Authors: Megan Meckfessel and Lindsay Ross-Stewart
Department of Applied Health, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Edwardsville, IL, USA
Department of Applied Health
Campus Box 1126
Edwardsville, Illinois 62026-1126
Megan Meckfessel, MS, is a Cross Country Coach, trainer, and Community Health Coach in O’Fallon Il. She is a marathon and ultra-distance runner.
Lindsay Ross-Stewart, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Health and the Director of Mental Performance for the Intercollegiate Athletics Department at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Her research focuses on the role of self-efficacy in athletic performance.
Differences in psychological skills in ultraendurance athletes and endurance athletes
The purpose of this study was to investigate the differences in self-efficacy, self-motivation, and mood between ultraendurance athletes and endurance athletes. Forty-six endurance athletes and fifty-six ultraendurance athletes completed the Profile of Mood States, General Self-Efficacy Scale and Self-Motivation Inventory. The results of a MANOVA with sport type (endurance versus ultraendurance) as the independent variable and the total scores on all psychological variables and the subscales for self-motivation, mood, and self-efficacy as the dependent variables revealed a significant difference between endurance and ultraendurance athletes. The results indicated that ultraendurance athletes had higher overall motivation compared to endurance athletes. They also had higher scores for both drive and persistence. There were no differences between the groups for self- efficacy or mood. The results indicate that motivation may be the primary psychological factor differentiating between ultraendurance and endurance athletes. From an applied perspective it may be that athletes looking to make the leap from endurance sports to ultraendurance sports should focus on applied techniques for increasing motivation.
Key Words: Motivation, Self-efficacy, Mood, Ultra athletes
From the Tarahumara, made famous by Christopher McDougall in his book Born to Run (21), to the various Kenyan ethnic groups of Africa whose many traditions and culture are formed around distance running (24), the experiences of ultraendurance athletes around the world have been of interest to the average person who can only imagine competing in such grueling events. In the United States, the evolution of organized ultra-distance running began as a horse race, the Western States Trail Ride. In 1974, when Gordy Ainsleigh’s horse was unexpectedly injured before the race began, he decided to complete the course on his own two feet instead, and the Western States Endurance Run was born (40). Almost fifty years later, the sport of ultra-running has grown from 2,890 race completions in 1980 (35), to over 611, 000 in 2020 (27).
“An ultramarathon is any race which is longer than the official marathon distance of twenty-six miles, 385 yards. Thus, an ultramarathoner is anyone who has completed at least one of these very long foot races” (20, p. 178). These events are often not only known for their duration, but for other challenging aspects such as terrain and climate. For example, athletes competing in the Badwater ultramarathon run through three mountain ranges of Death Valley, experiencing 117-degree temperatures (badwater.com).
Ultraendurance events are not just for runners. Linderman, et al. (15), define an ultraendurance event as any continuous event lasting longer than 5-6 hours. Other endurance sports such as swimming and biking also attract athletes looking to complete longer distance events. Currently, the Marathon Swimmers Federation considers ten kilometers to be the minimum distance of a “marathon swim” (16). “Ultra” cycling events are not as specifically defined, but century rides, 100-mile non-competitive bike rides, are considered the cycling equivalent to running a marathon, which is a notable milestone among amateur cyclists looking for distance bragging rights (38)
Beyond endurance events, ultraendurance events pose additional challenges for athletes. Given the intensity and duration of ultraendurance events, and the potential for physical discomfort during the event, research has been conducted related to the physiological experience of these competitors (e.g., 17; 28; 3). However, a limited amount of research has been done on the psychological characteristics of ultraendurance competitors. It is therefore the aim of this study to investigate psychological constructs of ultraendurance athletes, in comparison to their endurance athlete counterparts.
