More than a strong body and motivation are needed to succeed.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
What does it take to train hard and consistently for success in running events? Most runners would name two essential qualities: a resilient body and a high level of motivation. But there may actually be a third requirement: emotional maturity.
Psychologists measure maturity through a construct called trait emotional intelligence (TEI). TEI is comprises 15 individual facets that together enable those who have them in adequate amounts to cope with life’s challenges, including such thing as the challenge of training hard every day.
According to the London Psychometric Laboratory website, the 15 facets of trait emotional intelligence are adaptability, assertiveness, emotion perception (sensitivity to the emotional states of oneself and others), emotion expression (the ability to communicate feelings to others), emotion management (the ability to influence other people’s feelings), emotion regulation (the ability to control one’s own emotions), low impulsiveness, relationships (the ability to form and sustain fulfilling relationships), self-esteem, self-motivation, social awareness (knowing how to act in groups), stress management, trait empathy (the ability to see other people’s perspectives), trait happiness (general satisfaction with life), and trait optimism.
It’s easy to see how at least some of these qualities would aid the runner in hard training. Adaptability will help the runner to respond effectively to the setbacks that are sure to occur along the journey. Emotion management will help the runner resist being overwhelmed by the doubts, frustrations, and self-pity that are bound to crop up now and again. Even things like self-awareness can help immeasurably. For example, runners often fool themselves into thinking it’s okay to push through pain and accumulating fatigue. The self-aware runner is less likely to do that.
Psychologists at the University of Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom recently tested the idea that runners with high trait emotional intelligence will maintain greater overall emotional stability during a stressful period of running. They visited the site of a six-day, 175-mile wilderness stage ultramarathon. Thirty-four participants completed a standard questionnaire to assess TEI and then reported their emotional state after each of the six race stages. Sure enough, runners who scored high in TEI reported experiencing more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions throughout the race.
The authors of the study, which was published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, concluded, “Findings lend support to the notion that trait emotional intelligence associates with adaptive psychological states, suggesting that it may be a key individual difference that explains why some athletes respond to repeated bouts of hard exercise better than others.”
Okay, then—so how do you increase your trait emotional intelligence? There’s no short answer to this question. Emotional intelligence tends to increase naturally throughout life as we gain experience in coping with life’s challenges. But there is some evidence to suggest that we can accelerate its development through a systematic effort. For example, a recent Belgian study found that a four-week training program resulted in a measurable increase in emotional intelligence. There are probably many different programs that could be used to accelerate this kind of maturation. The essentials would seem to be a conscious acceptance of the goal of increasing TEI and some kind of organized approach.
It seems to me that running itself is well suited to training in emotional intelligence. First of all, by nature of the sport’s demands, running certainly self-selects for individuals with higher-than-average emotional intelligence. (Congratulations!) But being a runner could then accelerate continued maturation—if you make it a conscious objective. This growth, in turn, will enable you to better handle the challenges of being a runner. In other words, you can become a better runner by becoming a better person—through running. Pretty cool.
Many runners have discovered this fortuitous loop through their own experience. Among them are Olympian Adam Goucher and his fellow former Colorado Buffalo Tim Catalano. They have a website, blog, podcast, and online community called Run the Edge that is all about the link between successful running and successful being. Check it out.
Check out Matt’s latest book, Racing Weight Quick Start Guide: A 4-Week Weight-Loss Plan for Endurance Athletes.