The psychological profile of ultra success

Last updated: 20-Jan-20

By Sarah Cooke

There is an increasingly large body of research exploring personality traits associated with sporting success and with endurance performance. This research can help us to understand what makes the successful athlete tick, but it may be frustrating for an aspiring ultra runner who may, or may not, possess these seemingly desirable traits.

For example, if you read a study that says that successful runners are extraverted risk-takers and you identify yourself as being introverted and cautious, then this isn’t going to fill you with hope for your next race.

In this article, I aim to consider how some of the research in this field may be of practical use, and address whether ultra runners of all types and abilities can learn something from the traits and habits of successful endurance athletes.

A series of recent studies at the University of Wolverhampton by Hamilton and colleagues found that athletes experience a range of emotional states during long bouts of exercise. All endurance athletes can expect to experience fatigue. However, those who cope successfully tend to feel fatigue and happiness simultaneously, whereas those who have been less successful in achieving their goals are more likely to experience depression and anger when tired.

Analysis of the data from these studies suggests that the former athletes interpret fatigue as a necessary part of goal attainment and an indication of the effort they are making in pursuit of success. Conversely, less successful athletes are more likely to interpret fatigue as an indication of their inability to cope, leading to negative emotional states.

This is important research because emotional responses, unlike personality traits, are flexible. Training your mind, as well as your body, to cope with fatigue, and learning to perceive it positively, may be just as important as how far and how fast you run in your training.

McCormick, Meijen, and Marcora (2015) reviewed studies exploring the psychological determinants of endurance performance and confirmed the prevailing wisdom, and anecdotal evidence, that mental strength is at least as important as physical strength. If we combine this with the findings above, then the key message seems to be that learning strategies to cope with fatigue could build mental, as well as physical, strength.

Athletes who feel depressed and angry when they find a long run difficult are more likely to be self-critical, and this increases the likelihood of reduced performance, and of giving up. If you recognise this self-critical tendency in yourself, then make a note of your triggers, coping strategies and what you say to yourself in those moments. Practise turning those negatives into positive statements. For example, if you notice that you always tell yourself ‘I am tired and weak’, then prepare a script for those difficult moments where you tell yourself that ‘I am carrying on even though I am tired because I am strong’.

Developing self-awareness is an important tool in being able to prepare for the challenges ahead. Feeling in control of your own success or failure is crucial, and many ultra runners thrive on the discipline of their training, because it is less reliant on external factors than success in their personal or professional lives (Norman, 2015).

In order to emulate this sense of self-efficacy, you may need to focus on things you can control when fatigue hits. For example, you could concentrate on technique when you need a distraction from feelings of tiredness. You could mentally rehearse how you will adjust your posture, pick up your feet or alter your stride length to make yourself more efficient.

Freund et al. (2013) assessed the personality traits of participants in the TransEurope FootRace compared to those of recreational runners. Ultra runners were less dependent on gaining rewards than non-endurance runners. This may enable them to remain focused on long-term goals and to maintain consistent effort for prolonged periods. In contrast, someone training for a 5km race might see improvements in their pace in a relatively short time-frame and can begin a race expecting to achieve their goal in minutes rather than hours or days.

For this reason, a goal-setting approach may be helpful for ultra runners feeling overwhelmed by the training ahead, and this approach was set out in my chat with Alice Morrison in February. Other approaches to developing a mindset that promotes endurance that have empirical support include verbal encouragement and imagery.

A supportive coach, sports and exercise psychologist or training partner may be able to help you develop a positive emotional relationship with fatigue, but self-talk, as discussed above, is also a common (and free) technique used by professional athletes.

In addition, imagery can be very powerful – picture yourself in the race environment and imagine yourself dealing successfully with all the challenges it brings.

Write down the difficulties you expect to face and mentally rehearse how you will cope with them as well as planning what you will say to yourself when you get tired. See yourself crossing that finish line with a smile on your face.

In conclusion

Mental toughness is ‘the ability to consistently perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances’ (Zijer Veld, 2015). There is broad agreement amongst psychologists, athletes and coaches that mental toughness is associated with athletic success (Tamarkin, 2014), but your psychological resilience is not determined at birth.

You can train your mind to cope with fatigue, and psychological-skills training may benefit runners by developing associations between tiredness and positive feelings and by enabling them to acquire strategies to cope with fatigue.

What seems apparent from the research is that psychological toughness and physical strength go hand in hand – the more you experience fatigue during your training, the more both your body and mind get used to dealing with its challenges.

Physical training combined with self-awareness and techniques to alter your perception of fatigue and your ability to manage it, make it possible to learn the habits of successful endurance athletes.

Feeling despondent during your run is possibly the most damaging emotional experience you can have in relation to your future running mindset. Mental training is, therefore, at least as important as physical training when building endurance.

I would be interested in the personal experiences of runners in relation to anything discussed in this article, so please feel free to comment on difficulties you have faced or mental strategies that have benefited your running.



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Date Range

Global - Virtual


A virtual race which can be run at any time shown on the dates shown, on any type of terrain in any country.

Suitable for

For runners from beginners to experienced as you choose your own course and challenge based on the guidelines and options set by the virtual race organiser.

Endurance - Multi-activity


An ultra distance race including at least two of the following activities such as running, swimming, cycling, kayaking, skiing and climbing. It may also include different climatic conditions (eg ice, snow, humidity, cold water, mud or heat).

Suitable for

Experienced multi-skilled athletes who have trained for the different activities included in this event. Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements and any specialist equipment required such as a wetsuit, skis or a mountain bike.



Increase of up to 2000 metres with very challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity, heat or at high altitude)

Suitable for

Very experienced long distance ultra runners (min 3 years’ experience) or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races is often subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Purchase of specialist kit is often recommended for these races.



Increase of up to 2000 metres with some challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity or heat)

Suitable for

Experienced runners who have completed at least 4 ultras in last 12 months, or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements.



Increase of up to 1500 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed several ultra distances or similar events, or are doing long distance running regularly, with elevation shown.



Increase of up to 1000 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed at least one ultra in last 6 months or are doing long distance running (>26 miles) regularly, with elevation shown.



Very little change < 500 metres

Suitable for

First ultra event. Runners completing a marathon or doing regular long distance running (>26 miles) in the last 6 months.