As defined by Ryan and Deci to be motivated, “means to be moved to do something” (29, p. 54). Although limited, the few studies done on ultra-endurance participants’ motivations have led to interesting findings. The motivations and goal orientations of female ultra-distance runners were assessed by Krouse et al. (12), who found that general health orientation and psychological coping were found to be the two strongest motivational factors. This study along with others (e.g., 9) have indicated that female ultra-runners have goal orientations centered around task proficiency in three categories: to win, to complete a challenge, and to enjoy the race experience. Qualitative interviews with ultra-runners have also indicated that runners are motivated by the rewards of being a part of the community of ultra-runners, the value of preparation and race strategy, race strategy management, the satisfaction of personal discovery and the personal achievement when describing their experiences (32). These findings are different from those found by Ogles and Masters (23) who found that marathon runners’ motivations could be clustered into five different categories: running enthusiasts, lifestyle managers, personal goal achievers, personal accomplishers, and competitive achievers. These differences are potentially due to differences between the motives of ultraendurance and endurance athletes. Overall, research in the field has found that ultramarathoners are motivated by personal achievement and health outcomes the most, with competition with others as one of the least motivating factors in their decision to run ultramarathons. Although original research on differences in motivation between ultraendurance and endurance athletes did not find differences between the groups (20), more recent research has found that ultramarathoners have higher motivation scores related to affiliation and life meaning than those who ran shorter distances (37). The lack of research in the area, and lack of consistency in results of those studies done, leads to a clear need for further research on the motivations of ultraendurance athletes.
Another area of ultraendurance athletes psychological make up lacking research is that of mood. A recent literature review of the psychology of ultramarathoners indicated that seven studies have analyzed mood using the Profile of Mood States (POMS) and the Brunel Moods Scale, a version of the POMS, to assess tension, depression, anger, vigor, fatigue, and confusion in ultra-cyclists and ultramarathoners. The results showed that running an ultramarathon led to increased fatigue and decreased vigor, with studies also indicating it could take up to a month for these mood states to go back to baseline (26). Of note is that of the eleven studies highlighted, none assessed mood at baseline, opposed to before, during, or after an event.
Furthering the connection between emotion and performance, researchers evaluated the connection between trait emotional intelligence and emotional state change in athletes competing in an endurance performance (14). It was found that endurance athletes experience increases in anger, confusion, depression, and tension concurrently with an increase in fatigue and a reduction of vigor after competition. This relationship between emotion and performance is known as the “inverse iceberg profile” and is associated with poor performance in several sports (8). Furthermore, results indicated that athletes low in trait emotional intelligence showed greater increases in anger and depression.
Ultraendurance sports require coping with unpredictable environmental changes, physical pain, fatigue, and emotional challenges that set them apart from other sports. Jaeschke et al. (10) conducted a qualitative inquiry into the perceptions of ultramarathon runners. The comments from the ten Ultramarathon competitors were organized into themes of persistence, awareness/perspective, can deal with physical fatigue, too “crazy” to know when to quit, positive self-talk, goal oriented, committed to finish, obsessive, calm, stubborn, prepared, flexible, having mental reserves, and possessing the ability to overcome adversity. These themes clearly focus on areas related to psychological skill (e.g., calm) and strategy use (e.g., positive self-talk). Ultramarathoners use of psychological strategies was also highlighted by Acevedo et al. (1) who reported ultraendurance athletes used strategies such as imagery, goal setting and self-talk to cope with the challenges of their sport.
Research has investigated the role of self-efficacy in endurance and ultraendurance sport. Specifically, McCormick, et al. (18) conducted a systematic literature review to identify practical psychological interventions that improve endurance performance and psychological factors that affect endurance performance. The review of thirty-three studies found that correlates of endurance performance include a positive affect, self-efficacy, the use of psychological strategies, personal standards perfectionism, performance approach goals and self-set personal goals. While the purpose of their research was to provide support for evidenced based practice, they identified a need for further sport specific and distance specific research.
Committing to the training, preparation, and completion of an ultra-event, requires the acceptance of a certain amount of pain and discomfort. However, this does not deter these athletes. Freund et al. (7), sought to determine differences in pain tolerance and in personality profile between eleven ultramarathoners and a control group. Personality characteristics were evaluated using the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI) and the General Self Efficacy Test (GSE). Results of the TCI found the athletes to be more spiritually accepting and self-transcendent, but also less harm avoidant and more reward dependent. The results of the GSE showed no significant difference between the ultra-athletes and the control group. The implications of these results may be limited by the small sample size of athletes registered for one race and may not represent a good cross section of ultramarathoners (7).
