31 January 2014

Is it more important to be physically or mentally tough to run a mountain ultramarathon? Mental strategies to overcome the heights and distance

I saw a blog post on the Adventure Blog discussing whether it was more important to be mentally or physically tough to climb Mount Everest. The blog post refer to another post by Alan Arnette asking the same question. It is a brilliant post by Arnette vividly describing the difficulties on each step up to the summit. However, I was a little disappointed as it really does not try to answer the question, instead Alan simply says you need both and to be in balance. Yes, that is of course true, but what is most important and can you overcome physical weakness with a superior mental strength and strategy or is it vice versa? He also only focuses on the way up to the top, while I think, and sadly enough statistics on mortality on the mountain prove me right, that the way down is even more challenging.

Mount Everest
Nevertheless, reading these posts led me to remember an article I read a couple of years ago by Burke and Orlick entitled “Mental strategies of elite high altitude climbers: Overcoming adversity on Mount Everest” published in J Hum Perform in Extreme Environments 2003; 7: 4. In this article they describe a study where they performed in-depth interviews of ten climbers who had reached the summit of Mount Everest at least once. In the interviews they identified various mental strategies to overcome the adversities of the extreme environment both during the ascent and the descent. During the ascent they revealed that the climbers relied on focus (10 out of 10 climbers), short-term goal setting (8/10), feeling support from other climbers (4/10), drawing on past experiences (4/10), belief in personal capacities (4/10), connecting with one’s body (6/10). During the descent the climbers highlighted focus (10/10) and short-term goal setting (5/10) as the most important mental strategies as they really are exhausted. A general comment from the climbers was that success on Mount Everest is 70% mental. Not surprisingly, the authors use the findings in this study as support for Orlick’s own theory about the Wheel of Excellence based on interviews with world-class elite athletes. The seven elements of excellence in this model include commitment, belief, positive imagery, mental readiness, full focus, distraction control, and on-going learning. His website about the Wheel of Excellence is really interesting as it contains plenty of inspiring and thoughtful interviews with high performing individuals published in the Journal of Excellence where he is the editor.

Asking the same question whether it is more important to be physically or mentally tough not when climbing Mount Everest but to run a mountain ultramarathon there are no studies to refer to. There are however plenty of studies of mental coping strategies during running in general. A good recent review is “Do 'mind over muscle' strategies work? Examining the effects of attentional association and dissociation on exertional, affective and physiological responses to exercise” by Lind and colleagues published in Sports Med 2009; 39: 743-764. As the title says, the article focuses on different dissociative (for instance listening to music while running) or associative (for instance focusing on the breathing or heartbeats while running) strategies. I will write more about this in a later blog post, but the current research tend to favor association as a better coping strategy to avoid to “hit the wall” during long endurance events, at least when racing, and this is also my personal strategy for the most part, even though I put on some music for instance some of the nights during TDG. A very interesting recent article I read was about the positive effects of “self-talk” on endurance performance by Blanchfield and colleagues in pre-print in Med & Sci in Sports & Exercise.

It is clear that we use mental strategies to control the physical strain and there are indications that this is more important during longer running than shorter (see for instance “How do humans control physiological strain during strenuous endurance exercise?” by Esteve-Lanao and colleagues in PLoS ONE 2008; 3: e2943). There is also a lively debate about the so called central governor model of regulation of fatigue proposed by primarly Timothy D Noakes (see for instance “The central governor model of exercise regulation applied to the Marathon” in Sports Med 2007; 37: 374-377). My personal view is that, albeit physical preparedness is essential to complete a mountain ultramarathon, mental toughness is more important both while training before and during the actual race.

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