pear Sports, and Active.com.
He is a certified sports nutritionist (CISSN) licensed by the International Society of Sports Nutrition. He lives and trains near San Francisco, California.
RT contacted Matt and asked him to write a column for the site. With the launch of his new book ‘How Bad Do You Want It?,’ Matt has put together this article especially for Runner’s Tribe on mastering the psychology of mind over muscle. Enjoy
How Bad Do You Want It? By Matt Fitzgerald for Runner’s Tribe (c)
If you’re like most runners, you look at the thoughts you experience within races as effects rather than causes. When you’re running well, you have good thoughts, and when you’re struggling, you have bad thoughts. This is certainly true, but new research in the field of sports psychology has shown that it also works the other way around. Thoughts have causal influence during competition. If you think the right kinds of thoughts, you will run better, and if you think the wrong kinds of thoughts, you will struggle more.
So, what are the right kinds of thoughts? Performance-enhancing thoughts have five key qualities. They are focused, positive, accepting, motivating, and competitive. Let’s take a closer look at each of these qualities.
Psychologists use the term inhibitory control to denote the ability to override impulses and stay focused on a goal. Inhibitory control comes into play anytime you want two or more contradictory things simultaneously and have to choose which one you want more. During races, runners experience a conflict between the desire to reach the finish line as quickly as possible and the desire to spare themselves the discomfort that comes with pushing for maximum performance.
Earlier this year, Italian researchers reported that performance in a standard test of inhibitory control was strongly predictive of race performance in a group of ultrarunners. This was a remarkable finding because inhibitory control is a purely mental ability and the test the runners were subjected to was done at rest.
The good news is that inhibitory control can be improved. In your next race, pay attention to the various impulses and distractions that try to take your focus away from your goal and actively choose your goal each time you required to make a choice.
When experiencing discomfort during a race, it is normal to think negative thoughts such as, “I’m going to hit the wall!” Some runners consciously arrest these thoughts and replace them with positive substitutes like, “I can still reach my goal.” A 2013 study by Samuele Marcora at the University of Kent demonstrated that this practice is performance enhancing. Twenty-four subjects were subjected to an endurance test and then separated into two groups of 12. One group received training in positive self-talk and the other did not. When the endurance test was repeated two weeks later, the group that had been taught to practice positive self-talk performed 17 percent better while the control group showed no improvement.
Let your moments of struggle in races and the negative thoughts that spring from them serve as triggers to think more helpful thoughts. With a little practice you will find specific phrases that work well for you. Among my personal favorites are “Relax, you’ve been here before” and “How bad do you want it?” (which happens to be the title of my new book on “mastering the psychology of mind over muscle.”)
There are two general attitudes you can have toward the discomfort of racing: rejection and acceptance. Rejection entails wishing the discomfort away. Acceptance is just that. Past research has shown that an accepting attitude toward pain reduces its unpleasantness and increases pain tolerance compared to an attitude of rejection. And a 2014 study published in Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise indicates that acceptance also reduces perceived effort during exercise and thereby enhances exercise performance.
In this study, psychologist Elena Ivanova of McGill University looked at the effects of a certain type of psychotherapy called acceptance and commitment therapy on endurance performance in a group of nonathletic women. Acceptance and commitment therapy entails learning to accept unpleasant feelings as unavoidable features of certain experiences—in this case exercise. Ivanova found that the therapy reduced perceived effort at a high intensity of 80 percent of VO2max by 55 percent and increased time to exhaustion at that same intensity by 15 percent.
The lesson is clear: To the extent that you can, embrace the effort-related discomfort you experience while competing. If you do, the discomfort will bother you and slow you down less than if you reject it.
Motivation is a mysterious phenomenon, but it’s becoming better understood. Neuroscientists have identified a so-called brain valuation system—a linked set of brain regions—that becomes highly active when a person sees, contemplates, or pursues something of value. They have also demonstrated that the more intensely active these areas of the brain are, the more effort a person is willing to expend in pursuit of a valued object.
What this means for you as a runner is that you will tend to try harder and therefore reach the finish line faster in races if you go into them with a clear focus on why running to the best of your ability is important to you. The motivation to run is different for each runner. For the late great Steve Prefontaine, it was self-discovery. “Why run is a question often asked,” he wrote in a high school essay. “Why go out there every afternoon and beat out your brains? What is the logic of punishing yourself each day, of striving to become better, more efficient, tougher? The value in it is what you learn about yourself. In this sort of situation all kinds of qualities come out—things that you may not have seen in yourself before.”
On another occasion, Pre said there came in a moment in every race when he wondered if all the suffering was worth it and he then consciously reminded himself why it was worth it for him. Although your answer may not be the same as his, you will get the same benefit from being equally conscious of your “why” in such moments.
One of the most intriguing recent discoveries in sports psychology is that endurance athletes experience a lower level of perceived effort and consequently perform better when their attention is externally focused (on what they’re doing) rather than internally focused (on how they’re doing). One way to keep your attention externally focused in races is to think competitively, consciously trying to beat the runners around you to the finish line.
In a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, Lars McNaughton and colleagues at Edge Hill University had cyclists complete a 16.1-km indoor simulated time trial on three separate occasions. During one time trial, each cyclist watched a video screen displaying an avatar representing him and showing his progress toward the finish line. In a second time trial, the subjects watched a screen on which their avatar raced against a virtual competitor. In the remaining time trial, the screen was blank. McNaughton found that the subjects performed best and that their attention was most externally focused in the competitive time trial.
In the end, we’re all really competing against ourselves as runners, but you will have a better of chance of running your personal best when you try to out-do other runners of similar ability in races.