Considering the mental fortitude that one would expect an athlete to need to complete such challenging events, it is surprising how little research has been done investigating the psychological make up of these athletes. The sparse research is even more surprising when you consider researchers have been arguing for more research into ultraendurance athletes for a long time (18). Roebuck once again highlighted this need et al. (26) in their systematic review of the research on ultramarathon runners’ psychology.
Therefore, the purpose of this study was to investigate the differences in motivation, mood states, and self-efficacy between ultraendurance athletes and endurance athletes. Based on previous research it was hypothesized that ultraendurance athletes would show higher levels of self-motivation than endurance athletes. Due to the research on both mood states and self-efficacy being inconsistent, no hypotheses were made in relation to these psychological variables.
Participants for this study were categorized as ultraendurance or endurance athletes based on their self-reported participation in physical competitive events. Ultraendurance athletes had completed at least one ultramarathon, Ironman triathlon, or a competitive cycling or swimming event lasting longer than five hours. Endurance athletes were those who reported never participating in an ultra-endurance event, but who did report training for shorter individual events such as marathons, triathlons, road races, and cycling events regardless of finishing time. A total of 102 participants ranging in age from 18 – 82 (m = 44.90) participated in the study. Forty-six were categorized as endurance athletes (male n = 16, female n = 30) and 56 (male n = 28, female n = 27) were categorized as ultraendurance athletes. Of note is that although all participants are being referred to as athletes in this study, none of the participants were paid for their participation in ultra-events.
IRB approval was received from the primary author’s home institution. Participants were recruited from the ultra-athlete community and the endurance athlete community by convenience sampling, as well as through social media. An electronic version of the survey, which included an informed consent form, was distributed through social media groups whose members are largely endurance and ultra-endurance athletes. Requests were posted to the groups and members were asked to follow the link to complete the survey. In addition, information cards briefly explaining the project were available at local biking and running stores where athletes frequent and where running, and triathlon clubs meet. With the short explanation, a scannable QR code was printed on the cards that when scanned with a phone or tablet linked the participant to the informed consent and questionnaire.
Background questionnaire: Background information was collected regarding age, gender, highest level of education completed and experience participating in endurance and ultraendurance events.
Profile of Mood States Revised (POMSr;7): POMSr is a self-report questionnaire used to assess affective state. The 40-question measure assesses levels of total mood disturbance (TMD) as well as levels of tension, depression, anger, vigor, esteem related affect, fatigue and confusion using a five-point Likert type scale ranging from 0 = “not at all” to 4 “extremely”. Higher TMD scores are indicative of a more negative emotional state. The revised POMs have been shown to be reliable and valid (e.g., Morfeld et al., 2007).
General Self-Efficacy Scale (GSE;31): GSE is a ten-item self-report measure designed for the purpose of predicting an individual’s ability to cope with daily hassles as well as the ability to adjust to stressful events. It is considered that a high level of perceived self-efficacy reflects the belief that one can cope with adversity and challenges. Participants are asked to respond to situational statements such as, “I can always manage to solve difficult problems if I try hard enough,” and “I can remain calm when facing difficulties because I can rely on my coping abilities.” Responses are based on a four-point scale with answers ranging from 1 = “not true at all” to 4 = “exactly true.” The internal reliability of the scale is reported to be between .76 and .90. (Schwarzer & Jerusalem, 1995; Schwarzer & Jerusalem, 2018).
Self-Motivation Inventory (SMI,4): The SMI is designed to assess self-motivation as a behavioral tendency to persevere regardless of reinforcements and in situations that are completely voluntary. This 35-question tool has subscales in commitment ( “I am not very good at committing myself to do things”), lethargy (e.g., “I am basically lazy”), drive (e.g., “Sometimes I push myself harder than I should”) discipline (e.g., “I’m good at keeping promises especially ones I make to myself”), persistence ( e.g., “I can persist in spite of pain or discomfort”), and reliability (e.g., “I have a strong desire to achieve”) are rated on a 5 point Likert Type scale (A = “extremely uncharacteristic of me”, E = “extremely characteristic of me”) The SMI has been found to have an internal reliability of .88. (22).
