Marathon Runners Psychology

This page is devoted to provide tools to boost running performance and to enhance the runners running pleasure.

As you most probably already know, it is the psychological strength of an athlete which gives him or her an advantage over his or her opponents by being able to push a little further, a little harder than the others during training and races. This mental strength helps win gold medals and set new course records. For those of you with some athletic experience, you might have noticed that it is our mind which says "stop" to our body and we seize to continue movement. What if we could postpone this voice in our mind from sending this "stop" message?

The Choices of our Mind

During most training runs whether they are long or short the road is laid out in front of us and we are able to see where we are and also where we want to go. I often do my most challenging runs around a lake nearby where the running surface is soft and distance marks are painted every 100 meters to a total of 3 kilometers. There is a stretch of 50 meters where I can only see only the road ahead. However, If I glance over to my left I am able to see the spot where my hard run will end in about 200 meters. At that moment my mind has two choices. I could keep my focus forward and see only where I am at, or I can look to my left to see where I want to be. On the surface, my first choice would promise only limited scenery, the pain of lactic build-up in my muscles and the sound of my own heavy breathing. The second choice would however promise an exiting view of the nature and the place I really want to be, because there the pain would stop. My choice would seem obvious.

Let's take a look at a quote from George Sheehan, "of all the lessons sport teaches us about life, perhaps none is more dramatic than the danger of focusing on the outcome." This expression is most closely associated with the human tendency to focus solely on success or failure and winning or losing. Experienced runners would know that when these ingredients become our primary goal, most often our performance and pleasure would suffer. During a hard workout or tough race, our primary focus on the goal line (without worrying about the time or finishing place) could also put us at a disadvantage.

Quieting the Mind by Setting a Goal

It is very common for runners to decide their goals like distance and pace during the actual run. Runners can fill their minds with various thoughts like "increase pace on the middle part of the run" or "run one more mile at race pace". This mind chattering of goal setting and goal shifting during a run could distract from pure pleasure of our training run. If we set a goal before the workout this would allow us to quiet our mind of all these unnecessary thoughts and provide improved focus on the training run. When setting our goal for a run, account for variables like weather conditions, cardiovascular conditioning, workout schedules and how (motivated) you feel that day. Set goals according to intensity and leave room for minor corrections after your warming-up. On an easy-run day, focus your mind on making the run as relaxed and comfortable as possible. Setting a goal while allowing for flexibility would put our mind at ease and reward us with more enjoyable training runs.

Running with Distractions

While running there are many places and things we could direct our attention to. For most runners it is a wonderful opportunity to experience nature, or just to digest the struggles and triumphs of our day. Some runners prefer to listen to music while running for inspiration to persevere or to distract from discomfort. However, there is a downside to distraction which is that it takes away the awareness to experience what we are actually doing. Distraction is possible because running comes very naturally to us. Running is one of the easiest things and can be done with minimal instructions, but it could also be hard and require much effort. When distance and intensity or training increases, the simple mechanics of our stride begin to alter and break-down. To stay efficient and more comfortable we need to maintain some focus on these elements. This would guarantee to bring us more pleasure during any kind of run.

By keeping your awareness focused on your running this will help to reduce physical discomfort and negative thoughts. Staying connected with your running could avoid injuries because you would be able to differentiate between types of pain. When discomfort is leaving you unable to maintain your running form this increases the risk of injury and should result in slowing down or stopping altogether. Checking in with your body frequently allows you to warm-up much better by steadily getting into the flow of the run. If you do your training run while listening to music, the intensity of your run is very likely to become dictated by the tempo of the song which brings you out of contact with your sensations. Subsequently, your run might be too quick paced before being sufficiently warmed-up and increase the risk of injury.

Running with Awareness

Watching experienced marathon runners you might think that their running comes naturally that they freely allow their minds to wander because running comes so naturally. However, elite marathon runners frequently use a flexible style of focus that varies with the demands of the training run. During the easy parts of their run they are able to pay attention to other things, but continuously "check in" with their bodies. During the harder parts of the run, they pay particular attention internally, to their mind and body.

An increased focus inward would give every runner greater control of their run. Runners' propensity is to try to ignore the pain which could come from running a tough run. But ignoring the pain eventually leads to losing control. Synchronizing with the rhythm of your breath could help improve the efficiency of oxygen exchange for carbon dioxide in your lungs and thereby flushing out lactic acid from your muscles. To relax your muscles just bring more awareness to your running form, this also reduces pain and will allow you to run faster and further.

Diverting Negative Thoughts

Your first tendency might be to distract yourself from any negative thoughts when these are starting to weigh down on our minds. When we continue to ignore a persistent negative thought, this will eventually increase that thought's power and pull. We are sending a message to our mind that it is very scary to go there so our fear subsequently grows. Another way to manage those thoughts is by paying more attention to them. If you would actually try to follow your thoughts, you might realize that they are more connected with how you might feel in the future, rather than how you are actually feeling in the present. For example you might have this thought "how will I ever be able to finish this run if it feels so tough now?" This future could be as much as few seconds away, you can never really know for sure how you will feel down the track. During a hard run you may worry that you cannot maintain intensity or even be able to finish the race. However all these thoughts are aroused by your actual feelings, they might not be based on reality. Our psychology is able to control the present by bringing more awareness to the sensations. Remaining aware of your thoughts you'll be more able to understand their basic reality and stay connected with our actual present feelings. Additionally you stay open to the very real possibility that you could start feeling much better after some time!

After your thoughts have wandered off, bring your focus back to the present moment to better manage how you feel during your run. By bringing back your awareness you could try to focus on a specific part of your running form such as your arm swing or paying special attention to your breathing you could bring increased relaxation and thus improve overall feelings. Experienced athletes successfully manage their negative thoughts by becoming aware of them while detaching from them emotionally. Some effective strategies could be to think, "well, here are my negative thoughts again." Another approach could be to greet them and invite them in, then these negative thoughts are far less emotionally draining. For those of you having much difficulty with negative thinking, you might gain power from knowing that even though you are feeling so terrible you're able to maintain running intensity.

No Psychological Rules

The beauty of marathon running is that there is so much time to think. The opportunity to engage your body while allowing your mind to flow might explain the great emotional benefits of running. There are no good or bad ways to think or feel, however, having some mental tools will reward every runner with the most pleasure from running.


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