Friday, 11 February 2011

Mental strategies for marathon running

From a talk by Dr Tim Holder at St Mary's University 30/1/2011 for UKA

Tim started by emphasising that successful marathon running is an exercise in managing pain. The next few entries to this blog will explore this position in more depth. If you are taking part in a distance race it is hoped this advice can help you and you can try some of the tips in training.

During a marathon all runners at some point will experience physical and mental strain and pain. By accepting this and having effective strategies with which to cope can help an athlete achieve their goals for the race. In this and the next blog entry, I'll outline advice to use during training on goal setting to help motivate athletes and how to use coping strategies to reach their potential on race day. Evidence across a range of sports has shown effective goal setting can have a positive impact come race day. On the flip side, unrealistic or poor goal setting has been shown to lead to a runner feeling disappointed with their performance at the finish if they miss their goal/s.

Tim cited Paula Radcliffe, who motivates herself for races by aiming to run faster than she's ever done previously before each race. However, that is only one type of goal that you can use to help you.

Such a goal is described as outcome oriented. In sport, there are 3 kinds of goal that can be set. These are outcome, performance and process goals. An outcome goal is a comparison against another, e.g. "I am going to beat Haile Gebrselassie." For a competitive athlete like Radcliffe, this is a powerful motivating force. However, for the majority of runners in a marathon, aiming to beat a particular foe (or friend!) can be very negative if unfulfilled. Research has shown outcome goals provoke greater anxiety, as they are both uncontrollable and potentially unrealistic - as my example about beating Gebrselassie shows!

What has been shown as healthier to concentrate on are performance and process goals. These are both in the control of the individual. A performance goal is a comparison to an absolute measure. In marathon most often this will be a time an athlete is aiming to achieve. However, these can be unrealistic and can be 'all or nothing' in the mind of the competitor which can lead to anxiety. The best way to use these goals is to use different measures of performance to motivate you for a race situation. So rather than aiming for a 4 hour finish, Tim recommended:

A 'should goal': What you expect to do as a minimum
A 'could goal': When a time comes together (e.g. a personal best)
A 'just might' goal: The ideal scenario

In my case for London I'm aiming to improve on my PB of 3:27. So taking Tim's advice as an example:

My should goal is: 3:30
My could goal is: 3:25
My just might goal is: 3:20

Though my training is going well, I didn't get to do as much pre-training before Christmas, so I'm being realistic with my goal setting. If I finish with 3:29:59 then I'll be happy, despite this being slower than my PB - given my conditioning. Beyond that, my satisfaction will increase with every minute I take off that finish time.

To reach these performance goals, an athlete can enhance their running with process goals. These are specific aspects of your overall performance that fall under individual control. Your posture, cadence, strategies for dealing with fatigue (e.g. attention), pacing and building up mental strength can all be practiced and built up through training.

Given the 3 months required to train, not only should you try and work at your speed, distance and physical conditioning, training runs should be used to sharpen up mental strategies in preparation for race day. If you've prepared well mentally through training, come race day, whatever scenario might occur (from bad weather, to other runners, having a 'bad day' in the race, physical discomfort or whatever), you have a repertoire that can be drawn upon.

In my entry tomorrow, I will outline specific mental strategies you can implement as your weekly mileage goes up, to help you get to an optimal level of performance come race day.


Simon said...

I like the fact that you have linked training to mental preparation. Noakes and more recently Fitzgerald in his book "Run: The Mind Body Method..." describe the need for training to have an impact on the runner's mental approach to the race - in Noakes case training the central governor as well as the body. In my training for my two marathons last year (2:43 in Paris and 2:40 in Florence) I knew that I would have to run faster than I had once believed I could and it was only through hard and consistent training that I was able to convince myself that these targets were achievable. I'll read your follow up post with interest.


I agree, Simon.

I can not remember what the exact percentage quoted is but the marathon is certainly a large part psychological over physiological however so many people seem to neglect the psychological element of training. Having hard specific marathon training sessions not only develops you physiologically but only develops mental toughness - if you do not experience the pain of the marathon in training, how do you expect to conquer it on the day?

In the Sports Personality of the Year Award for 2010, Mark Cavendish said an interesting thing; that he tries to exercise his mental capacity, as well as his physical. I think he cited playing chess as one way to do so

Stu Holliday - The Focused Mind said...

Hi Simon/McNude. Thanks for your comments. I think my follow up post generally covers psychological 'tricks' that runners can use to cope with pain, but what you're referring is training the mind through hard training sessions to increase its tolerance to physical pain.

Indeed Noakes and St Clair Gibson both write about 'Rate of perceived exertion' and its relation to successful marathon running. I used both in my research when writing about the psychological skils of runners and hope I can get St Clair Gibson to contribute to this blog. Please keep an eye on entries over the next few months and hope I can answer your points in more (scientific) depth.