Latest research: Endurance athletes

Research to help endurance athletes is high on the agenda at the moment. Endurance sports (definition: whole body dynamic exercise, that runs with continuous effort and lasts for 75 seconds or longer) are unique in that they require significant motivation and effort from the additional commitment and boredom, the discomfort, pain and fatigue and the pacing. Samuele Marcora (Uni of Kent) has been considering if endurance performance is limited by perception of effort and potential motivation rather than muscle fatigue. Over the years a great deal of research has been undertaken from the perspective that people stop endurance exercise when their fatigued neuromuscular system is no longer capable of producing the required speed/power output. This means most research has focused from a physiological perspective and has looked at muscle fatigue. However, muscle biopsies have shown there is about another 7 or 8 minutes energy in them once we have got to VO2 Max. So instead, Marcora and his team of researchers are looking at the role of cognition and motivation in endurance performance. Working from a Psychobiological model, they suggest that maximum effort is what people are willing to exert on a task, highlighting they will disengage with a task when they no longer feel willing to put the effort in, i.e. they have either lost motivation or if feels too hard. This implies that to improve endurance performance we either need to increase motivation or reduce the perception of effort.

A piece of research on this area I really loved was from Alister McCormick from the University of Kent. He worked with 21 runners taking on a 60 mile ultra run. The participants were matched by their estimated V̇O2max and randomly assigned one of two workbooks; motivational self-talk or concentration. They found both groups were similar before the event on the level of control they felt and their self-efficiency but those who used self-talk during the race finished 25 minutes quicker than the control (concentration) group. As self-talk can be taught to an athlete in less than an hour (and can be more effective when personalized – which it wasn’t in this group) it seems a small amount of investment here can make significant gains. If you would like to learn how to use self-talk there is a worksheet here.

Dominic Micklewright (University of Essex) has been looking at judgment and decision making in pacing. He found:

  • Those who perceive that there is risk are more likely to have a conservative pacing strategy.
  • Experts and novices use different decision-making information. Experts know what info they want and look for it and, once found it, look at it for longer.

He concludes however that endurance sport takes place in such a highly complex external, internal and social environment that it will be highly susceptible to individual differences and this has not yet been explored in much depth.

Another piece of research on pace control from Noal Brick (Ulster University) highlighted that if you want to improve your performance without feeling like you were increasing your perception of effort then think about your cadence, about relaxing and finding ways to distract yourself. However, focusing on your breathing or movement actually reduces your performance. These researchers ran treadmill time trials to understand what athletes were thinking about while working on different pacing strategies. They found:

  • If you have frequent internal moderation taking place (i.e. continually checking how you feel to match a specific perception of pace) you will go slower.
  • If someone else sets your pacing for you then you will have a lower heart rate (when going at the same speed).
  • The more you focus on how you feel internally, the harder the TT will feel.

This indicates that if you follow a pace or a pacer when you run, it should be cognitively easier, may give you have a lower heart rate and thus may improve your performance.

Finally, researchers from Ulster University have been looking at the psychological and physiological factors that influence performance in ultra-endurance runners and found no difference in levels of mental toughness or personality traits between ultra and non-ultra endurance runners.

Take away points:

  • To improve endurance performance we either need to increase motivation or reduce the perception of effort. To reduce your perception of effort think about your cadence, about relaxing and finding ways to distract yourself.
  • Those who used self-talk during a 60 mile race finished 25 minutes quicker than a control group
  • Follow a pace or a pacer when you run to lower heart rate and potentially improve your performance.

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