Search the Otago Polytechnic website
La Reina de Transvulcania Alexis Martin CC BY NC 2.0 Flickr

Mind over matter

Just what drives people to pursue ultra endurance sports?

Kate Spenceley knows from experience that those athletes who go for ultra endurance events need to prepare mentally as well as physically. The ultra community is mostly very supportive, people are willing to help each other complete, but there are often times when athletes are out there on their own. Kate embarked on a Master of Applied Sport to explore how people prepare and use their mind to keep their body going, even when they feel they've reached their limit.

Her research is unusual in that she didn't focus on any one sport. She interviewed ten ultra athletes whose sport was running, biking, swimming, or adventure racing. She was interested in how they got into ultra sport, and what their darkest moment was and how they got through that. Her results reveal some common themes: 

  • There is a high degree of competitiveness, not with each other but within themselves: "Can I go faster?"
  • They had a high degree of commitment; a training regime, which includes diet as well as exercise, needs to be prioritised above all else.
  • For some, a past traumatic issue may have been relevant, leading them to want to exercise a high degree of control over their own lives.
  • Ultra sport became part of their identity, defining how they saw themselves.
  • All relied upon support from family and friends, not just during an event but during training as well. 

Kate's findings are relevant for ultra athletes and their supporters to consider, for example if someone has had to pull out of an event, what might they address to improve their mental performance next time. This research also contributes to our understanding of how people respond to trauma.

April 2021

Image credit: Alexis Martin, used under Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC 2.0.