Training can be a solitary affair and Dr Josephine Perry looks at ways to make lone sessions more tolerable

As athletes you can spend a lot of your time training completely on your own. Whether you are a long-distance runner pounding out the miles every week, your focus is on shorter faster distances or you simply use running to build up cardio fitness for field events, the reality is that it can be a solitary affair. In a modern, media-intrusive world this time alone can feel unusual.

For some it is a joy, an opportunity to think, be creative and to put thoughts in order, for others that quiet can be daunting or seen as wasted time where something else could be squeezed in. How we feel about that time training alone may indicate which training tribe we tend to fit into, and by picking the right tribe, you can gain both psychological and performance benefits.

Visualisors

Those in the first tribe, the visual tribe, value their solo training for the peace, quiet and space it gives them. A piece of research published last year by Duncan Simpson of Barry University in the USA asked athletes to verbally record their every thought while they were running. Simpson found what dominated their thoughts depended on the environment where they were training at the time. Whether it was the geography like trees or cliffs, the weather (particularly wind or heat), the birds or wildlife, the traffic or the people they spotted, they were focused on external stimuli and many expressed how privileged they felt to be able to experience it.

At times Simpson found “these positive thoughts appeared to lessen the pain or discomfort some were feeling” concluding that “participants appeared to select visually appealing places to run and as a result shared an appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of their running environments”.

Disassociators

The second tribe see their headphones as an integral part of their training kit. Dr Costas Karageorghis at Brunel University has led much of the research highlighting that running to music really can improve the performance of athletes who like to disassociate themselves from the discomfort and pain of the session.

One particular piece studied 11 elite triathletes running on the treadmill. They found when the athletes listened to music the time it took them to reach exhaustion increased by 18% and it hit nearly 20% when it was motivational music they had chosen themselves.

They also reported better moods, had lower oxygen consumption and better running economy with their own motivational music. When they ran without music they reported feeling like they were working much harder.

Annie Emmerson, a retired elite athlete who in her forties is still knocking out three-hour marathons, wholly agrees: “I like to be distracted by the music. I definitely feel that music helps lift my cadence and motivation. I have always used it for hard treadmill sessions,” she says. “It keeps me motivated and focused on pace and good turnover. I like that it takes the pain away and keeps me going a bit longer.”

Podcasters

There is a third tribe though: a newer tribe who love running with their headphones but not so they can listen to music. They are listening to podcasts. No research has yet been run on why people train with podcasts or how it impacts their performances. Some of those listening to them say they do so to distract themselves from the loneliness and boredom of training which will often be taking them hours on end to complete.

Ultra runner Helen James says she needs to do so many miles to train for her races that podcasts allow her to multi-task, educating her as she runs. Others find motivation and inspiration by listening to athletics podcasts. Some of these athletes chose podcasts over music because, like Christopher Hartley, they run too fast to music.

He says: “When I run with music it’s a battle to avoid running to the tempo of the music. This isn’t an issue with podcasts which are great for a distraction when doing a long run or to blot out the effort when the mojo isn’t there.”

Mix and match

What a few athletes have managed to do is mix and match their tribe to suit the session they need to do that day – probably the most effective approach.

Ellie Awford, a club-level endurance athlete, says: “For longer, slower runs I like listening to conversations and stories to keep my mind engaged, but prefer music at other times.”

Shows like Marathon Talk, produced by Martin Yelling, which have training tips and interviews with amazing people, can help  people to feel engaged in a community.

“For fast intervals I prefer music – anything that makes you want to speed up as soon as the track comes on,” Awford says. When I’m in a beautiful environment I sometimes listen to nothing at all – it can be very peaceful.”

So find your tribe and use the tips below to get the biggest performance benefits from your choice:

Visual runners: Find routes which inspire you, look for new routes and, when you are not looking forward to running, choose a route you know has beautiful views as it will help you enjoy the run more.

Music lovers: To get the biggest impact choose motivational music, music you prefer, ensure the beat matches the pace you want to run at and choose faster music if you plan to do a high-intensity session.

Podcasters: If you need a slower paced, long session then podcasts can be really effective. Think about why you enjoy podcasts and what you want to get from the multi-tasking: education, entertainment, news or inspiration? Find three or four series which suit this purpose and set them on automatic download.

» Dr Josephine Perry is a sport psychologist at performanceinmind.co.uk