By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
If you stay in the ultramarathon game long enough, it’s a near certainty that you will have at least one DNF at some point along that journey. Additionally, while some of these DNFs are unavoidable, I will make the argument that many are caused, in whole or part, by some training or preparation error. We see this play out in the field of competition, with certain athletes having few (if any) DNFs to their name, while with others it seems to be a coin flip of a chance that they will see the finish line. Certain races that are outstandingly difficult (like the notorious Badwater 135) have relatively high finish rates, while other races (like the Leadville Trail 100) will have finish rates of 50-60%. This dichotomy has always made me wonder, What aspects of an athlete’s mental framework lends itself to a finish or a DNF?
Ultrarunners like to pride themselves for being a hearty lot. Whether it’s the tally of miles they stacked up in training, the snowstorm they braved for hours, or that nagging plantar fasciitis that did not get the better of them, let’s face it, we like a little bit (maybe a lot) of adversity to overcome. As it turns out, having a high degree of mental toughness is, in fact, a requisite of sorts for ultrarunners. A recent study published in PLOS ONE surveyed 56 ultramarathoners racing the HURT 100 using a questionnaire called The Mental Toughness Questionnaire. They found that the mental toughness scores of ultrarunners significantly outpaced those from a wide sampling of other sports, including female hockey players, professional Welch Footballers, South African tennis players and even professional Mixed Martial Artists.
Now, before you get too comfortable on that high horse and challenge Connor McGregor to a fist fight based on this information, let’s take a moment and figure out what this actually means. First off, you have as much of a chance in the octagon with ‘The Notorious’ as this article does in willing a Pulitzer, your superior mental toughness score be dammed. In fact, your superior mental toughness might not be all that meaningful, even in ultrarunning. As it turns out (at least according to this one survey) higher mental toughness scores did not correlate with better race performances (either by way of their HURT 100 finish or ITRA scores). As the authors conclude, “(For ultrarunners) once a mental toughness threshold is met, other factors are likely to be more influential in determining [sic] ultramarathon performance’. So, the jury is still out, and at this time we can’t convincingly conclude that improving mental toughness is key in preventing DNFs.
Self-efficacy, intent and avoidance coping
If mental toughness only offers an initial bar to clear to get into the ultrarunning club, are there other psychological traits that ultrarunners possess that will help avoid a potential DNF? A French research team surveyed over 200 ultrarunners on motivational variables, attitudes, subjective norms, self-efficacy and coping strategies using a questionnaire known as the COPE inventory to ascertain if there are psychosocial differences between finishers and non-finishers. And indeed, they did find some differences. Mainly, finishers had higher scores for self-efficacy (believing that you have the ability to succeed) and intention to finish, both of which might be the most obvious findings in all of human history. But before we throw these results into the “stating the obvious” bucket, let’s pair the outcomes up with correlations from their DNF counterparts.
In the same study, the research team found that non-finishers had higher scores for avoidance coping. Avoidance coping is a way of avoiding stressors or hardship as opposed to dealing with them headfirst. In everyday life, this is the equivalent of not balancing your checkbook when you know you don’t have enough money in the bank, or using drugs and/or alcohol to escape reality. Avoidance coping is considered a maladaptive coping strategy because you never really face the problems in front of you, you merely avoid them. We see avoidance coping specifically in ultramarathon running with things like distraction (using music to pass the monotony of miles), denial (this hill isn’t THAT big) and behavioral disengagement (fu@k this sh!t).
So now we have both sides of the DNF coin. Believe in yourself and have high intentions on finishing and you stand a lower chance of DNFing. Avoid reality, and eventually the DNF monster will ask for a piggyback ride.
