Positive Psychology, Running

Making you work for you!

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“Making you work for you” may sound like a weird statement, I mean, why wouldn’t you work for you? If you think about it, how many times have you been totally sure of your ability to do something – whether it be scoring goals in a football match or running that 10 miler – but instead of just getting up and doing it, you feel dread? This is what I mean by ‘making you work for you’ because your own body can send irrational and sometimes debilitating signals to your brain which can effect how you perform!

What your feeling is arousal; taking on a challenge, especially if it is important to you, results in a flood of hormones involved in the flight/fight response. Unfortunately, arousal is perceived by the brain as a signal for stress and if you are unsure of the best way to respond to these signals in order to facilitate optimal performance, you might hinder yourself.

Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning (IZOF) is a theory which argues that there are different levels of optimal arousal to which individuals respond with peak performance. In other words, while one person may react positively to a high arousal state and respond to a task with peak performance, someone else may become disorientated or lose steam too quickly.

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Your optimal zone is something you have to find out on your own during training and obviously depends on the type of challenge you are taking on – if you’re about to sprint 200 metres to a finish line, buckets of adrenaline will probably help you get there faster. Though, if you’re planning on running a marathon, being too aroused may cause you to lose energy too quickly.

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Humara (1999) suggests trait anxiety should also be considered when thinking about the effect of arousal. Having trait anxiety refers to a tendency to relate arousal to negative emotions such as fear across many situations, while state anxiety simply refers to the unpleasant feelings associated with a specific event (nerves). Humara argues that – in sport – those low in trait anxiety find state anxiety to coincide with peak performance and thus would have high IZOF, whereas people who are high in trait anxiety may find that state anxiety is detrimental to their performance (low IZOF). Further, it has been suggested that too much arousal in those without the tools to adequately deal with the signals, may result in avoidance coping, where the person avoids the task completely.



How can you get you to work for you?
If you know what your IZOF is, you should be able to deduce whether you need to increase or decrease your levels of arousal to get to your optimal level.

Calm down!
I don’t know about you, but the thought of running 16 miles scares the **** out of me, but I did it anyway. I was stressing about my long run for a few days and so I decided to employ some positive psychological techniques to help a girl out. Masters and Ogles (1998) in their review of research, advocate disassociation as a cognitive strategy for directing attention away from uncomfortable physiological signals. They suggest that focusing on external aspects unrelated to the task can increase performance. So, naturally I bought new shoes…
My logic was that if I had new trainers, I would want to run in order to ‘try them out,’ thus, focusing my attention away from the running aspect and more on critiquing my new pretty Asics shoes aspect (I mean I needed new trainers anyway…). It worked!
I also find that if i tell myself that I am not running to run, but to explore as a dissociation technique, that works too and I employed that on my 16 miler also!

photos from my day ‘exploring’ Bethesda!

Get Pumped!
Whether you’re aiming for a PB in park run or are nearing the end of a long run and need a boost in arousal to facilitate a strong performance, I strongly advocate music. Using music pre-run has has shown to increase arousal and get you to your IZOF.

However, I want to share with you something I learned whilst researching for my dissertation and have since put to the test; in a paper by Edworthy and Waring (2006), it is reported that a significant increase in performance is seen when music tempo is increased from slow to fast, much more than simply listening to fast tempo music. Since becoming privy to this information, I have started my runs with no music and when I become tired and demotivated, I put my earphones in and press play on a playlist I have put together myself; it starts with Halo by Beyonce and ends with Lucky Strike by Maroon 5 (slow to fast). My enjoyment as well as my performance whilst running has improved so much, thus emphasising how easy it is to manipulate your own physiology!

To sum up:

  • Get to know yourself. At what level of arousal do you perform best?
  • If you get stressed out easily across situations, opt for a calming strategy
    – distract yourself with external information
    – make the task enjoyable
  • If you simply get nerves before an event, run with it! (pun intended)
  • Music for getting pumped and for resurrecting you when you’re tired


See you at the finish line!



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