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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Elaborating on Confidence

Uncertainty is pretty much guaranteed when you have no idea what's ahead
As i was stirring my oatmeal on the stove this morning i had a bit of a realization about confidence as it pertains to my musings on ultra endurance efforts.  I've previously written about confidence as though it was a single thing.  Today i realized its not and suddenly things make more sense.

In my opinion (now) there are two separate confidences that need to be considered.  One can be thought of as a confidence in one's physical body or physical abilities. The other is more correctly considered a confidence in the ability to deal with the unknown.  My previous treatise on confidence really only considers the latter of these two, and it is important to recognize that while this second type of confidence can be an asset to the aspiring endurance athlete, it is not required in many cases.

Thinking about these two types of confidences independently explains a lot.  It explains why some very gifted ultra endurance athletes that have the former ('physical' confidence) often don't excel at endurance events that require a confidence with the unknown - such as expedition length adventure races.

It also explains why traditional training methods (high volume) are so successful in preparing people for ultra endurance efforts - high volume may provide this first type of confidence.  For people training for typical Ultra Endurance Events such as an IM or traditional ultra-marathon, doing LOTS of work provides some exposure to the type of physical and mental demands that are going to be present on race day can go along way towards providing the peace of mind that they can meet these challenges.  Furthermore, adherence to a program that claims that it will prepare you for a certain effort is certainly going to go some distance towards making you feel psychologically prepared - simply through the placebic effect.  Of course traditional actually does get you fit - but so might ultra low volume training.  One difference is that there isn't a big body (or any body for that matter) of evidence - anecdotal or otherwise - suggesting that low volume does prepare you.  So if one is seeking a way to get fit and develop that physical confidence that will help ensure race day success for most conventional ultra distance efforts (and this is the boat that many people looking to get into ultra distance racing will find themselves in), then traditional methods of training clearly are the only viable route.

On the other hand, there are some individuals that already possess confidence in their physical abilities.  For this group, i continue to contend that low volume training, high intensity training would offer a route to a level of fitness that would be suitable for success at mainstream ultra-endurance events such as IM.

Confidence in the face of the unknown, however, is a bit harder to nail down.  I don't know of any systematic way to develop it - other than than trial by fire - putting yourself in difficult situations rife with uncertainty and seeing what happens.  If you get through these situations, it seems natural to assume that you will develop this confidence over time.  Many/most people may never aspire to this type of confidence, although i personally feel it undoubtedly proves beneficial to those that attain it.  And of course anyone attempting the type of ultra endurance event that is based on the unknowns - expedition adventure racing - is more likely than not to fail if they don't already possess this brand of confidence. Interestingly, in these events this confidence is far more important than top end fitness - athletes who excel at more 'controlled' ultra events often are no match for athletes with mediocre fitness that revel in uncertainty.  Because of this, the low volume approach will often work well for these 'mediocre' athletes as well.


  1. I'm re-reading "Finite and Infinite Games" by James P. Carse, and I think your postulate runs somewhat parallel to his thesis (and first paragraph), which is "There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play." To continue the analogy, mainstream athletes play to win, and thus end the game, where you focus on the unknowns of adventure racing where the focus seems to be learning more about adventure racing.

  2. i remember reading that some time ago - great connection! thanks Joe.

  3. I think the relatively poor performance of the "traditionally" trained IM athletes has less to do with confidence and more with a deficiency in training specificity. I see it very clearly at my trail races: some very fast road runners add 10-15% to their pace when on trails, while other runners who train specifically for trails only show about a 6-7% loss, effectively leveling the playing field. There are such specific muscles and control systems for both types of running, that even within such a simple activity you can have huge variations in performance based solely on the nature of the training vs the nature of the race. Obviously the same holds true when comparing other disciplines of the same sport: mountain biking vs road biking vs individual time trial, etc. It's no surprise that someone who has trained and is conditioned for road time trialing and road running will perform relatively worse in the completely different environment of an adventure race. The opposite also holds true, without training specifically for the IM, you will perform worse than if you had.

  4. I agree to a point mike, specificity certainly matters. But i also think that there is something too the above ideas of being mentally prepared for a physically difficult but 'controlled' effort vs. a difficult effort where there are many unknown elements. but i suppose this could be compared to the idea of mental specificity.

  5. Nice post Andy!

    I think Joe brings up an important association with Carse's distinction between finite and infinite games; both require a form of play, however the type of play is vastly different. Stuart Brown discusses this in his excellent book, "Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul". Some play as a means to an end, while others play for the experience... Obviously traditional racing and adventure racing require some level of base fitness, but those that play for the experience (infinite gamers) have the mental flexibility (giving way to physical flexibility) to keep going in something like an adventure race... mostly because of the joy in the experience. Sure it can be suffering, but one has to find pleasure in it to some extent, otherwise the stress response gets to a point of choking... and one of the major causes of stress is the sense of lack of control, which I have seen many traditional endurance racers possess in personality type ("type a").

    So maybe confidence is just a by-product of a particular playful mindset matched up with certain tasks... ???

    Can it be trained? I think anything can be trained to certain extents. With this particular component, my guess is it would be training to change one's perspective of the physical demands ahead... maybe try to lose certain expectations.

  6. Aaron - i think you're right on the money and put it very eloquently. an inability to deal with lack of control in a way that doesn't cause major stress is what prevents some top athletes from crossing over into adventure racing or other similar pursuits. I remember watching a team of internationally ranked triathletes crack during the only really mentally challenging stage of the Abu Dhabi Adventure challenge back in 2010 - a 36 hour long desert trek. They were ranked 4th or 5th going in (which would have won them $15,000 if they'd kept that place)to this stage but just weren't prepared in some way for the suffering. And i agree that it can probably be trained (to some extent), but also think that this poses a difficult challenge. Because as you mention, racing is goal oriented and so often the buy in has to do with maximizing performance at a given task - when it becomes clear that one's expectations aren't going to be met, it's easy to quit and put ones efforts towards the next race, which limits ones exposure to the uncontolled experience.

    Thanks for the comment!