University researches mental toughness in elite runners
By Sarah Wood
New research at Hartpury University has raised the question of whether elite athletes competing in ultra-marathons possess higher levels of mental toughness than competitors in other sports.
A study led by Geoff Lovell, professor in sports psychology at Hartpury University, suggests that high levels of mental toughness enable elite ultra-marathon athletes to complete race distances in excess of 100km, while enduring extreme pain and stresses on their bodies.
Professor Lovell and his research team analysed data from 56 elite athletes competing in the 2019 Hawaiian Ultra Running Team's Trail 100-mile endurance run (HURT100).
These athletes completed two widely recognised sports industry surveys - the Mental Toughness Questionnaire (SMTQ) and the Endurance Sport Self-Efficacy Scale (ESSES) - to support the research.
Professor Lovell said: "Mental toughness has been defined as a personal capacity to produce consistently high levels of performance, despite everyday challenges and stressors as well as significant adversities.
"Previous research concluded mental toughness to be an important factor for success in mixed martial arts, football, tennis, hockey, cricket and rugby league.
"This initial investigation provided novel findings demonstrating that ultra-marathon runners measure significantly higher than other sports in mental toughness.
"However, we look forward to carrying out further research into this area as there were certain limitations with this study."
Professor Lovell said the research, published in the science journal PLOS One, suggested that athletes needed to reach a threshold of mental toughness to be able to train for and compete in elite ultra-marathons.
Therefore, athletes looking to progress to compete at the highest levels of the sport might benefit from psychological techniques that will help them to develop their mental toughness.
Professor Lovell said: "Psychological skills training focused on increasing mental toughness and self-efficacy could potentially help in improving the likelihood an athlete would advance into the highest category of ultra-marathon performance.
"Interestingly, however, our study did not find that elite athletes with higher levels of mental toughness necessarily performed better in the race, in terms of finishing time or race position, than those runners who were considered to have lower levels of mental toughness.
"Therefore, other factors in addition to mental toughness must play a significant part in affecting race performance."
Research at Hartpury is fully integrated within teaching, with staff research active in the areas in which they teach and many dissertations embedded in larger scale research projects.
Hartpury has specialist sports academies in men's rugby, women's rugby, men's football, women's football, rowing, golf, modern pentathlon, netball, equine and athlete performance.
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