Ultra-Goldfish Memory

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Headshot of Corrine Malcolm, Editor-in-Chief at Freetrail

By: Corrine Malcolm

Freetrail Editor-in-Chief and co-host of the Trail Society Podcast.

I’ve said it to my athletes and I’ve definitely said it to myself, that in the sport of ultrarunning having a ‘goldfish memory’ can be a good thing. It’s the forgetting about how much the last interval hurt when you are two minutes into the recovery period and it’s abundantly prevalent when you sign up for your next race having sworn off the sport entirely during the back forty miles of your last 100-miler. 

It turns out, that the age-old tale of goldfish having memories as fleeting as a three-second Snapchat story is nothing more than a fishy myth! Despite that, this claim has been around for decades and it is time we give our aquatic companions their due credit. Contrary to popular belief, goldfish boast such good memories (which last for roughly six months) that scientists turn to them for insights into memory, spatial learning, and cognition. How’s that for your next trivia night? So in the context of this being a “lessons learned” style piece… maybe endurance athletes are more like ostriches, who while they don’t actually bury their heads in the sand, do have short-term memories of roughly ten seconds. 

Author, Corrine Malcolm, might be regretting to agree to a 50-mile adventure run.
Corrine Malcolm takes a moment to think about her life choices that had her heading up a volcano in Hawaii as the sunset. PC: Andy Cochrane

While being “forgetful” might seem like a bad thing, when I reflect on my own ability to get back on a start line time and time again this begins to feel more like a psychological trait than a coincidence. Just like the goldfish myth unraveled to reveal their impressive memories – trail and ultra-runners can perhaps find strength in having “selective forgetfulness” allowing us to face challenges with renewed resilience. Here are five key reasons why I think this funny little trait of ours might be the reason why we don’t dwell on our setbacks and find ourselves ready for the next interval or signing up for another ultra despite claiming to be retired.

Forgetting helps with: 

  • Cultivating a positive mindset. Being able to cultivate a positive mindset is critical in ultra, long run, or hard workouts. (I see you, interval rep number 4 of 6) Forgetting previous struggles can allow us to approach each new running experience with a fresh perspective and a dash of optimism. Never judge a workout by the warmup or a mid-race low point too quickly. A positive mindset not only benefits your overall well-being, but it is definitely a performance-enhancing drug. 
  • Maintaining mental resilience. We’ve all finished an interval convinced we might die, only to be ready for the next rep two minutes into our recovery jog… which might seem like a problem. In reality, trail and ultra-running often require us to push our physical and mental limits, by forgetting past challenges we maintain our resiliency. When we detach ourselves from the negative thoughts of “Oh lawd that was awful” we can welcome the next new experience unhindered.
  • Concentrating on the moment at hand. Dwelling on difficulties can make you feel stuck, this is especially true in long races where the sheer length of the event can make these feelings spiral out of hand. By concentrating on the moment at hand you don’t get caught up in the “what if’s or should have’s”. Focusing on the mile or intervals you’re in, by breaking the race up into smaller chunks, and by taking it one aid station at a time everything is a little less daunting, 
  • Reducing anxiety. When my athletes are nervous I tell them to, “get those butterflies in flying formation.” While visualization has its place we want to generally avoid replaying or ruminating on previous negative race experiences – we already took the time to learn from them and have been applying those lessons in training (Right?). Be the ostrich, forget a little when you pin your bib on, and leave the door open for new experiences this time around. 
  • Staying adaptable. Trail and ultra-events are dynamic. There are so many factors influencing performance – you’ve got weather conditions, course changes, nutrition ‘oopsies’, and so many unexpected challenges. You can’t control them, but you can control how you respond to them. Be psychologically flexible instead of fearful. 
Corrine Malcolm embracing her inner goldfish.
Heart of an ostrich, the mind of a goldfish, and ready to commit to her next “bad idea”. PC: Andy Cochrane

It’s important to note, and hopefully apparent in those takeaways, that being forgetful in the context of running and racing does not mean completely ignoring lessons learned from past experiences (like I’ll always bring an extra layer, even in Hawaii). We can all still benefit from analyzing and thinking critically about previous performances. After your next race or workout, before you hit that ostrich-like reset button, identify what went well and what didn’t – constructively incorporating small changes for next time. A certain level of forgetfulness might just be the key to developing a healthier and more effective mindset for your endurance exploits. Come to think of it, maybe we are goldfish after all. 

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