Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Mental Side of Marathoning

So far 2016 has been an unexpectedly good year for me in terms of racing - I've run two pretty decent marathons (Wangaratta, 2:56, and Boston, 2:51), a rather good 10K and two really VERY surprising half marathons where I recorded my fastest results in quite a long time. Finishing the May SMH half in Sydney in 1:21:43 put me just 18 seconds off my personal best and on a much hillier, tougher course than the Bathurst half marathon where I ran that in 2013.

As you can imagine, these events have filled me with confidence and prompted me to think that perhaps I'm not quite entirely over the hill yet, in contrast to what I believed in 2015. I've gone ahead and badgered the Elite Coordinator of the Gold Coast marathon into giving me an elite entry and am busily trying to prepare for another shot at sub-2:50 -  something I thought was well out of my reach at age 46. And perhaps it still is, but a stubborn part of me absolutely believes I have a solid chance.

All this has inspired me to start wondering: how is it that last year I thought I was all washed-up, but this year I'm somehow suddenly in great form? My training honestly hasn't been that different -- so is there a chance it might be mental? Or is all the time I spend working in mental health just making me like an orthopaedic surgeon: when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail? It bears some consideration. And I've heard it said that marathon training is as much a mental as a physical undertaking, so could my brain really be driving these improved results?

The Truth About Positive Thinking

There's absolutely no doubt that I'm tough - coach B has remarked on it many times - and that mental toughness has played an enormous part in the success I have had thus far in my running exploits. In most of my race reports I touch on the mental trickery that gets me to the finish line of each marathon, or at least the thought process that is going on while I'm convincing myself to keep running despite mounting discomfort. There's no doubt that my own personality style plays a big part but I've also seen a big change in my thinking and learned a great deal from my years of racing experience. So, is mental fortitude something we are born with, or can it be learned? That's a very tough question; instead, let's consider what attributes make a person mentally tough.

Is it how they think?

Check out this article about "mentally strong runners" and the stuff that they do. To me they sound like completely insufferable human beings - they "change the conversation if someone starts spouting negative comments. They start talking about something other than running, or talk about some positive aspects of the sport. They also do their best to avoid interactions with negative people in the first place." Right, so there are no Negative Nellies allowed. In pursuit of faster marathon times we will relentlessly see the bright side of every single situation and we absolutely refuse to talk to anyone who rains on our parade! 

This kind of person is exactly the kind that makes me want to poke my own (or, better, their) eyes out with a stick, and I'd sooner eat a box of broken glass than run a marathon - or even a 5K - in the company of someone who approaches running in this manner. Relentless positivity is certainly not my own style, and it's not the secret as far as I am concerned.

But the psychology of positive thinking - and the notion that it can bring about positive outcomes - has been around since Norman Peale published his famous book in 1952 and is still extremely popular, at least if the number of inspirational positive thinking internet memes out there is any indication. So, does it really work?

"Think away your cancer!" Umm, nope. Research has proven that although optimism might decrease your risk of heart attack (or at least keep you happy until you have your second one), surviving cancer has nothing to do with your attitude. Unfortunately.

"You are what you think you are!" Umm, also nope. Can you make yourself into a success simply by thinking of yourself as a success? Well, in part it probably depends on how you define "success" - if it's "a person who unrealistically believes they are a success despite any and all evidence to the contrary" then perhaps your chances are good.

So, thinking positive all the time is not the answer. The act of thinking positive constantly doesn't get you to your goals - it just makes you really stressed and probably exhausted because you're putting so much effort into thinking positive - and there's even a chance it might be sabotaging you. One study that had participants visualise themselves getting high marks on an exam actually resulted in lower marks because the students involved presumably became so convinced they would do well that they neglected to study! A bit like photocopying the course notes and then assuming you don't need to also read them.

Is it how they act?

For some years prior to becoming a GP I managed a private medical practice and in the course of that work I spent a lot of time on the phone to insurance companies, trying to find out why they had not paid various, usually extremely overdue, claims. My default emotional setting while doing this was, as a direct result, grumpy and frustrated. I'm sure I was frowning most of the time I was on the phone and my stress levels were through the roof. You can assume that quite often I got absolutely nowhere with these calls, and my attitude was probably in major part to blame. 

These days when I have to ring up someone's office staff and I need them to do something for me, I deliberately smile as I identify myself and greet the person on the other end of the phone. I'm happy to talk to them! I'm confident and friendly and I just know they will help me! The decision to put a big smile on my dial while on the phone was a conscious, deliberate one and at first it felt very forced - I mean they can't even see me, so it also feels silly - but now it's second nature and to be honest, by simply acting happy I really have become a much nicer, happier person on the phone. Receptionists go out of their way to help me; booking staff squeeze my patient in despite there being no appointments available five minutes ago; most of the time I get off the phone having succeeded in getting what I want or need.

There are studies to back this up: it's known as the "As If" principle. Acting like a confident person - adopting for instance a "power pose": sitting at a desk with feet up, hands interlocked behind the head - makes you become more confident. Your body's hormones reflect this pose and feeling of power, too; it is an emotional change driven by physical changes, not the other way round.

