What Athletes Can Teach Us About Productivity and Perseverance

group of men swinging out over a pool of water at Tough Mudder

Giant swing over water at Tough Mudder | Source: Tough Mudder

There’s a lot to learn from athletes. Even if you’re not athletically gifted, or moonlight as a pick-up basketball player, studying the way the world’s top performers — athletic and otherwise — manage to climb to the summit of their respective industries is a task worth doing. We’ve looked at how the world’s top golf pros are able to keep their cool and sink putts with the eyes of the world upon them, for example. Now, we’re going to see what we can learn from the mental toughness of ultra-runners.

An ultra runner, if you’re wondering, is someone who engages in runs of very, very long distances. We’re talking longer than your standard marathon, so anything over 26 miles. As most people would struggle with a simple run of a mile or two, there are a special breed of athletes who can run for dozens and dozens of miles on end. That’s not easy, and requires an incredible amount of physical and mental stamina.

But, how do ultra runners develop that stamina? And how can you take what they know, and apply it to your own circumstances? You’re likely not running any marathons soon, but you can still take the lessons in mental toughness and apply it to your own struggles — be it long days at the office, or huge projects you need to push through.

A new case study published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology sank its teeth into the secrets of ultra runners, and came away with at least a partial explanation of their secrets. As it turns out, it’s almost entirely mental — and the further into a run these athletes get, the more pleasure they actually get out of what they’re doing.

“A case study report from a 49-year-old female ultra-distance runner, running a 3641 kilometre adventure event during a 10-week period was made. Data were collected during 15 weeks with three self-report questionnaires,” the study says.

“The main result showed that perceived exertion level had a statistically significant negative relationship with negative mood and a positive statistically significant relationship with positive mood. Results also showed a statistically significant difference between the three measurement points based on the variable perceived exertion level. In addition, the runner’s narration suggested four main categories of psychologically assisting attributes: motivation, group cohesiveness, self-awareness, and mental stamina.”

So, we’re looking at a woman who ran more than 2,200 miles over a ten week period, and the study was trying to determine how she was able to do it — both mentally, and physically.”The findings highlight the complex balance between extreme physical load and feelings of comfort and elevated mood. Another finding is that the joint effect of different psychological factors – especially the runner’s high self-awareness, strong-minded attitude, and ability to use humour in problematic situations – was helpful during the run.”

The short and sweet of it is that the harder the woman in question pushed herself — that is, the more physically taxing her running became — the more positive her mood. It became a rewarding experiencing, rather than a difficult one.

That, right there is the secret: ultrarunners (and possibly others who engage in similar feats of endurance and stamina) are able to push through physical and mental barriers because they’re triggering a reward mechanism. They like doing what they do. It’s a positive experience for them. This would not be the case for most of us, however. But there is something to be learned.

Think about the things that reward you in your circumstances, whatever it is that you do. During the course of a workday, you find yourself “in the zone,” and rewarded in one way or another. It’s during these times that you are the most resilient, productive, and able to persevere. The trick is to hack into that mindset and effort-reward system to allow yourself to push through stressful times.

And if you can manage to find a way to make stressful or difficult tasks easy or enjoyable, as in the case of this ultrarunner? You’ll emerge a hero. You’ll be able to take things on that your co-workers or rivals won’t, or can’t. It’s a matter of self-discipline and training yourself to become mentally tough. Mental toughness and perseverance are some of the most valuable traits you can have, and fostering them will pay off in the long run.

You may not be able to run 30 miles in a day, but by using the mind hacks employed by people who can, you can still race ahead of the pack.

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