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The psychology of endurance sport

The psychology of endurance sport

5 min read
  • Sport psychology

Endurance sports are only for certain athletes. The ones who embrace pain, but also thrive on it. The best endurance athletes can push their bodies further than what is thought possible. These long-distance races take extraordinary physical fitness. But no matter how much training has gone into it, an athlete’s success hinges on their mental endurance. Ultimately, it comes down to the mind, which urges you to place one foot in front of the other, or push down on your pedals…

Like any endurance athlete will tell you: your body can do more than you think it can – it’s your head that makes or breaks your performance.

Research suggests that those who can develop the right mental approach to sport will not only produce a stronger performance, but stand a better chance of achieving their goals.

Why is endurance hard?

Research aiming to find the psychological demands on endurance athletes have found different themes commonly experienced across athletes. They looked at runners, cyclists and triathletes, all competing in different levels and distances.

Some of the demands they found included:

  • The sport requires a substantial amount of time investment, as well as lifestyle sacrifices which some athletes found stressful, and they described experiencing negatively toned emotions such as frustration and worry.
  • Some athletes described a lack of motivation to start a training session and wanting to miss sessions.
  • The athletes described experiences of pain and exertion during training, as well as fatigue and discomfort during events. The athletes described a desire to stop or slow down, and they described unhelpful self-talk that was persuading them to not continue.
  • Athletes reported a difficulty in remaining focused when difficulties arose in the race. For example, these would be collisions, being overtaken, and nutritional mistakes. These would have a detrimental effect on their mental state, resulting in unhelpful self-talk, negative emotions and a difficulty refocusing.

Can you relate to these demands?

These all affect things such as motivation, concentration, emotional control and self-talk. Therefore, we have come up with strategies to help endurance athletes cope with these psychological demands, to help both performance and well-being.

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5 top tips for endurance athletes

1. Find your motivation

You need to be able to answer the question: “why am I doing this?” It’s one that you will probably ask yourself on more than one occasion due to how brutal endurance events are. You’ve got to really want it if you’re going to be successful.

It may be that you’ve set a target and you’re determined to reach it. Maybe you love the challenge. Whatever it is, write it down to remind yourself when you’re struggling. Some other tips for motivation include:

  • Set targets to work towards, even if you don’t have an event coming up
  • Find enjoyment in what you’re doing
  • Surround yourself with the right people
  • Measure success by how much you’ve improved, not by comparing your achievements with others’
  • Embrace the journey, not just the outcome
  • Break it down and just focus on your next step

Another tip for those who find training alone demotivating is to make arrangements to train with others (e.g. squad training, organising to train with friends). This will help you commit to the training session and work hard in it.

2. Change your mindset to push through the pain

Athletes experience a lot of pain during training and events, especially endurance athletes. This cannot be avoided. But how you view this pain is important.

In training, you should aim to be able to recognise that pushing through it will help give you the physiological adaptation necessary to improve your performance.

In competition, it’s important to take it one step at a time. Don’t think about how much you have left. Stay in the moment. Reminding yourself of the preparation you’ve put in and how bad you want it.

Visualisation can also help motivate you to push through the pain. Visualise yourself finishing the challenge: what will this look like and how will you feel? You should try and picture the positive emotions you will experience and use this to push on.

This leads onto our next point…

3. Your words are powerful

Athletes must learn to say no to negative thoughts and change them into helpful and encouraging words.

For example, we simply tell some of our athletes to actually say “stop”. This helps them to not get stuck in a spiral of negative thoughts. Your self-talk after making a mistake will impact on how you feel and, subsequently, how well you will perform in the rest of the event. Therefore, it’s vital to be able to control how you speak to yourself.

Our tips for self-talk include:

  • Talking to yourself in the second person (i.e. “You can do this”), which may be more effective than the first person (i.e. “I can do this”). Research has found that those who used the word “you” or their name at the start of their advice to themselves reported feeling more confident and less nervous.
  • Telling yourself what to do. Giving yourself instructions has been demonstrated to help athletes improve their attention and how successfully they perform under pressure.
  • Talking to yourself in an upbeat manner can increase your motivation. This type of self-talk can also help block out potentially distracting thoughts and aid self-control, especially when large amounts of effort and endurance are required.

4. Controlling your emotions

To maximise performance, it is important that you stay in control of your emotions, both before and during an event. Focusing on the right things before a race will ensure your emotions are controlled. You should be:

  • Reminding yourself of your preparation
  • Focusing on yourself and not comparing with others
  • Seeing the competition as a challenge, not a threat
  • Remembering the setbacks you have overcome

5. Stay focused

As discussed above, being able to control your emotions and stay focused on your performance is vital. But how do you stay focused on the right thing?

  • Be where your feet are. Your focus needs to be on what you need to do in that moment to get to the next stage of the race. Don’t start thinking about how much of the race you have left, stay in the moment. This will help give you a sense of certainty and confidence.
  • Control the controllables – this means focusing on what you can actually control and accepting situations or problems that you have no influence over.
  • One way to stay focussed on the process, rather than the outcome is to ask yourself: “what do I need to do to perform at my best?”

Final thoughts

Training for months and months is one thing, but if you can’t train your brain to have the right mindset, you won’t be able to perform. In the end, it will be your mind that lets you down, not your body.

These tips will help you to push through those moments where you think you can’t go on, or when you make a mistake and become frustrated. They will help you to perform to your full potential!

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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