Shoes-check. Bib-check. Gel-check. Brain-check.
Of the many responsibilities I have as a psychologist, working with marathon runners is one of the most entertaining. Why? Well, there's simply never a dull moment.
Marathoners are quick thinkers who are resilient and seem to crave challenges more than the average person. Even if they smile and deny it, I can assure you that 8 out of 10 marathoners are a little obsessive, even more competitive, absorb all the information they can get their hands on, and are occasionally irrational about their sport. At my post as the Boston Marathon medical team psychologist for nearly a decade, I've been hearing the personal stories and strategies of runners who, for 26.2 miles, push their bodies and brains to the limit. For them, it's personal-and it should be.
Once runners decide to throw down the gauntlet, they must quickly learn they have not only committed to running a marathon, they've committed to managing a demanding lifestyle that takes some risk. Many runners take a very scientific approach to running. And that's not a bad idea. Ample research suggests the human brain is essential when it comes to facing all manner of challenges and situations in life, including running marathons. Your brain organizes your steps, regulates your temperature, monitors your heart, and the list goes on.
Many mental techniques used by runners today are derived from Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology (CBP), which is frequently examined in both psychological and brain science research literature. With hard work over time, cognitive-behavioral approaches can actually lead to reshaping the landscape of your brain (a concept called neuroplasticity). In the short run, CBP offers a commonsense, logical approach for runners who want to think about themselves and their performance accurately---plus have a few tricks when the going gets rough. Really, your body and brain are in partnership, focused on a specific performance goal.
So if you're running the Boston Marathon (or a family member, friend, or co-worker is running, or you're running another marathon later in the season) here are 8 mental strategies that, in my experience (and the experience of thousands of marathon runners I've worked with) are good to keep in mind:
For increased confidence, trust your training. You've trained your best and your body is now a lean, mean running machine. Make certain you have a pre-competition routine in place and let it take over just like you planned. Indiana University researcher Robert Chapman cautions runners to avoid the mistake of not practicing a race day routine. In fact, he says it's one of the biggest mistakes a runner can make. Whether you rehearse it in real time or visualize it, a plan will give you a comfortable and reliable mental structure and can reduce anxiety. Your planning has gotten you this far hasn't it? Let it take you those last 26.2 miles.
Eliminate the "what-if's", "yeah, but's", and "if-then's" in your thinking. Running isn't about making deals with fate. It's about making a pact with yourself in the here and now. Try to keep positive self statements running through your head as your feet run along. I always say that negative thoughts make your shoes heavy.
Put all distractions on the back burner before and during the race. Unless something is a life and death priority, it can wait. There will be plenty of time to address life commotion after you've run. Others will understand.
If something unexpected happens, it's OK. One way you can control something that you believe you can't control is to simply-or not so simply-accept it for what it is. So take it in stride if it starts to rain and gets windy, that old leg cramp flares up, or if you have a wardrobe malfunction. Perfection isn't required to finish the race.
Talk yourself up Heartbreak Hill. Associate constructive, positive cue words like float, glide, lift, or up, up, up. Let those hills break someone else's heart. This sort of mental cueing works at other points in the race too and can really keep you going if you start to feel fatigued. Be sure to listen to your body. Research tells us that those who use dissociation (deliberately taking your mind off of your body and performance) are more apt to hit the wall. So, listen closely to what your body tells you.
Indulge your superstitions. Especially when your superstitions are helpful and they make things feel familiar. If you accidently left your lucky socks at home, don't panic or start feeling bad vibes. There will be thousands of socks crossing the finish line, including your new ones. Look at it as a chance to embrace new types of luck.
Choose 2 or 3 goals for your performance. Sometimes runners set only one goal-their total race time or their PR. It can be helpful and motivating to choose several goals for points throughout the race. This increases your possibilities of enjoying success and satisfaction with your performance. For instance, aim to hit the five mile mark within a certain timeframe and feeling a specific way, then the 15 mile mark and so on. You may want to set yourself some mini-goals for those last six miles too, when the running gets harder; this helps by giving you something to focus on other than how tired you are.
Remember why you're running. Use all of your senses and visualize the specific reason why you're running a marathon: that special person or cause, your proud kids at the finish line, or because you just turned 70. Bill Rodgers told me once, "Know why you are there."
Oh, one last piece of advice... Once you cross the finish line, please don't lie to yourself by saying "I'm never doing this again." The pain and agony of running a marathon is the kind of pain you forget. You know you'll be back. Good luck!
Now it's your turn: What mental strategies have gotten you through the worst miles or given you some of your best? What's the reason YOU run? How have you used your brain to keep your body on track? Post some comments here or send me a tweet @thewinnersbrain. Be sure to check out the new book I wrote with my colleague Mark Fenske called The Winner's Brain. It's packed with plenty of strategies to achieve success both on the road and off.