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What to do about it
Here’s where the rubber meets the road. While I appreciate psychological research, if it has one glaring flaw it is overly focused on correlation (self-efficacy is related to finishing, for example) as opposed to adaptative responses (here’s how you improve self-efficacy). So, I’m going to put my sports psychology hat on for a few exercises you can do to improve self-efficacy and your intention to finish, and at the same time be less reliant on avoidance coping mechanisms. Remember, the survey done by the team of French researchers used a universally accepted questionnaire that was only minorly tailored to ultrarunners. All they found is that athletes who displayed certain characteristics in normal, real-life (i.e. not sport specific) situations were more likely to finish or DNF. But, I feel we can take some of these findings and translate it into training. If you are really worried about DNF in your next race, or if you have a history of DNFing that you would like to correct, take note.
You can do it. No, seriously, you can. Almost all ultramarathons contain a reasonable amount of uncertainty. It’s fine, completely normal and part of the process. You won’t do a 100-mile training run in preparation for a 100-mile race (or at least you shouldn’t). And the fact that there will be a gap (perhaps a sizeable one) between your longest training run and your race leads to an over fixation on long runs, and particularly your longest long run. This fixation aside, athletes who can cope with this gap have a higher self-efficacy, just like the athletes in the French survey. They literally believe that they can do it, even without past proof.
So how can you gain an appreciable amount of self-efficacy? The answer is in the past. I advise my athletes that at least every 3 months, go back and look at what you have accomplished in training. Remember, YOU did that. YOU ran 50 miles that week that your teenage graduated from high school. You set a PR on your local climb. Regular reviews of your training program reveal and reinforce what you have accomplished. Highlighting this quarterly, monthly or even weekly reminds you that you can accomplish things when you put you mind to them. These reminders unfold on race day when faced with the uncertainty of distance (‘I’ve never gone this long), feeling of insecurity (‘I’ve never felt this bad’) or doubt. Remember you HAVE and you CAN.
Intention to finish
Your race does not have to go out the window when you’re ‘A’ goal evaporates. Many times, particularly when athletes are racing a particular course or distance for the first time, will identify time and/or pacing goals. This is all fine and good, until those times go out the window. Suddenly, “I’m not going to finish in 20 hours” becomes, “I’m not going to finish at all.” We see this with elite athletes as well when they fall out of contention and then subsequently DNF from the race, even when they have copious amounts of time to finish (and for the record, that’s fine if ‘win or go home’ is in their performance construct). The failure in both cases is the same, the newbie runner thinking she can finish in 20 hours and the elite athlete who drops out both have not clearly stated their intention to finish. So, if finishing your next ultramarathon is important to you, state it! Tell it to your friends, write it on a piece of paper, buy a billboard to proclaim (OK, that was a little far-fetched) or all of the above. Don’t just go into the race with a time, place or ‘give it my all’ goal. Go in with the specific intention to finish as well.
Disconnecting from reality is at the heart of avoidance coping. In an ultramarathon setting, it’s trying to trick yourself into thinking that the aid station is ‘just around the corner’ or that there are ‘only 5ks left’. How many times have you told yourself that (or heard it from your well-intended pacer)? I have always viewed these strategies as one-trick ponies. They work once (maybe) but the magic wears off after a short period of time because fundamentally, you avoiding reality by lying to yourself (or being lied to by your pacer). And when the magic wears off, a DNF can ensue. The reality is that the aid station is 30 minutes away and there are far more than 5 kilometers left. That said, if disconnecting is the poison, immersion into reality is the antidote. Athletes finding themselves constantly tuning into Taylor Swift’s Cardigan to pass the time on their next training run should actually be tuning into themselves more, knowing where they are, how far they have run and how long the next climb is. Athletes trying to avoid the pain of an interval with distraction techniques (counting breaths, music, etc.) should actually be focusing on how their body feels during such discomfort. You can use a body scan technique commonly used in mediation and as I describe in this article to further enhance your connection to the here and now, particularly during hard runs and workouts.
Preventing DNFs are not as elusive as we might think, and research is starting to tease this out more and more. A certain threshold of mental toughness might help. Moreover, putting some intentional training and reflection time toward improving self-efficacy, being steadfast and deliberate with your intention to finish, and eschewing avoidance coping are the real keys in finishing your next race.