Q&A highlights: Sports psychologist Victor Thompson

Catch up with the highlights of this week's webchat



Catch up with the highlights from our recent webchat with Sports Psychologist Victor Thompson.

Victor has 17 years' experience working in the field, 14 of which have been focused solely in sport. He is also a committed triathlete, competing for both Great Britain and Ireland and is a keen participant in the Ironman event.

If you struggle with race day nerves, motivation or need some tips on how to cope when the going gets tough in a race, Victor will be on hand to help.

Q1. Here's a curve ball, I'm not going to ask you how to keep going when you get to 22 miles of the marathon and are internally swearing to combustion point. My answer to that is you just do or you don't, it depends how much you want it; and how close the nearest open pub is. Instead, do you think that running can help as therapy for people with conditions such as depression, the autistic spectrum, anger issues etc... And if so how? Basically I'm asking you about running as therapy for the psyche. – kittenkat

A1. As a Psychologist who works with Clinical as well as Sporting populations, who has exercised regularly throughout my life I have strong views on this one. Running can help reduce the chance of depression and can be an effective treatment for it. It can boost your internal happy hormones (endogenous opiates) and interacts with the depression-linked neurotransmitters (e.g. serotonin – which is the system that SSRIs such as Prozac target). It gives the runner a purpose, meaning, something to do. With benefits if engaged in on one’s own or with others. The NHS has got behind exercise with events such as ‘Brain Train’ within it’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) initiative. There is a growing body of research (mainly done in the USA) supporting exercise with or without CBT for improving depression (plus also for anxiety disorders).

Links to anger is less well established. However, running can help you (i.e., the anger prone individual) to process or think about what has been making you angry and work out ways to manage the triggering situations. You may also benefit from burning off excess energy generated by the anger response – though I’m not sure I believe in this that much. At a minimum, running should take you away from the situation that causes you frustration and anger, so that will only benefit you.

Q2. I'm training for an endurance event that will take me at least 16 hours.  It's a swimming event so unlike running I will be unable to draw strength from the crowd or the runners around me as my head will be in the water.  I've done long distance running events and can keep the mental determination going for 6 hours but how the heck can I keep that up for another 10 hours or more with only my own thoughts for company? - SuperCaz

A2. Break the time into chunks. Have certain landmarks across the time horizon to help chunk your time. For example, 8 2-hourly chunks, with at each 1 hour you do X and at each 2 hour you do Y. Have some things that you can look forward to, some reward (jelly babies?) or contrast activities (e.g. change your stroke for 10 minutes). Schedule some reviews of how you are doing (e.g., feeling, hydrating, pacing...). Allow yourself to daydream as it won’t be possible to be focused for the whole time. You may even want to plan some things to daydream about – best holiday experiences you have had or would like to have...

What an experience! Oh, and remember why you are doing it!

Q3. My question is more for self preservation. I am not usually too nervous and manage the preparation and wait reasonably well but this year I am going with a friend who gets extreme anxiety before a race. 
How can I help her and also how can I make sure I stay calm and focused while we wait? – Camlo

A3.

  1. If travelling or staying with them pre-race, identify times which will be non-marathon conversation times
  2. Ask your friend how they plan to manage their pre-race anxiety.
  3. Encourage them to become stressed quietly, as you don’t want to catch it – it’s contagious
  4. Distract them by taking control of the conversation
  5. Encourage them to talk to someone else

Q4. I have always been really good at fighting to the very last point, chasing every ball.. and if I'm 5-1 down, I know that I've a realistic chance of turning the set around.  Great... real mental strength. But on the other hand... if I blitz my way to a 4-1 or 5-1 lead, all too often, I let my opponent back in. And honestly, I don't feel I get nervous, complacent.  Do I lose focus? I don't think so, although maybe I relax a little... I don't know, but I sometimes lack the killer blow. It isn't every time, but there is a tendency. I suppose that there is a reflection within my general life where, for example, I tend to let things slide to the last minute, but then work great under the time pressure. Any ideas? - RunWales 

A4. Are you motivated to chase, to comeback from behind, then when you are ahead the drive just goes? Do you imagine yourself winning and believe in it? Try to imagine yourself winning, closing out contests, even when you are ahead and the initial motivation may not be there quite so much.

Q5. I try different strategies to mentally prepare myself for the marathon and normally I'm good but when it goes downhill - it does so quite fast. Can you suggest anything that may help me recover from a bad moment during the race? This isn't hitting the wall - my energy stores are fine - it's that mental block of "I really can't be arsed anymore". I've tried the positive reinforcement but it doesn't always work. 

I always find that if I'm good mentally the marathon rolls by quite easily but if I'm in a bad place - I'll struggle. How can I turn that around if I see that happening on race day? - EmilyH

A5. Imagine these previous bad spots in your marathons. Why did they happen? How did you handle them? If you were to rewind and go through the marathon again, what could you do to prevent them from developing and do earlier to turn them around? Plus, as you say, what would make you “arsed” to continue to push through? Expect that bad times may occur and have a pre-made plan for responding to them.

Q6. I’m training for a 4 lap marathon. Any tips you can offer me to cope when the going gets tough? – The Egyption Toe

A6. My Ironman marathon run was multi-lap and this offers some different challenges and opportunities. 4 laps allows you to break the run into 4 equal parts. It can help with your sense of progress and pacing. You can become familiar with aid station placement, landmarks and the better path to follow. You might choose a different focus for each lap (e.g., lap 1 is to settle, lap 2 is to be comfortable on pace, lap 3 maintain pace, lap 4 endure and give it what I can), or at a certain point within each lap you could go through a series of checklists to see how you are doing (e.g. hydration, energy stores, pacing, niggles, mood…). Another opportunity is for supporters to spot you 4 times!

Q7. Is there anything I can do to mentally prepare for the last 4 or so miles? The unknown miles - as these are the miles I will never have reached in my training and when I will be at my most tired. – tomfos

A7. The last miles are likely to be the hardest, but there is nothing magical about 22-26 miles. What about ultra-marathon runners who go on to 30, 40, 50 miles and beyond? Imagine the last few miles, that they are likely to get harder. How will you be thinking and feeling, how will you want to respond to these thoughts and feelings. Remember that every step takes you closer to the finish line and the end of the challenge. It will be over soon enough. Chip away at the last little bit.

Also, think about before the start, how you will manage your energy levels to ensure that you maintain reserves right through to the end. Consider how you will reduce your energy output beforehand (e.g., nervous energy, running around, standing up too much…) and your energy input (e.g. good pre-race nutrition in the last 72 hours, then throughout the race).

Q8. What single piece of advice would you give me (and other marathon virgins) regarding my mental mindset during my first marathon (Brathay in mid May)? – frances booth

A8. Remember why you are doing it. Why you are challenging yourself. Why you are brave to face this challenge and not shy away or only watching sport on TV wondering if you could do it. Remember this before the start, remember this as you pass the sights, as you face some hardship. Remember this when you finish, no matter how it goes. Know that you did your best on the day, you took the challenge and that’s what counts. Well done!


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