That, in so many words, is how most American men have been taught to think about athletics: as a contest of red-blooded toughness. But new research shows that, on the contrary, a more complex emotional awareness may be key to better performance.
A study of 237 runners the day before a half-marathon, originally reported on by Outside, found that “the variable with the highest power to predict finish time” wasn’t the intensity of their training regimen or even their racing history.
The number one predictor was their emotional intelligence.
That is, their ability to express, explain and manage their own emotions. And the researchers, led by Enrico Rubaltelli out of Italy’s University of Padova, determined this attribute through the Trait Emotional Intelligence Short Form.
The questionnaire includes 30 statements that range from the abstract (“I often pause and think about my feelings”) to the supremely pertinent (“I tend to get involved in things I later wish I could get out of”), instructing participants to agree or disagree on a 1-7 scale.
Simply put: “When all these factors were combined, higher emotional intelligence was still directly correlated with better race time, presumably because you’re better at managing the inevitable negative mid-race emotions without slowing down.”
While Outside is also quick to point out a number of caveats — this has only been replicated a limited number of times and more than likely wouldn’t pan out at the highest levels of competition, etc. — it is at the very least a good reminder to athletes, whether you’re a 5K first timer or ultramarathon hopeful, that your body is not a nuts-and-bolts machine that can be optimized on protein shakes and tailored fitness gear alone.
We are also complex sentient beings, and even though you can’t take a selfie of it in the mirror at the gym, that brain of yours — and all its emotional depth — is worth spending as much time on as your six-pack.