Psyching Tips for MarathonersLeave the first response October 29, 2008 / Posted in The Running Mind
Sports psychologists take their advice to the streets, helping runners stay focused.
Kate Hays, PhD., a sports psychologist for the Toronto Marathon, has heard every kind of prerace anxiety. She once counseled a man who was having last-minute doubts about running a marathon in a chef’s hat while carrying a cake to advertise his restaurant, even though he’d practiced in the get-up. Knowing that a mantra often helps, Hays quickly thought up one tailor-made to his circumstances: “You know you can do 18 miles,” she said. “After that, it’s a piece of cake.”
It may sound silly, but reassuring voices such as Hays’s have become common at marathons as race directors realize the value of having someone on hand who understands the mental challenges runners face. At the prerace expos and the starting lines of marathons, sports psychologists, usually runners themselves, talk runners through visualization strategies, help them develop mantras, and calm prerace jitters. During the race, some bike along the course, offering encouragement to struggling runners. Afterward, they work in medical tents, tending to wounded psyches. What they’ve learned from working in the trenches can help any runner, whether you’re training for a marathon or simply looking to increase your weekly mileage.
Know the Route
Psychologist Suzanne McAllister Avery, Ph.D., a former member of the New York City Marathon psyching team, recommends runners learn the terrain and landmarks of training runs or racecourses. You’ll know, for instance, that you need to conserve energy for the hill near mile five. Or you’ll breathe easier when you pass that statue near town hall, realizing you only have a mile left.
Carry a Talisman
“Glancing at a small object that reminds you of why you’re running can motivate you,” says Hays, who leads the psyching team at the Toronto Marathon. Some runners choose objects that have sentimental value. Hays knows of one woman who dedicated her marathon to her deceased parents and wore their wedding rings on race day. Four years ago, marathon Olympic gold medalist Mizuki Noguchi ran in Athens with an omamori, an amulet in an embroidered pouch that carried a blessing from a Shinto priest, sewn to her shorts.
Austin “Ozzie” Gontang, Ph.D., a psychotherapist who has run close to 90 marathons, bikes to mile markers three, eight, 14, and 24 of the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon with a megaphone so he can deliver these cues: “Relax your jaw…Relax your shoulders…Run tall…Run smooth… Flow.” Gontang encourages runners to repeat this checklist to themselves. “It’ll remind you to stay relaxed, which helps you run more easily,” he says.
Sports psychologist Jack Bowman, Ph.D., who directed the Long Island Marathon’s psych team for 12 years, says visualization can help you keep a steady pace. Bowman’s favorite technique: He pictures his lower body as a strong, muscular horse that his upper body is riding upon. “When you focus on that image, you feel like you’re moving effortlessly,” he says. Another trick Bowman recommends comes from 1972 Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter, who, Bowman says, envisioned his legs as bicycle wheels, moving smoothly along the road.
Set Realistic Goals
Runners can become emotionally overwhelmed after a disappointing race. To prevent runners from finding themselves in this situation, Hays advises choosing three goals. The first is your “excellent” goal-the time you’d like if you get a great night’s sleep, your legs feel fresh, and your stomach and the weather are cooperative. The next is your “pretty good” goal, which is something you’d be happy with. The last is the “I can live with myself” goal for races where the heat index is soaring or your prerace dinner is still churning in your stomach. Keep the first goal to yourself: If you make it, you’ll look like a superstar; if you don’t, no one will know.
Bowman advises runners to bank encouraging running memories to draw from. “Think back to successful moments in your running career, perhaps the first time you made it to the top of a steep hill without stopping, and how powerful that made you feel,” he says. “Call upon these thoughts when you need a pick-me-up.” Hays recalls a runner who carried note cards with mantras, funny anecdotes, and memories of family and friends. “When you’re out there running, you need to be your own cheering section,” she says. “Any positive energy you can drum up will help carry you through.”
Try out different visualization methods and mind games during workouts, so you can find one that works for you and use it on race day.