Descriptive statistics were run for all total scores for the three psychological skills: confidence, motivation, and mood. For general self-efficacy, the mean score for the endurance group was 32.27 (sd = 4.16) compared to a mean of 33.53 (sd = 3.94) in the ultraendurance group. The mean score for mood in the endurance group was 83.76 (sd = 18.24), compared to a mean of 83.75 (sd = 14.15) in the ultraendurance group. For self-motivation, the mean score for the endurance group was 135.47 (sd = 15.33) compared to a mean of 141.93 (sd = 13.93) in the ultraendurance group. For the descriptive statistics for each subscale separated by group see Table 1.
TABLE 1. Descriptive Statistics and alpha scores for Self-Efficacy, Mood, Motivation, and all subscales.
Of interest in assessing the descriptive statistics of the sample was that both the ultraendurance and the endurance athlete’s mood profiles, mapped to the “iceberg model” of mood profile associated with successful sport performance, and previously identified in world class runners by Morgan and Pollock (20). See Figure 1.
Figure 1: Mood Profiles of Ultra-Endurance and Endurance Athletes
One-Way ANOVAs were performed to compare endurance participants scores to ultraendurance participants scores for self-motivation, mood, and self-efficacy as well as the subscales for self-motivation and mood. The results indicated there were no statistically significant difference between endurance and ultraendurance athlete’s mood profiles (total and subscales) or general self-efficacy.
For motivation, however, there were significant differences between groups. Specifically, there was a statistically significant difference for total self-motivation score (F (1, 100) = 4.95, p= .03, partial η2 = .05, 1-ß = .60). Ultraendurance athletes (m =141.93, sd = 13.93) had significantly higher scores compared to endurance athletes (m = 135.47, sd = 15.33). Along with the significant overall motivation score, two subscales were found to have a significant difference between groups. Specifically, the ultraendurance group had significantly higher mean scores for both drive (F (1, 100) = 12.18, p = .00, partial η2 = .11, 1-ß = .93) and persistence (F (1, 100) = 3.88, p = .05, η = .04, 1-ß = .50). For drive, ultraendurance athletes had a mean score of 36.91 (sd = 5.45) compared to a mean score of 33.17 (sd = 5.29) in endurance athletes. When it came to persistence, ultraendurance athletes had a mean score of 8.75 (sd = 1.21) compared to a mean score of 8.13 (sd = 1.94) in the endurance group. These findings indicate that the ultraendurance athletes perceived themselves to be more persistent and driven compared to the endurance athlete’s perceptions of themselves. For p values for all subscales see Table 1.
The purpose of this study was to investigate the differences in motivation, self-efficacy, and mood states between ultraendurance athletes and endurance athletes. It was hypothesized that ultraendurance athletes would have more self-motivation than endurance athletes. The results support this hypothesis indicating a significant difference in total motivation between the endurance group and the ultraendurance group. While no significant differences were found in the commitment, reliability, lethargy or discipline subscales, the results show the ultraendurance athletes had significantly higher motivation scores for drive and persistence in comparison to the endurance athletes. These differences may explain the motivating factors that lead an endurance athlete to become an ultraendurance competitor. Future research should investigate both persistence and drive as potential predictors of whether a person is an endurance or ultraendurance athlete. Furthermore, past research has primarily focused on runners’ motivation, while this study assessed athletes from various ultraendurance and endurance sports. Future research should compare across sports to see if there are differences in motivations across the ultraendurance sports.
Given the rigors of training and participation in endurance events, it is consistent that the two groups do not differ in commitment, reliability, lethargy, or discipline. Considering the added challenges of training and participation in ultraendurance events, drive and persistence can be seen as the psychological traits that set the groups apart. Of note is that drive, and persistence are both associated with Grit. Specifically, grit is defined as “passion and perseverance for long term goals” (5; 6). Grittiness is associated with people working harder even in the face of setbacks and staying focused on a goal opposed to quickly changing goals. As ultraendurance athletes need to not only work extremely hard even in the face of physical and psychological challenges, but also stay focused on the goal of completing ultraendurance events, it makes sense that they would be high in grittiness. As grit is often considered both a personality trait and something that can be trained (36), it could be that people who are higher in grittiness are more likely to participate in ultraendurance events, and/or that participating in these events increases one’s grittiness.