So maybe the key is taking positive ACTION rather than just practicing positive thinking. But strutting around like a peacock and posing like a megalomaniac sounds utterly pretentious and it is tough to see how this sort of behaviour could make a person feel like anything other than an idiot. Exactly what do we do about the persistent little voice in the back of our head that keeps mumbling "This is just a load of hippie BS"?

Is it what they DON'T do?

It has been suggested that successful people (the article mentions Donald Trump, but I don't think we want to go there right now at all) are successful not because they think positive more than others but because they don't make room for negative thinking, or pay it any special attention. They simply focus on what they need to do to bring about their positive outcome, and don't spend too much time fretting about the negatives. 

I'm strongly reminded here of an ancient Eastern philosophical practice known as Mindfulness, which is essentially a way of paying attention to the present moment - with all its thoughts and feelings and emotions - in an observant, non-judgemental manner.  Whereas positive thinking implies that all other types of thought, in particular negative ones, must be pushed to the side or repressed, Mindfulness takes a different approach. 

Negative thoughts are tolerated but not necessarily embraced; they're just there. And once a person learns that it's possible to just tolerate negative thoughts - without having to necessarily engage with them or try to actively suppress them - those thoughts have less impact on emotions and subsequently on actions. I teach patients to recognise negative thought patterns (which are very common in both anxiety and depression) and to then try to replace them with "something more helpful" (not always something "more positive"). Mindfulness is enjoying great popularity at the moment in Western philosophical circles, although it has been around for much longer than most people suspect.

So how does all this apply to running?

I'm going to put it to you that there are 4 aspects of training your brain to race marathons, and note that I use the word "race" because it assumes that you're out there with a goal and aiming to run to the best of your ability. 

1. Motivation

Here's your positive action part. There's no way to skimp on marathon training: you have to do the work. There may be a million good excuses why you never managed to do that 20 mile long run, but they won't help you at mile 19 of the marathon. 

When I wake up in the morning and think "Ugh, no, I don't want to run today" (which happens a lot more often than you'd imagine) I get up anyway and just go. I know I'll feel good when I finish and that if I don't run I will feel like a pathetic pointless slug and be irritated with myself for the rest of the day - and that's more than enough motivation to get me out and running most of the time.

What do you mean, I look like I didn't run today?

2. Specific, realistic goals

Here's your positive thinking. Setting an achievable (read = realistic) goal time for your race is very important and not terribly hard: if you know what your current fitness is and what your recent race times predict for your goal race (there are useful calculators here and here) then there's very little that should go wrong. The problems start happening when people have finish times in mind that bear very little relationship to their actual abilities or training.

I once knew a bloke who was a regular on the RWOL Marathoners forum and he would constantly post in the sub-3 thread about how he was training to someday run a 2:30 marathon, and to this day I don't know if he was serious, trying to amp himself up or just trying to rile us up. Either way, it worked: his posts were greeted with howls of disbelief and derision. 

Why? All his training and race paces pointed to a small chance of sub-3 and literally no chance at all of anything close to 2:30. I'm not sure if he was even capable of running a single mile at the sort of pace a 2:30 marathon would require (for the whole duration of the race). It's not hard to  imagine what would happen if he actually tried this, either. To the best of my knowledge he still has not run a sub-3 marathon, although he's gone out on pace for one a few times and blown up. 

mile he comes again

It seems pretty obvious that knowing what your goal is and having the confidence that you're capable of achieving it (or at least that it is within reach, or failing that, not entirely impossible) is essential for a positive mental approach to the race. 

3. Having a plan, and sticking to it

Knowing your own capabilities and limitations is important, but learning to listen to your body and pace yourself is probably the single most useful thing you can do in training. Most of my running life I've spent running by feel, and as a result I know quite well what different paces (5K vs HM vs marathon pace) feel like in terms of effort level and feedback from my body. This is something I practice in training - in particular running at marathon pace - until it becomes second-nature.

On race, day, however, it's easy to get carried away with the excitement and the crowd, and end up throwing caution to the wind. In so many races I see people dashing out from the start line at paces that are utterly inappropriate, and I always wonder, how is it that they don't realise they are running way too fast? I'm talking 5K race pace for the first 5K of a half marathon - so what are they planning to do for the other 16.1km they still have to run?  

In the marathon this becomes even more crucial. Last year in Melbourne at the 10K mark I was ahead of the 2:50 pacer and chatting to a bloke running beside me who told me his goal was "oh, just sub-3." I told him he needed to SLOW DOWN NOW and he replied "But I feel great!" Um, sure you do, that's because you've only run 10K! I should have memorised his bib number to check later but I'm pretty sure he didn't feel nearly as good at the 30K or 40K marks.

whereas I save my suffering up for the final few miles and most of the photos

4. Dealing with the tough stuff

Turning up to the start line is usually not so hard, but bringing the right and best attitude can often be a challenge. I can't count the number of times I've showed up to a race and lined up right at the front then told someone nearby "I'm just going to take it easy today and run for fun" - then gone hell-for-leather as soon as the gun has fired. For me at least it's about pressure: the more pressure I put on myself to perform, the less I actually want to race. So I fool myself into thinking that it's no big deal, which works for me but might not for others I suppose.

la dee dah, we're just here to have fun....with our names on our bibs....

