Does Adversity Make You A Better Runner?

A new study suggests life’s difficulties may help us deal with future physical and mental stress.

Though no fun at the time, experiencing some hardship in life can give you a reserve of resiliency to call upon in the future, say, when a long run gets tough or you’re suffering through the final kilometres of a 10K, a new study in Psychological Science suggests.

The study, led by Mark Seery, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, US, who specialises in the study of resiliency, found that participants who had been exposed to moderate amounts of trauma – the death of a loved one, divorce, financial problems, or even a natural disaster – were better able to cope with life stress than those who had never suffered or who had gone through high amounts of adversity.

“There’s lot of research showing that people who go through these serious events are worse off, immediately, and in the future,” says Seery. “Our research shows it’s more complicated than that. It suggests there may be a sweet spot, if you will, where being exposed to a certain number of things leads to future resiliency.”

Seery emphasises that the findings in no way diminish the difficulty of these life events, but that an upside might be that over time, people respond better to both minor and major life stresses, including work difficulty, family discord, or physical challenges like distance running.

“One part of the study dealt with pain and running would be a similar situation,” he says. “I would expect that having a moderate exposure to lifetime adversity would translate into a benefit of running.”

In the study, the researchers conducted two experiments that exposed university students to minor stresses in a lab environment. In one, students reported the number of negative life events they’d experienced, then put their hand in ice-cold water for as long as they could. Researchers asked about the pain level.

In the other study, a separate set of students were told they had to take an “important” test. The computer-based exam required them to navigate an obstacle course as quickly and as accurately as possible. Throughout the experiment, participants’ heart rate and other stress indicators were measured.

The researchers found that students who had experienced moderate adversity (about five life events) reported less negative response to pain and less physical stress than those with either no history of adversity or those who had gone through high levels of trauma.

The results were what the researchers anticipated except in one area: Participants with high levels of adversity didn’t pull their hand out of the cold water as quickly as expected. That is, they were tougher than the researchers thought they’d be during this test.

The study builds on previous research on the theory of toughness. The theory states that being exposed to stresses, coupled with adequate recovery time, can “toughen” us up (or, to reference a common saying, what doesn’t kill us can make us stronger).

Building toughness is the same as improving fitness, the study notes. “Toughness develops only through exposure to stressors, just as fitness improves only with physical exertion, but excessive exposure to stressors disrupts toughening, just like overexertion can be harmful [to physical fitness],” the researchers write.

What made this study unique was that it controlled for outside influences, like friends and family, meaning that while support teams are important, we can, under certain situations, manage pretty well on our own.


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