Your State of Mind Matters

Running a marathon is 90% mental. The other half is physical. The original quote is from philosopher Yogi Berra on hitting a baseball, but a paraphrase is appropriate in running a marathon.  In every endurance event, just about all participants will encounter that little voice on his or her shoulder planting seeds of doubt whether they can finish the event.  But that little voice can be silenced with planning and training.

Fatigue is often the culprit.  After running for 16 or 18 miles the body is tired, and it often seems like the finish line is moving faster than you are.  Well, you’re not alone.

There is a psychological phenomenon called ‘The Stopping Wish’ which affects us when we are about 75 – 80 percent of the way through our goal.  In a marathon, that happens around Miles 18 – 20.  At that point our mind tells our body we’ve done enough and it is time to stop.  Overcoming ‘The Stopping Wish’ begins much earlier than that point of the race when the phenomenon occurs.  It begins on those long runs, while training for the marathon.  And it begins with goal setting and having a plan for race day.

Set Yourself Up for Success

Once we decide to train for and participate in a marathon, we need to set a goal for ourselves.  For most, that may be finishing the marathon safe and injury free.  Many runners have additional goals – a time goal or a personal best.  Whatever our individual goals may be, we need to ask ourselves, “Are my goals realistic?” “What am I willing to do in order to achieve my goal?” and “How flexible are my goals?”

To best achieve our goals, we need to set a positive motivational climate and set S.M.A.R.T. goals.  Goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-limited.

Start with an honest assessment of your physical conditioning and training.  Set a goal which is specific and measurable (e.g., finishing under 4 hours); achievable and realistic (4 hours may not be a good goal if training at a 12 minute per mile pace); and time limited (based over a certain period of time —e.g. a training season). 

Running a marathon is 90% mental. The other half is physical.

Brendan Cournane

As the training season progresses, periodically check your goals against those you set at the beginning of the season.  Ask whether your goals remain realistic and achievable or whether the goals need modification.  Be honest in judging your capabilities; be resourceful in dealing with internal and external factors which may have affected your performance; and be willing to change if necessary to achieve established goals.

Maybe the goals need to be set higher because our training went better than expected.  Maybe the goals proved too aggressive due to injuries or to other stresses which affected our commitment and ability to train.  If the goals do not properly match current (and ever-changing) performance and training levels, the results are likely to range from boredom (goals set too low) to anxiety (goals set too aggressively).  Either one has a negative impact on our race.

Pro Tips for Race Day

Some practical tips for race day.  On race morning, before toeing the line and throughout the race, concentrate on good running form.  Repeat the mantra “Good Form Will Carry Me Through”.  Proper running form (head over shoulders, shoulders over hips, running with good arm drive to extend the stride) maintains running efficiency and conserves energy throughout the race.

Before entering the starting corral, close your eyes and remember a run on which you felt great and finished strong.  It helps to have a talisman such as a ribbon attached to your singlet or shorts to touch when recalling the image.  If tired during the marathon, touch the talisman and recall the fluid run, and the strong finish.

Run the shortest distance possible.  Run tangents when turning corners and when the course curves.  Race courses are marked by tangents so do not add distance by following curves when a straight line is available.

Mentally break the race into smaller segments.  While it may be overwhelming to think about running 26.2 miles, breaking the race into 5 mile segments is more manageable.  This helps deal with the Stopping Wish as well.  With a 5 mile goal, subconsciously we deal with the Stopping Wish at mile 4 when still fresh.  Staying with 5 mile intervals, we’ll repeat this a few times at miles 9, 14 and 19.  Having successfully dealt with the Stopping Wish several times before mile 20, we can effectively push off that Wish until after the race.

If fatigue and doubt arise, relax the muscles and visualize landmarks from the path on your training runs.  Think about how near a point on the race course is to a familiar spot on your training path. 

Envision an elastic cord around the waist of a runner in front of you, having them pull you along, let them do all the work as you hitch a free ride

When exhaustion occurs and those hamstrings, quads and calves start talking, shift the focus from the legs to the upper body movement.  This goes back to good running form.  It is difficult to concentrate on arms and legs at the same time.  Shifting the focus to arm drive and upper body motion distracts us from acknowledging leg fatigue.  Proper arm drive helps lengthen our stride, therefore we run more efficiently.

Finally, imagine a picture of yourself crossing the finish line–arms raised high in victory–and keep that picture in the front of your mind as you make your way to the finish line.