The Unique Psychology of an Ultrarunner
By: Matt Laye
It doesn’t take a psychologist to know that runners are a bit different in the head (which is a good thing since I’m a physiologist). Ultrarunners on the other hand, well, most people think they more than just a bit different. Indeed, recent data on the psychological makeup of ultrarunners shows just that. They operate a little differently in both good and potentially not-so-good ways.
One of the reasons you (the reader) are likely attracted to ultramarathons, is that they require a unique set of skills to complete. Certainly, specific physical skills are necessary but ultras, more so than non-ultra and road races, require specific psychological skills. A recent systematic review summarized several different psychological traits of ultrarunners including, but not limited to: personality, moods, pain tolerance, motivation and psychopathological (mostly addictive) traits.2
Let’s start our overview with personalities and reasons for running. Most studies (9 of 11) which examined personality traits found a difference between the typical ultrarunner and general population, including being more open, experience-seeking, neurotic (even compared to other runners), competitive, goal-oriented, committed to running, but interestingly, less win-oriented. Oddly, the two studies that did not see a difference were both published in the early 80s, which might suggest the people currently running ultras are different than those several decades ago (aka “different”). These personality differences may be explained, in part, by why people get into ultras in the first place. The most popular reasons are to achieve personal goals, feel a sense of achievement and health-related issues, while competing with other ultrarunners tended to rank towards the bottom of the list. Complementing these survey-based studies are in-depth qualitative studies which were conducted using interviews. The common themes for why ultrarunners run were to explore limits – both physical and mental, the community of ultrarunners, the fact that success is often defined by finishing, and toughness and persistence in the face of setbacks. Whatever the reason ultrarunners run, they tend to share the ability to tolerate more pain. One study found that in a cold pressor test, none of the ultrarunners withdrew their hand from almost freezing ice water (2 degrees Celsius) in 3 minutes, while the control group only lasted 96 seconds. Any of this sounding familiar?
The psychological skills during and following ultras have also been characterized by researchers. For instance, ultrarunners with higher levels of working memory and prospective memory skills as measured by common psychological tests were more likely to finish a particular ultra. Perhaps this is related to the confusion and delusion common during an ultra (as you pacers probably know). Similarly, during an ultra, moods of fatigue and tension ramp up throughout the race and can persist for a significant amount of time afterwards, anywhere from one week to one month. Changes to general cognition (attention, working memory, executive function, information processing) following an ultra is slightly impaired in some, but not most studies, providing only weak reasoning for why you signed up for another ultra within days of finishing your last (painful) ultra.
Unfortunately, the news is not all good for ultra-associated psychological traits. For instance, one older study found that 20% of elite female ultrarunners have features of anorexia, while another larger study of female ultrarunners found 5.2% to have a clinical eating disorder, and 26.8% have a subclinical eating disorder. Exercise addiction is not recognized as a pathology in the American Psychiatric Associations Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2013 edition) but is highly prevalent in the ultra community ranging from 3.2–7% in studies. The further the distance raced, the more likely a runner is to have exercise addiction issues. Some psychiatrists suggest that this exercise addiction behavior is a type of psychopathology similar to other addictions.1 Research is ongoing to see whether exercise behaviors also have tolerance, withdrawal, lack of control, reduction in other activities and other traits similar to known behavior addictions. However, establishing such thresholds to diagnosis exercise addiction is difficult, especially given the benefits of exercise.
Taking the good with the bad, it seems that ultrarunners are indeed different. Ultras are hard and therefore, a set of traits must exist that predispose people to seeking out such challenging, yet rewarding events and communities. Indeed, it is a testament to the ultra community that one of the major reasons why people run is for the community despite the level of dedication, commitment and pain tolerance needed to be an ultrarunner. And while there are certainly some negative behaviors common in the ultrarunners that should not be trivialized or overlooked, there are many psychological (and physiological) benefits that ultrarunners receive from participating in the sport.
1. Freimuth M, Moniz S, Kim SR. Clarifying exercise addiction: differential diagnosis, co-occurring disorders, and phases of addiction. Int J Environ Res Public Health 8: 4069–81, 2011.
2. Roebuck GS, Fitzgerald PB, Urquhart DM, Ng S-K, Cicuttini FM, Fitzgibbon BM. The psychology of ultra-marathon runners: A systematic review. Psychol Sport Exerc 37: 43–58, 2018.