Marathon Psychology

Contributed by Jeff Henderson - MIT Head Coach

Psychology plays a major role in your training, and can affect you in various ways during the different phases of your training. Physically you are ready to go, but there are some of you who are not quite mentally ready. Just as you have trained your body physically for race day, your mind needs training as well because after all, your brain is responsible for all the functions of your body.  

You have subjected your mind to resistance training of sorts. Resistance from fatigue. That is one of the greatest benefits of the Saturday workouts. Physically you are exhausting yourself week in and week out as you knock out the mileage. On Saturday when you are doing your longest workout of the week, you have all your MIT friends to help keep your mind off things. Thus, mentally training your mind to resist fatigue. Race day will be no different. If you're not with your MIT'ers on race day you'll find a new friend in the crowd to keep your mind fresh.

Other psychological techniques you should work on are disassociation, visualization, and positive thinking.

Disassociation   The process of  training for a half or full marathon and completing your goal race in and of itself is a mental challenge. How fast and how far can you go? Much of this depends on how well you have prepared your mind to challenge itself. If your noggin thinks that you are fatigued or that rough challenges lie ahead, it has a sneaky way of negatively effecting your running and walking.  

Almost all runners, seasoned or first-timers, will allow self doubt to creep in at some point during the race. Self doubt can lead you to want to slow down or even quit. Coming up with a strategy to avoid this is what can lead to a breakthrough race. Disassociation is one was of dealing with your mind when it starts to cast doubt. You need to find a way to get your conscious mind out of the way. Focus on some external event.  

For some of you this may mean staring down the tail-end of a person in front of you until you get past them, then you moving on to the next person ahead of you. Elite marathoner Paula Radcliffe uses disassociation by counting her steps during a race. Radcliffe says, "it helps me focus on the moment and not to think about how many miles I have to go. I concentrate on breathing and striding, and I go within myself."  Personally, I zone out completely and often find myself thinking about hiking the Appalachian Trail or singing a random tune. Use these last couple weeks to find a mode of disassociation that works for you. 

Visualization   Whatever your goal is, training and racing will get difficult at some point. You can coach yourself towards your goal with simple instructions. How many times have you found yourself saying to yourself things like, "Come on!" or "You can do this!"? My guess is that most of you, like myself, have done this. But, how many of you have actually visualized yourself running or walking your goal race?  

You can use personalized visualization to help improve your concentration in both training and racing. Imagine what you will look like at miles 1, 3, 7, 11, etc. How is your form? Is your breathing under control? Are you where you want to be at each of those mile marks? Are you on pace?  

Find yourself a nice quite spot to sit and relax. Take a few moments to let your body slow down and take a few deep breaths. Once you find yourself feeling relaxed, start walking yourself through every step of your race. Truly focus on what you will feel like at various points during your race; maybe even write down all of the splits you hope to hit on race day. While doing so imagine yourself looking at the clock at each mile marker and successfully hitting each of those paces.  

Now, pay attention to your breathing and your heart rate. Has your heart rate picked up and breathing quickened as your sit and visualize your race? If so, you've done a pretty solid job of getting yourself into the moment. Repeat this process several times between now and your race. Somewhere through the process you may visualize challenges that may occur out on the race course. This is good! Use these times as an opportunity to think yourself a way through the challenges. If you can get yourself through them now you will get through them on race day.  

Positive Thinking   I often find myself dreading the thought of a daily training run, encountering pre-race jitters, or worrisome thoughts of injury-plagued training. Isn't this all supposed to be fun and a relief from the daily grind of life?

Fortunately that answer is almost always yes! But there can be times when we allow our training and racing to add more stress and anxiety to our lives. We all have countless sources of stress in our lives. How can we try to best utilize our training as a stress relief and not an added stress?

Dreading a long run or a daily workout is a very common occurrence. Before or after a long day it can be hard to get yourself out the door. If you are reluctant to head out the door simply because you have a long hard day ahead of or behind, sometimes the easiest way to overcome it is to just walk out the door. You all know the feeling of relief that comes after that workout you were hesitant to do. Use positive imagery. Imagine yourself smiling and waving at your neighbors who are continually amazed by your dedication to get out the door everyday to knock out some miles.

What about race day jitters? Quite honestly, I embrace race day jitters. If I don't have a sense of nervousness when I toe a starting line I begin to question why I am there. The same may be true for you. However, excessive nervousness can adversely affect your race. Lack of confidence and fear of discomfort are the most common causes of pre-race jitters. The best cure is a simple trust in your training. Have confidence that the months of preparation are going to pay off. You have subjected yourself to a regimen specifically intended to prepare yourself for this day. The other solution is simply to hop in more races. Toeing the starting line of a local 5K before your half or full marathon will go a long way towards preparing yourself for the big day!

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