Sunday, 13 February 2011

Mental strategies for marathon running - Part 2

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

In my last entry, I wrote about what Tim had to say on goal setting and how this can be used by athletes to help motivate themselves in training and in race scenarios. Crucially, goals have to be both realistic and achievable. Whilst accepting setbacks will occur, training should condition the athlete mentally and physically to reach the optimal performance level on the day. Tim said the role of coaches and sport psychologists is to help athletes 'get through the emotional, to reach the rational.' This is done by trying to 'control the controllables', which is why process goals are so important as these are under personal control, unlike outcome goals.

Within a marathon event, an athlete will have to confront and deal with fatigue, distractions (from the environment, themselves, and others), pacing and perceived exertion, and boredom and anxiety about negative emotional states. So the role of attention is hugely important. Where the mind is focused moment to moment has been shown to make a big difference in how runners cope with and manage pain.

The two most researched concepts have been i) Internal or external focus, and ii) Association and Disassociation. Internal focus is the process of focusing inward on yourself and your feelings during a run. External focus being the direction of attention to the events around you. Tim's examples of these being mile markers, lamp posts and even other runners backsides! i.e. Anything in the environment that can be seen and used.

Association and disassociation relate to how a person monitors their physiological symptoms. Associating is when you monitor how you physically feel. Disassociation relates to directing your attention away from negative physical symptoms.

During a race your attention will switch between all of these concepts. But using some tricks in training can assist in managing pain, in order to find what works best for you.

Evidence has shown that focussing externally whilst disassociating to be the most effective strategy to delay the onset of 'hitting the wall.' Hitting the wall (or 'bonking' in triathlons) occurs with some people in race conditions when the bodys natural glucose levels are depleted, leading to the body burning its natural fat levels, causing enormous physical and mental discomfort. Tim gave the example of concentrating the mind to choose an object in the envitonment to race towards. This way the race is broken down into smaller chunks. As stated, mile markers can be used to do this, though the relative distance between these can mean that as tiredness bites, you may struggle to 'get through' to the next mile.  Focusing the mind to different, closer markers, such as lampposts can be a more effective strategy.

On a 10 mile tempo run this week, I tried this out. I was clocking between 7 and 8 minute mileing and being pushed by faster runners throughout. Taking Tim's advice, I ran 'micro' races to a point no further than 25 metres in the distance. Each time, I would run towards it, in my mind I would say to myself that I'd finished each 'race.' As I passed the object I would repeat the process over again. I have to say, I found this strategy helpful. As the run wore on my quads were aching but this strategy meant it felt like I didn't have so far to go, even though I knew I was tricking myself. It meant I could maintain my speed and not feel so tired. This doesn't work for all though. For Paula Radcliffe, as she passes a mile marker, she counts to 100 to focus her concentration. Others I have researched have 'chunked' London by famous landmarks as they go round the course.

Overall, the most successful runners I have met, regardless of their target finish time, have all managed to re-focus their mind on the race at hand, via a strategy that works for them in order to deflect or manage pain. Sometimes by attending to a discomfort and then trying to minimise it rationally can have quite a powerful effect. Usually I have found people describe how they 'chunk' their current position, i.e. 'I only have to make it to the next drinks station to top up on lucozade to ease the pain I am feeling.'

Tim did mention mindfulness (a buddhist practice of directing attention to present moment experiences and accepting pain as inevitable) as an area researchers are interested in using as a strategy to cope with pain. Mindfulness is thus a series of ongoing negotiations to experience emotions into the present. This is something that hasn't been proved empirically to work so far, but I would be interested to see if it works for anyone. Similarly, I am personally exploring having brief sessions of EMDR to see whether a clinical method can be effective in coping with marathon pain. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a proven clinical treatment, most famously used with victims of PTSD to cope with emotional or distressing experiences. As far as I know it hasn't been adapted to be tried in dealing with marathon pain. I will let you know how that goes in due course, thought I accept it won't be a tool available to most people.

If you have successfully used mental tricks and tips to cope with discomfort, can I ask that you please add a comment below this entry and share it with others. Not all strategies work equally for everyone, but as those who are training for the Paris and London marathons are doing longer weekly runs, it is a good time for you to try out new ideas to see what works. I always remember a mantra an old colleague of mine says to themselves in long races. I like it and I have found it to work before:

"Everyone has to go through this s***! - you won't be the first, and you won't be the last!" Good luck!

2 comments:

Ben W said...

Both my marathon and half marathon PB (even/negative splits respectively) were run by breaking down the miles and playing a game with myself to hit the pace. I clocked the time as I hit a mile marker, then worked out what time I should hit the next one (and tried hard not to hit it early/late. Aside from the last couple of miles in the marathon, it never feels like a long way to the next target, you're engaged mentally with the pace, and you should end up running very even splits.

CS Sansar said...

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