Run Happy, Run Better

Controlling your emotions is vital to success in races and in training.

A running race is a very emotional experience. At the start there is a lot of anxiety—fear of impending discomfort and possible failure. In the middle there is often a lot of doubt and discouragement. And, if you’re having a good day, the last part of the race is exciting and joyful.

The various emotions we experience in races are not purely reactive, however. They also influence our performance. Generally speaking, positive emotions enhance performance while negative emotions reduce performance. Obviously, when things are going well you are likely to feel positive, and this emotion in turn will help you continue to perform well. But some runners do a better job of staying positive when things aren’t going well; these runners are better able to salvage races that are teetering on the brink of disaster.

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A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology reported that cyclists performed better in a time trial when they were made to believe they were doing 5 percent better than they really were and fared worse when they were told they were going 5 percent slower than they were in reality. The authors of the study speculated that emotion may have played a role in the effect of both positive and negative feedback on performance, so they designed a follow-up study to test their hunch.

Seven competitive cyclists participated in the second study. As in the first one, all were asked to complete a time trial on two occasions. In one time trial they were given false positive performance feedback and in the other they were given false negative feedback. But this time the subjects were asked to rate their emotional states as well.

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Interestingly, in this second study these was no difference in performance between the two time trials. However, there were physiological differences. Blood glucose levels were higher in the trial with false positive feedback, whereas oxygen consumption and blood lactate were higher in the trial with false negative feedback. Emotions were different too. The cyclists gave higher scores for anxiety, gloominess, sluggishness, downheartedness, and effort to regulate emotion and lower scores for happiness and calmness in the false negative time trial. These findings suggest that disappointing performance feedback caused the cyclists to feel negative emotions that in turn increased physiological strain. While the increased strain did not reduce performance in this particular study, it could have, and in all likelihood it did reduce performance in the prior study.

There are many tricks you can employ to stay positive in races and throughout the training process for the sake of better performance. We’ll look at five of them over the next few pages.

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