Further research investigating this relationship would add significant value to our understanding of ultraendurance athletes. Currently, there does not seem to be research on grit with this group of athletes. This is even though research has found that motivation and grit are correlated (36). These results lend support to the need for future research to investigate the impact of using techniques for increasing persistence and drive specifically, with a focus on increasing their grittiness to help athletes wo desire to go from endurance sports to ultraendurance sports. Focusing on motivational techniques in applied work is supported by recent research that found that using psychological techniques, focused on motivation, were effective in getting non-runners who signed up, to train for and complete an ultramarathon event (25). This is also in line with the findings of McCormick et al. (19) who found that ultramarathoners who completed a motivational self-talk intervention found the intervention helpful and were still using the strategies six months after intervention.
Findings related to mood state indicated that both groups had identical mean scores, and both groups demonstrated that they had the “iceberg profile” for mood. This is very different from the findings of research that has assessed mood pre, during, post or within a month of competing in an event who found that fatigue increased while vigor decreased after competition (e.g., 1; 14 & 33). Although these findings are consistent for post competition, it may be that ultraendurance and endurance athletes have a baseline mood consistent with elite athletes. What is of particular interest to this finding is that participation in endurance and ultraendurance sports is recreational with the participants in this study being people who compete not as their job but instead as a “hobby” which makes this comparison even more notable as traditionally the Iceberg profile is associated with world class and elite athletes.
Although more research in this area is warranted before any conclusions can be made, it stands to postulate that due to the intense demands of both sports, to participate in either group you need a positive mood state and a similar mood profile to elite athletes. Future research investigating the psychological characteristics of ultraendurance athletes in comparison to elite athletes versus recreational athletes who do not compete in such distances would add to our understanding of mood in ultraendurance athletes. It would also be of interest to assess any differences between recreational ultraendurance athletes and those who compete in ultraendurance athletes as professional athletes.
The third psychological variable assessed was general self-efficacy. Results indicated that both groups had moderate self-efficacy scores with no significant difference in perceived self-efficacy between the two groups. A lack of past research makes it impossible to make inferences regarding this finding. However, the moderate self-efficacy scores, suggest that it would be of value for those working in applied sport psychology to work with ultraendurance and endurance athletes on efficacy in the future. It would also be of interest to see if there are differences in performance outcomes (time, finishing, number of events completed) in those with high versus low efficacy.
There are limitations to this study. Specifically, since convenience sampling was used for this study, it cannot be assumed that the groups were representative of all endurance and ultraendurance athletes. Representation of various sport disciplines may not be equal and regional differences in athletes may exist, but those differences were not accounted for using this collection method. It should also be noted that the same size of 102 participants was small for inferential statistics which may be why in some cases the power was lower than the desired .80. Future research with a larger sample would therefore be of value in understanding the findings in this study. Additionally, the endurance group and ultraendurance group in this study encompassed a wide range of events. Differences between athletes competing in specific distances and disciplines were not assessed.
Considering these factors, future research should continue to investigate the psychological traits of ultraendurance athletes. More specific comparisons regarding distance and discipline should be made. For example, comparisons between ultramarathon runners and those who had not exceeded the 5-kilometer distance or 10-kilometer distance and comparisons between Ironman triathletes and those who had completed only shorter distance triathlons may provide additional insight into what drives participation in ultraendurance events. Another area of interesting comparison may be found in the number of these events an athlete has completed. The preparation for one ultraendurance event is a notable undertaking, so additional research could explain differences in athletes that choose to train for and compete in these events repetitively. Finally, it is recommended that future research focus on the role of grit in ultraendurance sport participation.
Overall, the findings of this study indicate that ultraendurance athletes and endurance athletes have similar mood profiles, mimicking those of elite athletes with an “iceberg profile.” Furthermore, they have similarly moderate efficacy scores. They differ however in their motivation levels with ultraendurance athletes having higher overall motivation scores, and higher persistence and drive scores compared to their endurance counterparts.
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
Much of the research that is directed at endurance and ultraendurance athletes focuses only on the physiological aspects of competing in endurance and ultraendurance events. Little attention is given to the psychological aspects of recreational participation in endurance sports. This research suggests to the endurance and ultraendurance community that persistence and drive are areas of difference between completing endurance and ultraendurance events, highlighting the need for more research on grit and motivational interventions with those who desire to complete ultraendurance sporting events.
The authors would like to acknowledge Savana Robinson for her help on this manuscript.
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