Now let's talk about mental trickery during the actual race, when it really matters. 

Depending on your experience and how ambitious your goal is, the first half of a marathon might feel too easy (in which case you are well-placed to speed up a little in the second half for a nice negative split) or it might feel a bit too hard, in which case the temptation is to freak out/panic/give up. The key to getting the best out of yourself is to tread the fine line between "This is a cakewalk and I'm definitely not trying hard enough" and "OHMYGOD this is a disaster I feel awful and I'm gonna die" - something that is far easier said than done. When it works, it's fantastic, and when it doesn' doesn't.

So, should you check your watch obsessively? At the start, and particularly if you're not experienced with pacing, that's probably not a bad idea. It helps you stay on pace and, if you're feeling good and the numbers are what you want, it's a nice positive boost for the confidence. 

The problems start when the numbers aren't quite right, or when it feels harder than it should - then the voice of doubt starts up, saying "Oh no, this isn't going to end well", and it's all too easy to listen - because the next couple of thoughts that are just around the corner are likely "This really sucks" and "I hate this, I'm going to give up now before it kills me." This is where ignoring or just tolerating but not engaging with the negativity train comes in handy: it's there, but I'm not paying it any attention.

Not paying attention to the inevitable doubts and negative thoughts means that in general I almost never check my watch anymore in the final miles of a race. If I'm failing to hit the paces then I'd rather just not know about that now, thanks; I'll just keep running as hard as I can and not worry about the fact that it might not be as fast as I'd like. Because it will be very tempting to just give up if I know exactly how much I'm slowing down, and giving up unfortunately is not an option.

When you're in the Hurt Locker

In every single race there will come a point when it hurts, you're over it, you just want to stop. The part of your brain that is in charge of self-preservation will be literally screaming at you to quit running, NOW; your legs will feel like jelly; all you will want to do is give up. This usually makes for a slight mental dilemma and some very ugly race photos.


Probably the most effective method I have ever employed to make myself keep going is the "one more mile" trick: I'll let myself give up and jog, but not until I've run one more mile as fast as I can. Rinse and repeat until the end is close enough that I might as well just keep running......Or, I break down the distance still left into segments of 2; at 20 miles it's just 2 miles to go until there will only be 4 miles to go! I almost never think about the real distance still to be covered - it's too overwhelming - rather, I think of it in smaller segments.

A slightly less effective method is to bully yourself into keeping on going. Running Boston 2014 I really wanted to slow down already at about mile 16, but thinking of the devastating injuries so many people had suffered in the bombings of the previous year I told myself to stop being so bloody soft, suck it up and keep going. "This is Boston. You do NOT give up" became my mental mantra - and it took me to an all-time PR.

And finally, even though I basically said before that it's BS, some positive thinking. Anyone who has raced a few marathons knows the truth by now: the last 6 miles really hurt. People dread those miles; they are the true test of the marathon and the place where dreams very often turn to dust. I learned early to think of that pain as a good sign, one that told me I'd given the race everything I had, and to tell myself that it's MEANT to hurt at this point. Pain is good! It's expected! It's almost over - so ignore it as best you can and just run. If you can manage to hang on then it will be worth all the suffering; you'll know you did the absolute best you could on the day.

Summing It All Up

There's no single trick for running your best race every time - it's a matter of experience and tenacity and, much of the time, relentless optimism. And clearly I don't have a monopoly on all the right answers, rather I've tried here to list and reflect on some of the methods I've used to make the most of the running ability that I have and the opportunities that I've been lucky enough to have as a runner.

So Rachel's recipe for a well-trained brain when it comes to the marathon would seem to boil down to this:

Have a positive outlook: even pain is good, sometimes.

Take positive action, but be realistic.

Acknowledge the negativity, but don't give it enough room to grow


The spoils of persistence


  1. Great reading Rachel - I very much enjoy the 'non race reports' that you come up with. Not having the experience that you do it is very helpful to hear what your experience says. As always,, good stuff!

  2. Great post, especially since this is a topic I have been engrossed in for the past three years working with a sports psychologist. Amazing how some people (me) never realize any of this even though they run so much.

  3. That was a good one. I had a chuckle at "feeling like a pathetic pointless slug and be irritated with myself for the rest of the day" - I do the same thing and think about how bad I'll feel if I don't do a planned run.
    Good point about learning from experience and having realistic time expectations and a good feel for race-pace and getting that pace right from very early on in the race.
    As well as 'mental', I think you're positioned well to run a marathon PB because the big picture of your training has hit a sweet spot of 'not to little, not too much, just right' over the past 12 months. I'm reading a book by Michael Hutchinson about elite cycling and he said that he knows some pro-tour level riders who have been in a state of 'over-training' for their entire careers, which I found very interesting.