Training your mind and your emotions is an important phase of marathon training. It can help to align you with the laws of nature. This leads to training with ease, improving with certainty and attaining your true potential.
Earlier, we indicated that one of the psychological attributes to excellence is commitment. The other key is self-control. These keys are unanimous choices of some of the best athletes, coaches and scouts even though they could not agree on the necessary physical attributes. Self-control can be important in being able to perform well under a variety of stress-producing circumstances. Some aspects include being able to accept criticism, not being afraid to fail, maintaining composure under stress and being able to perform to potential during competition. To do these, you need to be able to control and channel your emotions, focus your concentration and bounce back from setbacks.
Goal setting is a behavioral approach to self-control which utilizes setting specific goals and self-reinforcement through their achievement. The achieved goal acts as reinforcement and as a stimulus to pursue the next goal, helping to maintain motivation and build self-confidence. Other extrinsic (real) rewards may also help to keep you focused towards achieving a long term goal.
Sometimes the key to solving problems is the ability to view things in a rational and constructive manner. One way to do this is to prevent anxiety from arising. Anxiety arises mainly from irrational or illogical beliefs. Some of these beliefs are that you must always have the approval of those you love; that you must do everything extremely well; that you cannot control or change your feelings; or that you must worry about something that seems fearsome or dangerous. The way to reduce unwanted and unproductive anxiety is to challenge and change some of your irrational beliefs and feelings.
Begin change by questioning the thoughts that upset you. Use self-talk to tell yourself new things. Mental imagery can be used to imagine yourself thinking new thoughts and taking differing courses of action in tough situations. Attempt, in your mind, to see yourself thinking, believing and acting in more constructive ways, then try to duplicate this in real life. If a change in perspective or belief is experienced, try to be aware of what you did or said to make it happen and use that pattern again. Sometimes re-labelling or re-interpreting sensations can put you in control. That knot in your stomach before the race could let you say "I'm so nervous. I hope I don't blow it" or it could signal that your body is saying " I'm pumped up and ready for action. Let's go!" Thoughts control emotions. Become aware of your thoughts and use them to your advantage.
Simulation uses practice of desired performance responses and coping strategies in situations as real as you can make them. For the runner, this means that selected competitive situations are reproduced as closely as possible during practice. Introduce yourself to the expected things. Run the race course; run in all kinds of expected weather conditions; practice drinking fluids at specific intervals; run when hungry, after eating, during the expected time of the race (morning, afternoon, etc.), or when you are tired. Then introduce the unexpected - practice passing people, having others pass you, have your friends come out during your run and say "Looking good" or whatever bothers you.
Human modeling is another form of simulation which attempts to emulate, model or reproduce the positive behavior of another, perhaps highly skilled athlete. Modeling can place you in the position to look at and draw upon other peoples' strengths in order to better your own physical and psychological strengths. For example, watch a video of the Olympic marathons and pretend you're Joan Benoit or Carlos Lopes and imagine yourself running the marathon as they did.
Mental imagery is a form of simulation that takes place in your head. It gives you a chance to deal with an event or problem internally before you must deal with it in real life. For mental imagery to work, you must be able to vividly imagine yourself executing the skill or response. Movement is an important part of mental rehearsal. The moving mental image is felt to allow you to respond to the changes and do the movement needed to execute the action. Imagine yourself running across the finish line at the marathon, look up at the clock - you've done it and in the goal time! Imagery or visualization can be learned by practice. Start with simple familiar scenes and work up. You can watch someone running and try to replay it in your mind. When you are running and are feeling that relaxed, floating, "I could run forever" feeling, try to focus on your mental picture of that effort. Practice seeing that image when you are not running and when you are tired during a run. Use that mental picture to improve the way you feel while you're running. Run the race course, then visualize yourself running it during the race. See yourself taking aid, passing the 20 mile mark running smoothly and relaxed. Picture yourself finishing, the applause and cheers from the spectators, the cold drink you will reward yourself with. You can later use this mental imagery to pinpoint a problem or focus on an area of improvement such as staying relaxed during the last 6 miles.
Sometimes you are too tense or too anxious to achieve your best performance. Having the ability to physically relax and calm yourself mentally allows you to reach an optimum level of activation to enhance performance. We all have the body responses to the onset of stress - muscle tenseness, queasy stomach, increased heart rate, etc. Become aware of your body signals and use them as your signals to relax. You can focus on relaxing different muscles in your body. You can use deep breathing. Follow each breath with an effort to relax or use mental imagery to imagine yourself in a relaxed state. There are several relaxation procedures you can learn including progressive relaxation, but all need frequent practice. Relaxation may help you to get a good night sleep before the race as well as during the race.
The most important relaxation tool to learn is deep or diaphragmatic breathing which can give an immediate sense of relaxation throughout the body while you are running. This type of breathing also allows more oxygen to be taken in and get into the blood leading to better physical and mental performance. Diaphragmatic or belly breathing works by the expansion of the lower abdomen creating a vacuum in the chest which causes air to be drawn into the lower lungs. As the middle lungs fill, the upper abdomen expands and finally the chest expands as the upper lungs are filled. To practice, lie on your back with your hands on your abdomen just above your navel. Exhale completely. Inhale through your nose allowing your abdomen to expand. As you fill your lungs completely, exhale through your mouth. Practice by blowing all your air out through your mouth using your abdominal muscles and pushing down with your hands. Then inhale again through your nose filling your lungs completely and exhale by blowing the air out through your mouth. Practice about 5 complete cycles. Note the relaxed feeling throughout your body. This type of breathing is useful while you are running. Concentrate on belly breathing inhaling through both nose and mouth when you begin to feel tired or when you are running uphill. The increased oxygen and relaxed upper body should make the running seem easier.
Concentration involves changing the focus of attention during the event. Focus is awareness of one thing to the exclusion of others. It must be adjustable from narrow (my calf feels tight) to broad (how hard am I working to run this pace). It is important to learn when each of these is necessary. An interplay of relaxation and focus then becomes a concentration cycle, such as, from the mind (seeing yourself running relaxed), to body (relaxing the calf muscle) to target (centering on running this mile). Sometimes learning to shift attention is important to learn to change the focus. Let your mind run free, then bring it back to the necessary focus and repeat the cycle.
If you are interested in learning more about sports psychology, read either Peak Performance by Charles A. Garfield or The Warrior Athlete by Dan Millman. Both will give you specific techniques and exercises to help you improve your performance from a psychological focus. Both are excellent, but have slightly different emphasis with The Warrior Athlete being more esoteric.
Run The Planet thanks Patti & Warren Finke and Team Oregon for the permission to reprint the complete online version of the first edition of the book Marathoning Start to Finish (Hypertext Version 1.02) by Patti & Warren Finke. © 1986, 1996 wY'east Consulting, All Rights reserved.